Page last updated at 16:06 GMT, Tuesday, 26 August 2008 17:06 UK

UN reports Afghan opium decline

By Martin Patience
BBC News, Kabul

Taleban in opium field in south-west Afghanistan, April 2008
The Taleban make profits from opium in southern strongholds

The area of poppy production in Afghanistan and the yield of opium from these crops have reduced this year compared with 2007, a UN report says.

It says more than half of the country's 34 provinces are now poppy-free - up from 13 provinces in 2007 to 18.

But the southern Helmand region, where Taleban rebels are active, accounts for nearly 66% of all the opium production.

Afghanistan still remains the world's biggest opium producer. The opium poppy is used to obtain heroin.

The reduction comes after the record-breaking poppy harvest in 2007, the UN report says.

Poppy cultivation:
2007 - 193,000 hectares
2008 - 157,000 hectares
Potential opium production:
2007 - 8,200 metric tonnes
2008 - 7,700 metric tonnes
Poppy-cultivating provinces:
2007 - 21
2008 - 16
Poppy-free provinces:
2007 - 13
2008 - 18
Source: UN

It declares that that "opium flood waters in Afghanistan have started to recede".

But one Western official who works on the poppy issue has said that any progress has been "fragile" and gains could be reversed in the next year.

There is one glaring example, however, of where things have not gone right.

The southern province of Helmand, where British troops are fighting a fierce counter-insurgency campaign against the Taleban, now produces nearly two-thirds of Afghanistan's opium - up from about 50% last year.

The British ambassador to Afghanistan, Sherard Cowper-Coles, put a brave face on it.

"We're not satisfied and we will never be satisfied until we really start squeezing poppy cultivation out of the Helmand economy," he said.

"We have an extremely competent governor in Helmand who has a plan in the next few months for getting farmers to switch from poppy cultivation in the coming season," Mr Cowper-Coles said.

'Inextricable link'

The international community wants to prevent heroin, which is derived from opium, flooding the streets of Western Europe and the US.


But just as importantly, the multimillion dollar trade in poppy production is used to fuel the insurgency.

It allow militants to purchase weapons with which they than attack the Afghan government and international forces, destabilising the region.

According to the UN report, 98% of the country's opium is grown in just seven provinces where there are permanent Taleban settlements and where organised crime profits from the instability.

This, the report said, "shows the inextricable link between drugs and the conflict".

Report recommendations

The report's authors say they are two key factors to explain the countrywide reduction in poppy production.

One reason is strong political and religious leadership, particularly in the eastern province of Nangahar, for pressuring farmers not to grow the crop.

The other is the drought this year, which led to a large-scale crop failure in the north and north-west of the country.

Another way of reducing poppy production is eradication of the crop.

However, the report says there was a dramatic reduction in crop eradication - down to 25% compared with last year.

This is often a dangerous job, inflaming locals as their harvest is ruined, and a number of Afghans were killed while doing this work.

In terms of reducing poppy production next year, the report's authors offer a number of suggestions.

These include focusing on the west of the country. Although opium cultivation is lower there, the insurgency is weaker, making it easier to get effective results.

They also suggest rewarding good performance by providing greater aid assistance to poppy-free provinces, strengthening the legal system in order to prosecute large drug dealers and having greater regional co-operation over dealing with the issue.

But for many poppy farmers the crop offers them the best chance of earning a decent wage.

And until they are offered the chance of decent alternative livelihood - or face a massive crackdown - they will be planting the poppies this October, just as they did last year, in time for harvest next spring.


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