Afghan Opium Crop
Back To Record Levels

By Charles Hanley in Kabul

The new Afghan government has "largely failed" in its effort to eradicate the opium poppy crop in Afghanistan, which in recent years became the world's biggest producer of the raw material for heroin, United Nations crop experts reported yesterday.
The 2002 crop was close to the record levels of the late 1990s and could be worth more than $1 billion (£650 million) at the farm level in Afghanistan. The nation's GDP for 1999 was put at $21 billion
By the late 1990s, Afghanistan was supplying 70 per cent of the world's opium. Then, in 2000, the Taleban government banned poppy cultivation and UN and US drug agencies determined that this led to an almost total - 96 per cent - reduction in acreage devoted to the crop in the 2001 growing season.
However, the US-led war that ousted the Taleban late last year prompted Afghan farmers to plant poppies again over tens of thousands of acres. In April, the interim government of President Hamid Karzai announced an eradication programme.
Under its terms, farmers would be compensated with $500 (£325) per acre for destroyed poppy, the government said. That is only a fraction of the estimated $6,400 per acre a farmer can earn on poppy, according to the FAO report.
The government effort, however, never reached the level of required to tear up or burn the crop, which is cultivated so extensively, in relatively small patches, in several regions of Afghanistan.
The poppy forecast came in a joint report by the FAO and the World Food Programme assessing all Afghan crops and food supplies. "The Afghan Interim Administration banned opium production in January 2002, but by then most opium fields were already sown," the report said. "The subsequent eradication programme largely failed."
It estimated that 225,000 acres of poppy had been planted, and 150,000 to 175,000 acres have been or will be harvested. "The programme had a very limited impact," Hector Maletta, a spokesman for the FAO, said. He added that eradication was "a transient thing. It can be replanted".
The Taleban prohibition had driven prices for Afghan opium up astronomically, approaching $1,000 a kilogram, and the "farm gate" price remained relatively high, Mr Maletta said, at $350 to $400 a kilogram. Farmers can produce 16 kilograms per acre of opium.
The great bulk of the heroin produced from Afghan opium - with some of the drug made in Afghanistan, but most in Turkey and other countries - is used by addicts in Europe.
The move back into poppy cultivation, which has supported tens of thousands of Afghan farmers and farm labourers, has hurt the domestic food supply, the UN report said. It said that poppy production was estimated to have reduced the area of irrigated wheat by some 10 per cent.
President Karzai, at an anti-drug conference in Kabul, repeated his government's commitment. "We are determined, like hell, to fight the cultivation of poppy ... and to destroy all forms of this menace's cultivation and use and trafficking," he said.
The UN specialists predicted an even larger crop next year, however. "The returns are high and the risks are seen to be low," they wrote.


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