Central Asia

Afghan opium trade on a high

ROME - The annual autumn harvest of opium in Afghanistan - a crop that all but disappeared last year under the coalition bombing campaign and ensuing rout of the Taliban government - has roared back to life and is now exceeding even prewar levels, a recent United Nations report has concluded.

Year Opium produced
1994 3,400 tonnes
1995 2,300 tonnes
1996 2,200 tonnes
1997 2,800 tonnes
1998 2,700 tonnes
1999 4,600 tonnes
2000 3,300 tonnes
2001 185 tonnes
2002 3,400 tonnes
"The annual Afghanistan Opium Survey for 2002, conducted by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime [ODC, formerly known as the UN Office of Drug Control and Crime Prevention] has confirmed earlier indications of the considerable level of opium production in the country this year," ODC executive director Antonio Maria Costa says.

The report blamed the "sustained increase" on what it called "sustained high price levels for opium, as well as favorable climatic conditions". The 3,400 tonnes of raw opium from this year's harvest exceed earlier UN estimates of between 1,900 and 2,700 tonnes of opium resin and falls just slightly below the estimate by Iranian Drug Control Headquarters chief Ali Hashemi, of a yield of 3,500-4,000-tonnes that would be worth approximately US$17.5 million to $20 million on the Western black market.

Opium production in Afghanistan involves huge vested economic interests. Powerful and armed to the teeth warlords and druglords support their dominance in their specific regions and provinces via revenues generated from the lucrative drug trade. A kilogram of opium sells for about $50 in Western black markets. Moreover, poppies are very cheap to produce because they grow in the wild naturally and do not require special care or preservation.

Presenting the findings of the survey, Costa said that 90 percent of cultivation was concentrated in just five of Afghanistan's 32 provinces: Helmand in the south, followed by Nangarhar in the east, Badakhshan in the north, Uruzgan in the south/center and Kandahar in the south.

"This year's survey has been conducted under the most challenging circumstances because of security concerns," he said. "The methodology was therefore based on high-resolution satellite images complemented by extensive ground verification and targeted ground surveys."

The ODC has conducted annual opium surveys in Afghanistan since 1994, tracking the dramatic increase of the production in the Taliban years. By the late 1990s, Afghanistan provided about 70 percent of global production of illicit opium, with Myanmar accounting for 22 percent and the Laos about 3 percent. Illicit opiates of Afghan origin were consumed by an estimated 9 million users worldwide (about two-thirds of all opiate users in the world). According to ODC estimates, about half a million people have been involved in the international trade of illicit Afghan opiates (opium, morphine, heroin) in recent years.

Total opium production in Afghanistan this year is estimated to amount to 3,400 tonnes, which, although 25 percent lower than the record production of 1999 (4,600 tonnes), is still 100 tonnes larger than the 2000 crop. Last year's war-interrupted harvest amounted to a mere 185 tonnes.

"The high level of opium cultivation in Afghanistan this year is not a manifestation of a failure of the Afghan authorities or of the international efforts to assist them in drug control. The planting [of the 2002 crop] took place during the total collapse of law and order in the autumn of 2001, long before the new government of Dr Hamid Karzai was in place," Costa said.

He called for greater international assistance to Afghan authorities in carrying out their strong commitment to prevent opium cultivation. Immediately after assuming office, President Karzai issued a decree dated January 17 banning not only the cultivation but also the processing, trafficking and abuse of opiates. Last month, Karzai's government reiterated that position, reasserting the ban on opium poppy planting in the autumn.

"What is needed in the period ahead is much stronger international support in establishing and developing law enforcement institutions, and providing Afghan farmers with alternative, licit means of livelihood," Costa said.

The ODC reopened its country office in Kabul in February 2002 and has appointed Mohammad-Reza Amirkhizi as the country representative. The office has been engaged in a wide range of projects, which include strengthening the Afghan drug control commission, assisting in law enforcement and criminal justice and cooperating with cross-border counter-narcotics operations in neighboring states.

The office is also working on a pilot social compact with farmers in Kandahar and Badakhshan provinces, providing them with small amounts of financial assistance with the understanding that they would grow commercial crops other than opium poppy. It promised poppy farmers US$350 per acre for not growing poppies, but there have been protests, some of them violent, in several southern towns over compensation payments.

Another area of activity covers drug-demand reduction. Following a quarter century of military strife, a large segment of the Afghan population has become addicted to opium and heroin. The ODC is analyzing the extent of drug abuse within the country and developing drug abuse prevention, treatment and rehabilitation services.

(Asia Times Online/United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime)
Oct 31, 2002


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