Global Policy Forum

U.N. Reports Mixed Results on Afghan Poppy Crops

By Alissa Rubin

Published: September 30, 2010


KABUL, Afghanistan - With extraordinary effort, the Afghan government and Western aid programs have modestly reduced poppy cultivation in the country's largest opium-producing province in the past year, but cultivation nationwide remained at last year's levels and in two provinces increased sharply, according to the annual report released Thursday by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime.

Cultivation is a leading measure of farmers' openness to growing alternative crops. Production, the other measure most frequently cited, was down sharply in the past year because of a blight that decreased the yield by 48 percent. Over all, that meant that Afghanistan produced almost 4,000 tons. The information in the United Nations report is gathered by a combination of aerial surveillance and on-the-ground interviews with farmers, security force members, prosecutors and others who track narcotics.

In Helmand Province, cultivation dropped 7 percent. In a swath of land along the Helmand River Valley, where there has been an enormous focus by NATO troops and international reconstruction workers, the acreage open for cultivation of vegetables and staple crops increased somewhat, according to a counternarcotics expert from the British Embassy, who was not authorized to speak publicly on the subject.

Yury Fedotov, executive director of the United Nations agency, said, "This is good news, but there is no room for false optimism."

The decrease in production appeared to be primarily the result of the blight, but it was a positive sign that the overall area under cultivation at least did not expand in the past year, according to Afghan and United Nations narcotics experts.

However, experts said they were worried that skyrocketing poppy prices could undercut the efforts to reduce cultivation in the coming year. The price farmers were paid by traffickers rose to about $58 per pound in 2010 from $22 per pound in 2009, making opium poppy a more attractive crop financially than alternatives like wheat in the impoverished rural areas of the country.

"The market may again become lucrative for poppy crop growers," Mr. Fedotov said.

Helmand was the brightest spot in the main southern and western poppy-growing regions. In neighboring Kandahar Province, cultivation rose 30 percent, and in Farah Province cultivation was up 17 percent.

Almost all cultivation took place in nine provinces in the southern and western region, which are among Afghanistan's least secure. Twenty of the country's 34 provinces are poppy free, and that number has now held steady for two years.

"Ninety-eight percent of poppy cultivation takes place in the provinces where security is not good," said Zarar Ahmad Muqbil, the Afghan minister for counternarcotics.

Diplomats who track poppy production attribute the decrease in Helmand's cultivation levels despite the increased price of poppy in part to the efforts of the provincial governor, Gulab Mangal, who has been among the most active of Afghanistan's leaders in trying to reduce poppy cultivation. They also credit an array of international programs that spent hundreds of millions of dollars on seed and fertilizer subsidies, irrigation canal cleaning and market reconstruction.

In the past few years, many markets had been closed or sharply constrained by insurgent activity. With more than 10,000 coalition troops in Helmand, though, the area has become somewhat more secure. It is still one of the most unstable and deadly parts of Afghanistan.

Governor Mangal eradicated about 10,000 acres of poppies, more than in any other province, and while eradication is widely viewed as useful only if it is paired with other support programs, in some areas of Helmand it has been. By contrast, in Kandahar, just under 160 acres were eradicated in 2010, and the governor, Wesa Torylai, has not pursued a comprehensive program to reduce poppy cultivation.

In Kandahar on Thursday, a suicide bomber attacked a NATO convoy, killing three Afghan civilians and wounding nine others on the main highway near the vast coalition base at the Kandahar airfield, according to Zalmai Ayoubi, a spokesman for Governor Torylai. A coalition spokesman said there was no information yet on whether there were NATO casualties.

Five NATO service members were killed in southern Afghanistan on Thursday, according to a NATO spokesman who said that four of them died when roadside bombs exploded. NATO also said that it inadvertently killed four Afghan civilians and injured three others in a strike in Ghazni Province on Wednesday.


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