Poppy disease halves Afghan opium crop

Afghanistan’s opium production declined by almost half this year due largely to the spread of a disease which damaged poppy plants, the UN’s drug agency said today.

However, the amount of land used for growing the crop remained the same.

The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime said Afghanistan’s opium production in 2010 is estimated at 3,600 metric tons, a 48% decrease from 6,900 tons in 2009 and the lowest since 2003. Opium is the main ingredient in heroin.

The drop was caused for the most part by a poppy plant infection which started to appear after spring flowering and hit the southern provinces of Helmand and Kandahar especially hard, according to the summary of UNODC’s annual Afghan Opium Survey.

The two provinces are major growing areas in southern Afghanistan, and the centre of the Taliban-led insurgency.

“This is good news but there is no room for false optimism,” UNODC executive director Yury Fedotov said in a statement.

In the south, “opium yields on disease-affected fields were only 13% to 39% of the amount farmers would have normally harvested from fields with similar numbers and sizes of capsules,” the survey said.

The country’s western region, which borders Iran, was also affected, but to a lesser degree. Farmers there most frequently named frost as the cause of plant damage.

As a result, Afghanistan’s average opium yield fell 48% to 29.2kg per hectare this year from an estimated 56.1kg (123.7lb) per hectare in 2009.

Still, the south remained Afghanistan’s largest opium maker and made up 83% of total production, followed by the country’s western region with 13%. Overall, 98% of opium cultivation – stable at 123,000 hectares – was concentrated in these two areas, which are largely in the hands of insurgents and organised crime groups.

“This underscores the link between opium poppy cultivation and insecurity in Afghanistan, a trend we have observed since 2007,” Mr Fedotov said.

The country’s northern region kept its poppy-free status and, countrywide, all 20 provinces which were poppy-free in 2009 stayed that way this year.

Following a steady decline between 2005 and 2009, the price of opium has nearly tripled due to the decline in production, the survey found. While in 2009 the average farm-gate price of dry opium at harvest time was $64 (€46) per kilogram, it is now $169 (€123)) per kilogram.

The UN fears that could encourage farmers, especially those who stopped growing poppy plants, to change course.

“It is worrying that the current high sale price of opium in combination with a lower wheat price may encourage farmers to go back to opium cultivation,” the survey said.

The agency also found that eradication of poppy fields was at its lowest level since the start of monitoring in 2005 and claimed 28 lives this year, seven more than in 2009.

Mr Fedotov – a veteran Russian diplomat who took office as UNODC chief earlier this month – said a broader strategy was needed to support Afghan farmers and called on countries to curb domestic demand for illegal drugs.

“As long as demand drives this market, there will always be another farmer to replace one we convince to stop cultivating, and another trafficker to replace one we catch.”

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