August 29, 2005

Afghan opium growing falls by 21 pct-U.N

By Robert Birsel

KABUL (Reuters) - Afghan opium cultivation has fallen by 21
percent this year largely because of efforts by the government
to persuade farmers to stop, including a threat to destroy
fields, and low prices, a U.N. narcotics official said.

But while the area under cultivation has shown a sharp
drop, good weather boosted productivity of fields still planted
with opium and total output of about 4,100 tons is down only
2.4 percent over last year, the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime

"We are very pleased with the results .... one field out of
five cultivated in 2004 was not cultivated in 2005," Antonio
Maria Costa, executive director of the U.N. office, told
Reuters in an interview on Monday.

The area sown with opium poppies was 103,000 hectares
(255,000 acres) this year compared with 131,0000 hectares
(325,000 acres) last year, the U.N. office said.

Afghanistan is the world's main source of opium and its
refined form, heroin, producing about 87 percent of global

The United Nations has said the country risks becoming a
narco-state unless the drugs and the drug gangs can be stopped.

Western-backed President Hamid Karzai has repeatedly urged
farmers to give up opium, saying the crop shamed the country.

"The persuasion effort by the president, by the
administration, the religious leaders, has indeed produced a
result," Costa said.

While the amount of poppy destroyed in eradication drives
was relatively small -- only about four percent of total
cultivation -- fear of a major eradication program had also had
an impact on Afghan farms, he said.

"Farmers have been concerned that they would lose their
livelihood, or their source of livelihood, if their field was
eradicated, so they decided to switch," he said.

Lower prices at Afghan farm gates, a result of global
market saturation and a market correction, had also persuaded
some farmers to stop, he said.


Stressing the importance of providing alternative
livelihoods for farmers, Costa said there was a link between
the amount of development aid a province got, and how much its
farmers cut back opium.

Progress, however, has been uneven with some provinces
seeing sharp rises in opium growing. Good weather and no pests
had also increased yields from 32 kg/hectare to 39 kg/hectare,
Costa said.

The most impressive reduction of opium growing was in
Nangarhar province in the east, where it was 96 percent down.

"This is practically reducing cultivation to zero, which
means it could be done," Costa said.

Costa called on the government to remove corrupt governors
in provinces where cultivation was not falling.

"If we look at a map of provinces where cultivation was
reduced, or other provinces where opium production actually
increased, you could actually rename that map and say this is a
map of corruption in Afghanistan."

"Counter-narcotics in this country ... has to be seen as
part of a much bigger exercise -- fighting corruption, fighting
warlords, promoting integrity in the judicial system,
demobilization of militias, increasing stability, containing
insurgency and so forth.":

"We are advocating all of the above to the government."

Costa also said some drug traffickers might be trying to
get elected to a new lower house of parliament in September 18
elections in order to gain parliamentary immunity.

"We are advocating that those elected sign a pledge to
resign if evidence can be presented that they are involved in

It was important that this year's partial success did not
prove to be an exception, he said.

"It would be dreadful if a single year improvement would be
reversed next year... two years makes a trend."