Helmand’s fields yield a bumper opium harvest

New figures from the United Nations to be released this week are set to reveal that opium production in the southern regions of Afghanistan has soared. The worst affected province is Helmand, where 7 000 British soldiers are deployed.

Officials are likely to stress successes in the north and east of the country, where the number of provinces free of poppy is set to rise. Last year 13 provinces across the country were declared free of opium cultivation — largely in the relatively secure north.

However, there are fears that extreme hardship caused by drought and long-standing deep poverty in the newly poppy-free zones may threaten that progress.

”In the north, where there is a degree of legitimate government and political leadership, poppy production has been dropping,” said Christina Oguz, representative in Afghanistan for the UN Office on Drugs and Crime. ”But the severe drought after a harsh winter means that, if we are to sustain the downward train, much more needs to be done.”

Oguz said it was critical that the Afghan government and the international community ”show that they will ensure food supplies and massive and targeted long and short-term development” areas where farmers decided not to plant poppy last year. ”I am not sure that is going to happen,” she said in an interview in Kabul.

Recent improvements in the eastern province of Nangarhar, once a major growing area, are also threatened. Last year local and central government persuaded farmers and tribal elders not to plant poppies and promised development projects.

”We did not plant opium last year because the government banned it and said we would get dams, roads and jobs,” said Zarjan Adalkhel Shinwari, a local elder. ”People are wavering. We need the money and none of their promises have been fulfilled. But it is illegal.”

Planting usually starts in October. In the 2006 and 2007 season, Afghanistan produced about 8 200 tonnes of opium, a record.

A second worrying development is the growing ”professionalisation” of local drugs production, with mobile laboratories increasingly manufacturing high-quality heroin within Afghanistan. Previously, opium was turned into heroin outside the country. ”Most of the labs which were round here have gone down to the south,” said Shinwari.

In Helmand province, the extension of agricultural land that has been the result of recent development work has allowed further opium production.

However, the poppy harvest has been affected by a glut on the market which has lowered the price paid ”at the farm gate” and high global wheat prices which have made other crops more attractive. – guardian.co.uk

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