Britain’s anti-drugs campaign in Helmand has had its first major breakthrough, according to UN figures released on Wednesday which show that poppy cultivation in the Afghan province fell by a third this year.
After years of costly struggle against Helmand’s entrenched networks of drug dealers the province has recorded a dramatic drop in opium poppy growing, thanks in large part to farmers switching crops to cash in on high wheat prices.
But despite a 33% fall in the area of land devoted to poppy cultivation to 69 833 hectares this year, the annual report by the UN Office on Drugs and Crime showed there were still more poppies being grown than in 2006 when British troops were deployed to Helmand. And the UNODC warned that opium output had not fallen in line with cultivation as poppy farmers hone their skills as world-beating producers of heroin.
Nationwide the area of land used to grow poppies in 2009 fell by 22%, according to the report, which surveyed the harvest in April. But production only shrunk 10% — 800 tonnes — because of the growing ability of farmers to squeeze more opium resin from poppy bulbs.
Afghanistan’s drug industry — a $3,6-billion a year enterprise that outstrips any legal business in the country — is now producing 56kg of opium a hectare, a 15% rise on the year before and five times more than the opium farmers of south-east Asia’s infamous Golden Triangle.
The head of the UNODC, Antonio Maria Costa, heralded the decline in cultivation, saying: “At a time of pessimism about the situation in Afghanistan these results are a welcome piece of good news and demonstrate that progress is possible.”
The annual UN Afghanistan opium survey said success in Helmand was due to the strong leadership of the province’s governor, Gulab Mangal, who spearheaded an effort to establish corn-growing areas around the city of Lashkar Gah.
Counter narcotics operations were cited in part for the decline, though hard economics appeared a much more potent factor.
Officials in Kabul admit the improvement was largely due to last year’s surge in corn prices combining with an ongoing collapse in the value of raw opium due to overproduction. Not since the days of the Taliban regime have opium prices been so low. Over the last year they have fallen by one-third to $48 a kilogram.
That is because Afganistan now produces 90% of the world’s annual output of illegal opiates — several thousand tonnes more than the estimated 5 000 tonnes consumed each year by heroin users.
The report concluded that “the bottom is starting to fall out of the Afghan opium market”.
After years of failed policies, including attempts in 2003 to pay farmers not to grow poppy which just encouraged yet more production, market forces could be Afghanistan’s best hope of fighting a business that indirectly funds the Taliban and has destroyed efforts to clean up corruption.
Costa, an economist by training, has promoted efforts to further suppress the opium price by making it harder for drugs to find a market outside the country. But his proposals to target the biggest drug barons and better police Afghanistan’s long and porous borders will be extremely hard to achieve.
Wheat prices have also fallen and there are concerns over the assumed existence of massive stockpiles of opium, a drug which matures during years of storage, undermining eradication efforts.
Costa called on intelligence agencies to help find and destroy the “ticking time bomb of opium stockpiles”.
“Stockpiles of illicit opium now probably exceed 10 000 tonnes — enough to satisfy two years of world heroin addiction,” he said.
The UNODC chief also warned the vast amounts of money involved in the trade risked turning the Taliban into “narco-cartels”, similar to those in Colombia which grew from the Farc guerilla movement. The role of drugs in funding the insurgency is increasingly questioned by many experts who say that donations from fundamentalist religious groups in the Middle East and even protection money paid by foreign aid contractors are more significant income streams than any money skimmed off the drugs trade.
However, Costa warned that “drug money is addictive, and is starting to trump ideology”. – guardian.co.uk