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Afghan opium cultivation reaches record high - UN
Updated: 2004-11-19 09:10

Afghanistan's opium cultivation jumped 64 percent to a record 324,000 acres this year and drug exports now account for more than 60 percent of the economy, the United Nations drugs office said Thursday.

"This year Afghanistan has established a double record -- the highest drug cultivation in the country's history, and the largest in the world," Antonio Maria Costa, executive director of the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime, told a news briefing.

Opium, the raw material for heroin, was grown in all Afghanistan's 32 provinces this year. Ten percent of the population, or 2.3 million people, helped farm it because grinding poverty made it more attractive than other crops.

"Cultivation has spread ... making narcotics the main engine of economic growth and the strongest bond among previously quarrelsome peoples," Costa said. "Valued at $2.8 billion, the opium economy is now equivalent to over 60 percent of Afghanistan's 2003 gross domestic product."

"The fear that Afghanistan might degenerate into a narco-state is slowly becoming a reality as corruption in the public sector, the die-hard ambition of local warlords, and the complicity of local investors are becoming a factor in Afghan life," he said.

While the area under cultivation soared, it was still less than three percent of the country's arable land, the U.N. said in a report posted on its Web Site, www.unodc.org/unodc/en/crop_monitoring.html.

But heroin production rose just 17 percent to 4,200 tons, below the 1999 record of 4,600 tons under the radical Islamic Taliban regime, due to bad weather and an insect infestation.

The massive 1999 crop and another large harvest in 2000 led to a stock-build which forced prices down, leading the Taliban to all but eliminate opium production in 2001.

Prices leapt from $28 per kilo at the farm gate in Afghanistan in 2000 to $301 a year later.

The U.N put the 2004 price in Afghanistan at $92 per kilo.

Three-quarters of production is exported as heroin, meaning Afghanistan must import some 10,000 tons of chemicals to refine the raw opium every year, underlining the scale of the corruption involved in the trade, Costa said.

He said Iranian intelligence had recently shown him pictures of a drug convoy of 62 vehicles with military protection.

"We can't hope that the Afghan police or army could possibly take on a convoy of 62 vehicles," he said.

As well as being a narco-economy, Afghanistan was largely a narco-society, he said, with so many people benefiting from the business: farmers pay a "tax" of around 10 percent of their earnings to local warlords; laboratories pay 12 to 15 percent; and export convoys pay 15 to 18 percent.

But he said the government of President Hamid Karzai's commitment to eradicate the business meant it was not yet possible to say Afghanistan was a narco-state.

The major export route is through Iran and Turkey, with a hub in Istanbul and another in the Albanian capital, Tirana, before the heroin reaches the Netherlands, Europe's main distribution center.

Other routes are through Pakistan; across the ex-Soviet central Asian state of Tajikistan then Kyrgyzstan and Russia to Europe; and through Turkmenistan.

Afghanistan now accounts for 87 percent of global heroin production, which has a worldwide market value of $30 billion.

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