Thursday, May 13, 2010
Afghanistan opium poppies hit by mysterious disease
KABUL (AFP) – As the pink poppy fields of southern Afghanistan yield their sticky harvest, opium production in the country that supplies the world with heroin is set to fall, farmers and officials say.
That's good news for the fight against the multi-billion-dollar drugs trade but it could be bad news for Afghan farmers struggling to feed their families as the war against Taliban insurgents and drugs gangs escalates.
"This year we had less poppy cultivation, which I think was because of our public awareness campaign which we launched before cultivation started," said Gul Mohammad, head of the counter-narcotics department of Kandahar province.
Farmers in the southern provinces of Kandahar and Helmand, the source of around 90 percent of the world's opium, agreed the harvest will fall this year.
The farmers and other experts cited high rainfall in some areas, drought in others, free seeds for alternatives such as wheat and good prices for food crops, and a mysterious disease withering poppies in some areas.
While some farmers have reportedly accused the United States and Britain of spraying their crops with chemicals, the UN's Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) said disease was the likely culprit.
Tests by the interior ministry were inconclusive and more were being carried out, said the agency's representative in Kabul, Jean-Luc Lemahieu, adding that "plagues, pests, blight" had hit Afghanistan's poppy crop in 2002 and 2006.
"Natural phenomenon cannot be excluded, as happens to wheat, corn, apples. It is part of nature," Lemahieu said.
Antonio Maria Costa, head of the UNODC, told the BBC that Afghanistan's 2010 opium output could fall by up to 25 percent, thanks to the disease, a fungus that could have infected about half of the total poppy crop.
Bilal, a farmer in Helmand's Nad Ali district, said the disease had drastically cut his opium output.
"We are in the very last days of the harvest, maybe in two or three more days we'll be done. We'll have less output this year," he told AFP. "I don't know what the disease is but we'll have little output (as a result)."
UNODC said opium output was down by 10 percent in 2009 to 6,900 tonnes, but yield rose 15 percent because farmers extracted more opium per bulb.
Production far outstripped annual world demand of 5,000 tonnes, it said, with stockpiles of opium estimated at 10,000 tonnes as cartels hoarded in an effort to push up prices that had fallen by 30 percent in a year.
Stockpiles were equal to two years' supply of heroin for addicts, or three years of morphine for medical use, it said.
Lemahieu said it was too early to say if 2010 output would be lower than last year's -- making it the third consecutive annual fall -- but yields were likely to be affected.
Stockpiles had kept opium and heroin prices artificially high, which could encourage Afghan farmers to continue to plant poppies, he said, adding that the price of alternative cash crops, from almonds to wheat, would also be a factor.
The impact of the conflict between insurgents -- who often work with drugs gangs to protect crops and distribution routes -- and Western-backed government forces would also influence farmers, he said.
Afghans would plant whatever earned most and the instability of war could see them favour the "one sure way of safe-guarding against an insecure future," he said.
Marjah, a major poppy-producing region in Helmand, was targeted in a military campaign in February that aimed to push out the Taliban, who were acting as enforcers for the drugs gangs.
Afghanistan's opium industry is worth up to three billion dollars a year, supplying Russia, where authorities say it kills between 30,000 and 40,000 addicts a year, and Europe.
Lemahieu said about 150 million dollars funds the insurgency, widely seen as based on ideology but fast becoming a militia for the cartels with tenuous links to the religious extremists who founded the Taliban.
A recent report by the independent Afghanistan Research and Evaluation Unit said the Taliban were "increasingly seen as synonymous with drug traffickers".
But it added: "There is a growing belief in the south that those working for the government are more actively involved in the trade in narcotics than the Taliban."