VIENNA – Afghanistan's opium production has fallen by almost half in 2010 due largely to the spread of a disease that damaged poppy plants, but the amount of land used for growing the crop remained the same after two years of declines, the U.N.'s drug agency said Thursday.
The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime said Afghanistan's opium production in 2010 is estimated at 3,600 metric tons (3,968 tons), a 48 percent decrease from 6,900 metric tons (7,605 tons) in 2009 and the lowest since 2003. Opium is the main ingredient in heroin.
The drop was caused for the most part by a poppy plant infection that started to appear after spring flowering and hit the southern provinces of Helmand and Kandahar especially hard, according to the summary of UNODC's annual Afghan Opium Survey. The two provinces are major growing areas in southern Afghanistan, and the center of the Taliban-led insurgency.
"This is good news but there is no room for false optimism," the UNODC executive director Yury Fedotov said in a statement.
In the south, "opium yields on disease-affected fields were only 13 percent to 39 percent of the amount farmers would have normally harvested from fields with similar numbers and sizes of capsules," the survey said. The country's western region, which borders Iran, was also affected, but to a lesser degree. Farmers there most frequently named frost as the cause of plant damage.
As a result, Afghanistan's average opium yield fell 48 percent to 29.2 kilograms per hectare this year from an estimated 56.1 kilograms per hectare in 2009.
Still, the south remained Afghanistan's largest opium maker and made up 83 percent of total production, followed by the country's western region with 13 percent. Overall, 98 percent of opium cultivation — stable at 123,000 hectares (303,933 acres) after falling in 2007 and 2008 — was concentrated in these two areas, which are largely in the hands of insurgents and organized crime groups.
"Most of the districts in these regions are not accessible to the United Nations and non-governmental organizations," Fedotov told reporters in the Austrian capital. "This mirrors the sharp polarization of the security situation in Afghanistan between the lawless south and the relatively stable north."
Opium cultivation in Helmand province — the source of 53 percent of Afghanistan's opium — was stable or declined slightly.
But any decrease was offset by a jump in cultivation in neighboring Kandahar province, where Western officials working on counter-narcotics say the provincial government has not pushed anti-opium efforts. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly.
Kandahar — the focus of a current surge in U.S. troops to rout Taliban insurgents from their southern stronghold — has become increasingly volatile over the past year.
Cultivation in Kandahar jumped 30 percent to 25,835 hectares (63,838 acres), suggesting that opium cultivation increases along with insecurity.
"If there is not going to be security in Afghanistan across the entire country, we are not going to be able to eliminate this problem," said Robert Watkins, the deputy U.N. envoy in Afghanistan.
The country's northern region kept its poppy-free status and, countrywide, all 20 provinces that were poppy-free in 2009 stayed that way this year.
Following a steady decline between 2005 and 2009, the price of opium has nearly tripled due to the decline in production, the survey found: While in 2009 the average farm-gate price of dry opium at harvest time was $64 per kilogram, it is now $169 per kilogram.
That, worries the U.N., could encourage farmers, especially those who stopped growing poppy plants, to reverse course.
"It is worrying that the current high sale price of opium in combination with a lower wheat price may encourage farmers to go back to opium cultivation," the survey said.
The gross, per hectare income for opium farmers has increased by 36 percent to $4,900 from $3,600 last year, the agency determined. In comparison, the gross income per hectare of wheat declined from $1,200 in 2009 to $770.
"There's not one single cash crop which can replace opium against those prices," said Jean-Luc Lemahieu, the top official for the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime in Afghanistan. But, he argued, if the government can actually provide security and services, that does reduce the incentive for Afghan farmers to plant opium to survive.
"Security and stability will take the main incentive away," he said.
The agency also found that eradication of poppy fields was at its lowest level since the start of monitoring in 2005 and claimed 28 lives this year, seven more than in 2009.
Fedotov — a veteran Russian diplomat who took office as UNODC chief earlier this month — said a broader strategy was needed to support Afghan farmers and called on countries to curb domestic demand for illegal drugs.
"As long as demand drives this market, there will always be another farmer to replace one we convince to stop cultivating, and another trafficker to replace one we catch."
Associated Press writer Heidi Vogt contributed to this report from Kabul.