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Bumper Afghan opium crop, UN warns

From CNN Correspondent Art Harris

An Afghan official destroys a haul of opium, but makes little dent on overall output.
An Afghan official destroys a haul of opium, but makes little dent on overall output.

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The U.N. drug agency has warned an annual rise in Afghanistan's opium production increases the risk it could become a 'failed state'. CNN's Art Harris reports (October 29)
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United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime

(CNN) -- A new U. N. study shows that Afghanistan is once again producing a bumper crop of cheap opium, with more farmers growing more opium poppies on more land than ever before.

Calling the data "disheartening," the U.N.'s Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) reported Wednesday that Afghanistan still produces three-fourths of the world's opium, with poppy production up 6 percent and land under cultivation up 8 percent.

The report estimated revenues from growing and trafficking at $2.5 billion -- half of Afghanistan's gross domestic product -- and twice the international aid it received last year.

"It could be brought under control with a good dose of law enforcement, which at the moment is lacking," Antonio Maria Costa, executive director of UNODC, said in an interview with CNN.

Indeed, despite President Hamid Karzai's ban on growing poppies, and Western attempts at paying farmers subsidies to destroy their fields, an estimated 1.7 million Afghans out of a population of 24 million grow it, and raw opium is openly sold at markets and bazaars.

Farmers often receive money for their crop before it is harvested from traffickers tying up their supplies.

It is smuggled out of the country through Pakistan and Iran, law enforcement sources say, and winds up as high-priced heroin on the streets of London and the rest of Europe.

Ninety percent of British heroin comes from Afghanistan, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration said, while it accounts for only 8 percent of heroin coming into the United States. Most U.S. heroin is sourced from Colombia.

With those involved in the opium trade often the same local warlords who are helping the West in its war on terror, the war on drugs appears to have taken a back seat, experts said.

Karzai has little power outside Kabul, and any massive crackdown could erode his power further unless there is international support and massive subsidies to farmers to grow alternate crops.

With an estimated 7 per cent of farmers growing opium, UNODC's Costa said it is possible to offer "employment opportunities" as one antidote, but only more law enforcement and tougher measures against trafficking that would make it "criminal and dangerous" could help change a culture of drugs and profit, he said.

At the borders, corruption and smuggling is rampant and easy.

"At the moment, it's very lucrative, without much risk, and that's why it's flourishing," he said.

The country's opium business was booming in the early 1980s after Turkey, Pakistan and Iran banned it, and street prices soared. From 1994 to 2000, production averaged about 3,000 tones a year, as poppies were planted on about 1 per cent of the arable land.

Under the Taliban government, Afghanistan became the world's largest source of illicit opium, as Kabul taxed the illicit crop to pay for an infrastructure and used it to help protect Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda, sowing the seeds for more drugs and terror.

When the Taliban banned production in 2001, street prices -- and stockpiling -- skyrocketed, as production dropped to a record low 185 tonnes.

That caused a huge price increase, from an average of $30 a kilo in 2000 to $700 in 2001, prompting massive resumption of cultivation in 2002.

This year, the area under opium poppy cultivation in Afghanistan has increased by 8 percent, from 74,000 hectares in 2002 to 80,000 now. Opium production has increased by 6 percent, from 3,400 to 3,600 tonnes.

Costa praised Karzai's ban on opium cultivation and trafficking; the establishment of the national Counter-Narcotic Directorate; the adoption of the 10-year National Drug Control Strategy; and the new drug control law.

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