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Afghanistan's poppy cultivation falls by more than 20%
Financial Times
By Matthew Green in Kabul
Published: September 2 2009


Poppy cultivation fell by more than 20 per cent in Afghanistan in the past year, UN investigators will announce today, handing a rare spot of good news to western governments seeking to justify rising troop casualties to voters.
The reduction may, however, largely reflect a cyclical slump in the farm gate price of opium rather than any structural shift away from supplying a global heroin industry that has helped fund the insurgency. The Afghanistan Opium Survey 2009 released today will say the amount of land under poppy cultivation has fallen by 22 per cent to 123,000 hectares since last year. Production still remains higher than levels seen under the Taliban government, which was ousted in 2001, according to the report.
Gordon Brown, the British prime minister, will welcome figures that show the fall was caused largely by a 33 per cent drop in poppy production in Helmand province, where UK forces are suffering heavy losses from  Taliban attacks. The report said the decline was due to a combination of lower opium prices, aggressive interdiction by Nato forces and pilot projects backed by the UK to encourage farmers to grow wheat instead. The project, backed by the provincial governor, aims to raise its number of beneficiaries to 39,000 this year from 32,000 in 2008.
In spite of last year's reduction in poppy growing, Helmand remains the most important centre for narcotics production in Afghanistan, which supplies 90 per cent of the world's opium.
The report said a fall in opium prices by a third over the past year owing to a build-up of a large illicit stockpile in Afghanistan was among factors encouraging farmers to switch to other crops. Opium prices were last seen at their current low levels in the 1990s.
Higher yields blunted the impact of reduced poppy cultivation on overall opium production, which fell by only 10 per cent to 6,900 metric tonnes.
Afghanistan has produced opium for centuries, but the Soviet invasion and civil war nurtured the rise of one of the biggest drugs empires east of the Colombia.
Antonio Maria Costa, head of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, warned that an emerging partnership between insurgents and traffickers risked strengthening the insurgency and called for the arrest of the kingpins.
"A marriage of convenience between insurgents and criminal groups is spawning narco-cartels in Afghanistan,"
Mr Costa said. "Drug lords should be brought to justice - not executed in violation of international law or pardoned for political expediency."
Hamid Karzai, who sought re-election on August 20, has been accused of sheltering or pardoning powerful individuals involved in trafficking to bolster his political base.

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