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Opium poppy harvest falls in Afghanistan

Baum and King are Times staff writers.

After seven years of extraordinary expansion, Afghanistan’s harvest of poppies used to produce opium has declined by 6% from a record high in 2007, according to the annual opium survey by the United Nations released Thursday.

The amount of land used to cultivate opium declined by 19%, to about 388,000 acres.

“We are finally seeing the results of years of effort of making some areas completely free of opium harvesting,” said Antonio Maria Costa, the executive director of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. Opium production is now concentrated in seven provinces in the southwestern part of the country.

Afghanistan is responsible for providing 95% of the world’s opium-based drugs like heroin. The 6% decline is especially significant because the harvest previously was growing by as much as 20% a year.

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While the trend is raising hopes that the anti-drug efforts of the Afghan government and its Western allies are succeeding, there is evidence that powerful factions in the country like the Taliban are also trying to squelch production. The insurgents are involved in poppy production and want to drive up prices to raise cash for their guerrilla warfare.

Costa’s U.N. agency issues its annual report after gathering information throughout the year via satellite photographs followed up by surveillance on the ground.

This year’s turnaround was also attributed to events unrelated to the eradication effort, including a drought and global food shortage that drove up the price of wheat, making it almost as profitable to farm as opium.

“You produce wheat and that gets you a better income and you’re not afraid to be thrown in jail,” said Costa, noting that the drought this year also hurt both the wheat and poppy harvests.

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Nowhere can this year’s decrease be seen as dramatically as in Afghanistan’s Nangarhar province, which was ranked the No. 2 opium-cultivating province in last year’s U.N. survey. This time, it was certified opium-free.

Nangarhar, a fertile eastern province that borders Pakistan, was once a patchwork of poppy fields, a quilt-like pattern of them easily visible from the air.

Considered Afghanistan’s breadbasket, it is bisected by the Kabul River and by a large man-made irrigation canal with many tributaries.

“You could grow poppies just about anywhere,” said U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. Paul Donovan, who just completed a stint as the head of the military-civilian Provincial Reconstruction Team in Jalalabad, the capital of Nangarhar.

He credited the drop in production to a variety of factors, including authorities being attentive to the needs of farmers. At a recent series of tribal councils, farmers complained of being short of fertilizer and seed for winter wheat; both were swiftly provided.

Because farmers are often intimidated by the Taliban into producing a poppy crop, “the counter-narcotics efforts merged with counterinsurgency efforts,” Donovan said.

In past years, the flourishing drug trade has bankrolled the Taliban movement, which dominates many of the poppy-growing regions and uses the revenue to procure arms and recruit foot soldiers.

The Taliban now has huge stockpiles of the illicit drug, and is telling farmers not to grow more as a way of controlling the supply and price.

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“The glut is starting to hurt the Taliban, which has not been pushing as hard on opium cultivation to keep the prices high,” said Costa, noting that U.N. surveyors have even seen signs posted on trees near poppy fields discouraging planting.

Costa estimates that taxing poppy growth at 10% earns the Taliban about $75 million a year, and it gains about $300 million through opium production. Displaying a map of the country with the top half blue and the bottom red, Costa explained to reporters in New York last week that a majority of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces are mostly poppy-free, but the places in red where the crop is flourishing are controlled by fewer but richer farmers whose poppies need to be eradicated.

In parts of Afghanistan’s south, the longtime center of the insurgency, cultivation is so pervasive that North Atlantic Treaty Organization-led troops deployed there say their convoys routinely pass by fields of poppies. Sometimes they even find themselves crushing poppies underfoot on patrol.

“I didn’t even know what they were when we first got here, and when someone told me, I went ‘Ohhh,’ ” said a Canadian patrol leader in Kandahar province who did not want to be identified because he was not authorized to speak about drug-eradication efforts. “I thought how weird it is that money from all this is used to buy weapons to fight against us, but we have to just walk by as if it’s a normal thing to see.”

The international community, primarily the U.S. and British governments, has poured $80 million a year into providing incentives so that farmers in the north use their fields for other crops, Costa said.

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geraldine.baum@latimes.com

laura.king@latimes.com

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