Afghan efforts to stamp out opium poppy cultivation are failing because of high prices for the illicit crop, pushing farmers to grow 18 percent more in 2012 than last year, the U.N. said in a report released Tuesday.
Afghanistan is the world's largest producer of opium, the raw ingredient in heroin, providing about 80 percent of the global crop. Crop sales fund insurgents and criminal gangs in Afghanistan, making it difficult for the Afghan government to establish control in areas where the economy is driven by black-market opium sales.
Farmers planted 154,000 hectares of opium poppy in 2011, up from the 131,000 in 2011.
"An increase of 18 percent is a serious alarm signal. It is a wakeup call," said Jean-Luc Lemahieu, head of the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime in Afghanistan, which prepared the report along with the Afghan Counternarcotics Ministry. "We are again, with regard to figures, in parallel to the high peaks of 2008, 2007, 2006.
"This country, working toward its transition, can ill afford this," he said, referring to the scheduled handover of security responsibilities to the Afghan forces from the NATO alliance by the end of 2014.
Lemahieu praised the efforts by the Counternarcotics Ministry but said the rest of the Afghan government and the country's international allies are not doing enough. He said more help is needed to provide alternatives to farmers, in law enforcement support and in cooperation from other countries in the region.
"This is an international shared responsibility," Lemahieu told reporters in Kabul.
Prices farmers receive for the crop were about $196 a kilogram this year, down from $241 a kilogram in 2011, but still far above prices from 2008 and 2009. The report said the continued high prices meant farmers were likely to plant poppy crops again in the coming season.
Most cultivation was in southern and western provinces, centers of organized crime and lax security, the report said. Restive Helmand province, long the largest producer of the crop, saw a 19 percent increase in poppy planting. Though farmers along the Helmand river valley who received international assistance planted less of the crop, this was more than offset by increases elsewhere in the province.
The Afghan government destroyed more than twice as much of the opium crop than the year before, eradicating 9,600 hectares, the report said. In 2011, the government destroyed about 3,800 hectares of opium poppy fields.
Destroying fields is dangerous in Afghanistan. Insurgents launched 177 attacks against Afghan security forces as they destroyed poppy crops this year, killing 102 soldiers and police, said Counternarcotics Minister Zarar Ahmad Muqbel.
The report indicated that despite the increase, nature limited the growth. Plant diseases and bad weather cut the potential size of the crop by 36 percent to 3,700 tons.