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Afghan farmers turn away from opium

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By Jon Boone in Kabul and Stephen Fidler in London
Published: April 23 2008 17:52 | Last updated: April 23 2008 17:52
Afghanistan’s opium crop is forecast to shrink by as much as half this year after 2007’s record harvest, counter-narcotics officials in Kabul said, as evidence emerges that some poppy farmers are switching to legal crops because of rising food prices.
The country produced an estimated 93 per cent of the world’s opium last year, with output rising almost every year since the Taliban was ousted in 2001. The expected fall in opium ­production of 30-50 per cent is not a result of international anti-narcotics efforts, but mainly because of an unusually cold and dry winter that has disrupted the germination of poppy seeds. Officials say the area under cultivation remains close to last year’s record 193,000 hectares, but aerial photography has shown the fields contain fewer, smaller plants.
In London, Brigadier Andrew MacKay, the soldier who until recently commanded British forces in Helmand, the heartland of the country’s drugs trade, told reporters this week there was anecdotal evidence of farmers in the southern province switching from poppies to legal crops.
“Anecdotally, a lot of farmers have calculated that, with wheat prices being what they are, they can make money out of planting wheat,” he said. He added he was not claiming this suggested “that we have in some way turned the corner” in efforts to suppress the opium trade.
He said farmers’ decisions might also have been influenced by falls in opium prices after last year’s bumper crop of 8,200 tonnes, up 34 per cent on 2006.
According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, opium prices have been in gradual decline for several years and “struck rock bottom” last September. In 2006 the average lowest price was $125 (£63, €79) per kg, compared with $91 per kg the following year. However, large stockpiles could limit the impact on opium prices of lower output this year.
Experts are less certain what effect high wheat prices will have on Afghanistan’s complex drugs economy, where farmers have to weigh up insecurity and intimidation by traffickers as much as prices of particular crops. One western official in Kabul said “the international community wants to believe the price of wheat is going to magically solve the poppy problem”.
David Belgrove, head of the counter narcotics team at the British embassy in Kabul, said it was still too early to predict the effect of high wheat prices. “If high prices remain high for a long period then it could encourage some farmers to change to wheat. On the other hand, it could make the situation worse because rising food prices could encourage more farmers to grow poppy to feed their families.”
Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2008

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Written by afghandevnews

April 23, 2008 at 4:44 pm

Posted in Agriculture, Drugs

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