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Good news, bad news

May 13, 2010 - Jim Anderson
Several weeks ago, I shared some details about opium production in Afghanistan, the nation that supplies 90 percent of the world’s opium, the main ingredient in heroin.

With an estimated 300,000 acres planted in opium poppies, Afghanistan has produced a global gut of heroin, driving down prices.

The latest news, as reported by the Associated Press, is higher opium prices ahead, thanks to widespread blight.

According to the AP, Afghanistan’s opium yield is likely to drop as much as 30 percent this year as blight destroys poppies in the south.

Jean-Luc Lemahieu, the top official for the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime in Afghanistan, said the blight has hit about half of the crop in the northern part of Helmand province — the heart of the poppy region. The blight is also hurting crops in southern Helmand and in neighboring Kandahar province.

Although opium prices are rising, they are still well below the peak of $300 a kilogram reached in 2001 to 2003. That rise came after the former Taliban regime moved to eradicate opium growing during its last year in power.

Prices are now about $85 a kilogram, substantially higher than a year ago but well below the peak that helped spark a surge in poppy cultivation.

There is confusion about what farmers will choose to do next.

‘‘We are monitoring those prices with the utmost caution because the last thing we’d like to witness is another gold rush as during 2001-2003,’’ Lemahieu told the AP.

The U.N. (and the Obama administration) hope that efforts to introduce alternative crops will see more success. Worries about a return of the blight could work in their favor. At the same time, higher poppy prices will work against them.

According to the AP, there is speculation that a poppy-killing blight could have been introduced in secret by NATO forces. But Col. Wayne Shanks, a spokesman for NATO and U.S. forces, called that theory “ludicrous.”

Lemahieu also discounted it.

‘‘My inclination is that this is natural,’’ he said, adding that a similar blight has hit Myanmar and India.

Afghanistan hasn’t always been the heroin capital of the world.

In 1979, the nation’s opium production was 250 tons. Last year, according to the U.N., it was 6,900 tons.

The transformation took place, in part, because the Soviet invasion left much of the nation’s irrigation systems in ruins. Farmers sought out opium poppy as an alternative, since it consumes little water. The U.S. has been accused of looking the other way as it backed the rebels fighting the Soviets.

Later, of course, the U.S. invaded. We now occupy what The Nation Institute’s Tom Engelhardt has described as “the first all-drug-crop agricultural nation and so the planet’s premier narco-nation.”

Russia’s Federal Narcotics Service has estimated the total market value of Afghanistan’s opium crop at $65 billion, only about $500 million of which goes to the farmers. The Taliban guerillas also get a share, but most of it goes to what is loosely defined as the “drug mafia.”

The total GDP of Afghanistan is $10 billion.

Today, wrapping up his visit to Washington, Afghan President Hamid Karzai walked among the graves of U.S. troops who gave their lives in the war in his country. This summer, the AP reports, the campaign for Kandahar may be among the bloodiest of the nearly nine-year-old war.


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