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Opium production soaring in Afghanistan as struggle to suppress drug production fails, UN reveals

Almost 5,000 tonnes of heroin ingredient produced in 2016

Harriet Agerholm
Sunday 23 October 2016 21:24 BST
An Afghan farmer stand in a blooming poppy field on the outskirts of Jalalabad in Nangarhar
An Afghan farmer stand in a blooming poppy field on the outskirts of Jalalabad in Nangarhar (Noorullah Shirzada/AFP/Getty Images)

Opium production in Afghanistan soared 43 per cent during 2016 in a "worrying reversal in efforts" to combat the country's heroin industry, according to new UN data.

Afghanisatan – the world's largest supplier of heroin – is estimated to have produced 4,800 tonnes of opium during 2016, due to bumper a poppy plant harvest and a dramatic decline in eradication efforts.

It has been suggested the rise may demonstrate how the Taliban insurgency has gained ground, after many Nato-trained forces in the region were injured or deserted.

"The survey shows a worrying reversal in efforts to combat the persistent problem of illicit drugs and their impact on development, health and security," UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) Executive Director Yury Fedotov said in a statement.

Growing opium is a crime in the country but the crops provide cash to impoverished farmers in the region.

The Taliban taxes production in areas under its control and the drug funds many of its military efforts.

Better farming conditions in 2016 meant that the yield per hectare rose over the year and increased overall production. But the area used to farm poppy plants also expanded by ten per cent to more than 200,000 hectares, meaning that opium cultivation was at its third-highest level since records began in 1994.

This follows a 91 per cent decrease in the amount of land rid of poppy crops – during 2016, only 355 hectares were purged of opium. One of the major reasons cited by the report was concerns for the safety of eradication teams, which have been killed before while working.

Provinces with the highest levels of opium production, mostly concentrated in the South, were also the most dangerous so eradication teams avoided those areas. Hilmand remains the country’s major opium poppy cultivating province, according to the report, with 80,273 hectares of land devoted to the crops.

Yet the increase in the production was mostly seen northern Afghanistan. One region in the North, Jawzjan, lost the poppy-free status it gained in 2008, demonstrating the reversal process.

Taliban successes on the battlefield have exposed the defensive limits of Afghanistan's armed forces, trained by Nato, which are supposed to number 350,000 personnel but which have been heavily depleted by casualties and desertion.

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