KABUL — Opium poppy cultivation in Afghanistan surged by more than a third in 2013, hitting a new record and spreading to two previously poppy-free provinces, the United Nations said in a report on Wednesday.
The increase was driven by high prices for opium poppy last year, as well as possible speculation due to the withdrawal of international troops and next year’s presidential election, the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime said in its annual Afghanistan Opium Survey.
The level of cultivation – 209,000 hectares (516,000 acres) — broke a previous record of 193,000 hectares set in 2007. The UNDOC estimated that the opium produced from the plant could have increased by 49 percent over the same period in 2012.
The area of cultivation is equal to roughly two-thirds the size of Rhode Island. Opium cultivation accounts for four percent of Afghanistan’s gross domestic product. The country is the largest supplier of opium worldwide.
The vast majority of cultivation in 2013 occurred in nine of Afghanistan’s 34 province. Helmand province — the principal poppy-cultivating region since 2004 — has been a stronghold for the Taliban insurgency throughout the NATO-led 12-year war. Cultivation there increased by 34 percent.
Though it is widely believed that the Taliban’s funding comes from poppy cultivation in these areas, simple economics motivates many growers. The UNDOC said that farmers cited “high income from little land, improving living conditions, and the provision of basic food and shelter for the family.”
Cultivation spread in 2013 to two additional provinces, Faryab and Balkh, in northern Afghanistan, though the level of production there remains low, the report said.
Eradication efforts hardly make a dent in the overall level of cultivation. A total of 7,348 hectares of verified eradication was carried out by Afghanistan’s governors, a decline of 24 percent in relation to 2012.
The “farm-gate value,” or the price of the product sold at the farm level, went up by 13 percent in 2013.
Those farmers who decided to cease growing poppy cited mainly religious beliefs for doing so — that such cultivation is against Islam. The government ban on cultivation was the second-most cited reason, followed by fear of the authorities.
Yury Fedotov, UNODC’s executive director, said that encouraging farmers to switch to legal crops, such as saffron, is an uphill battle.
“It’s hard for or them to sell their products,” Fedotov told Stars and Stripes, “while they don’t have such a problem when they’re growing opium poppy.”
In southern Afghanistan’s Maiwand and Zhari districts, in Kandahar Province, the reduction in U.S. troops near major drug trafficking corridors has allowed Taliban activity to flourish.
Previously, both districts retained a U.S. Army battalion to secure the Highway 1, a major drug-trafficking corridor. There is now just one battalion for both districts, leaving the Afghan army and police to fill the gap.
Fewer checkpoints held by Afghan security forces in Maiwand district have allowed the area to give way to traffickers and insurgents, often putting U.S. troops in danger of hitting IEDs when they do travel the road.