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UN:  Afghanistan's Opium Production Fueling Addiction, Spread of HIV - 2003-02-04

A United Nations study shows that opium production in Afghanistan, once limited to export, is now leading to domestic addiction and fueling the spread of the HIV virus. The annual study, compiled by the Vienna-based U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime, assesses the opium economy in Afghanistan and ways to combat it.

According to the United Nations, Afghanistan is the world's leading producer of illicit opium, accounting for almost three-quarters of global opium production, followed by Burma and Laos.

Antonio Maria Costa heads the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime. He says opium prices collapsed after September 11, 2001. But now, prices and production are heading upwards again, as farmers face uncertainty and poverty.

"$1.2 [billion], $1.3 billion was generated for farmers in 2002 in Afghanistan. But about three or four times more than that amount in the neighboring countries," he said. "And that is not the bulk of trafficking. The bulk of trafficking is through, obviously, Turkey, the Balkan route. Obviously, because of the underdeveloped state of the Afghan economy, the small amount of $1.3 billion is a big percentage of the national economy in Afghanistan - almost one-fifth."

The study finds that opium cultivation is not a countrywide problem in Afghanistan, but rather is concentrated in five of the nation's 32 provinces. Three quarters of Central Asian opium goes to Europe. Still, according to the new findings, opium cultivation is now creating serious addiction problems in Afghanistan, because traffickers are paying local communities with the drug instead of in cash. The study also finds the HIV virus is spreading due to the use of contaminated needles.

Mr. Costa says the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime recommends increasing loans to encourage farmers to cultivate alternative crops, and reopening bazaars as places of trade for legitimate commodities.

"For the women and children, opium cultivation is extremely labor-intensive, about 10 times more than traditional cereal, corn cultivation," he said. "If you want to break the neck [of the problem], we have to offer alternative economic means to absorb women and children, keeping the women in other activities and children in school."

Mr. Costa says opium cultivation will not be eradicated, without more financial help from the international community for farmers.