U.N. plans to take bloom off opium trade

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    UN plans to take bloom off opium trade

    NEW DELHI–The United Nations is considering using planes to sow poppy seeds with reduced amounts of morphine in Afghan farm fields this fall.

    The high-risk strategy may deter farmers from growing opium-producing crops but could also further divide western forces and locals.

    The move would be troubling for Canadian Forces. The Taliban has used opium as a major source of financial backing and has generated at least $100 million (U.S.) a year from the illegal drug trade in Afghanistan. Over-sowing fields with low-yield poppy seed may limit Taliban funding, but non-productive fields could also drive more farmers into poverty – and into the hands of insurgents.

    With weeks to go before the winter planting season, the UN Office on Drugs and Crime is looking at distributing the seeds in the fields of farmers who refuse to switch from poppy to legitimate crops.

    Morphine is the principal active ingredient in opium, the sap produced within the poppy's seed pods.

    Low-yield seeds produce about 1 per cent as much morphine as regular poppies, a researcher with the project said.

    Afghanistan has two poppy planting seasons and the UN is discussing launching the project in the winter season, which starts in early October. It would sow the low-yield seeds by plane – after farmers have been warned – at about the same time farmers plant their regular poppy crops.

    It's unclear whether the Afghan government has been briefed on the project. UN drug agency official Ugi Zvekic confirmed the effort is being considered. "No position has been taken on it," Zvekic said.

    The plan comes amid worries that opium production in Afghanistan is poised to spike next year even though the amount of opium produced has declined to 6,900 tonnes this year from 7,700 tonnes a year ago. The price of wheat has slipped in recent months, which may prompt more farmers to grow poppy, aid workers and diplomats say.

    In the short-run, the plan "will anger the poor people and locals," conceded Dirk Reinecke, a German economist who is consulting with the UN. Still, he said, the plan would allow the UN to "capture the financial connections to the Taliban in the long run."

    If UN drug agency member states who are active in Afghanistan approve the pilot project, farmers in no more than a few provinces would be told in advance about the plan, giving them time to consider planting wheat or other crops, he said.

    It may not be that simple. For starters, wheat requires much more water than poppy does and Afghanistan gets only sporadic rain.

    Then there's the UN's checkered record coaxing farmers to switch crops. "We suggest they switch to saffron but don't take into consideration that the quality of those crops are much better in Spain and Iran," said one UN official. "You can't create a market when there isn't one there.

    "Then there was the problem last year when we convinced other farmers to commit their fields to growing onions," the official said. "The onion market collapsed and all of a sudden we have an oversupply."

    It's also been dangerous for farmers to grow legitimate crops because unlike opium, crops like wheat or fruits must be taken to market. That means paying transportation costs, evading militants, roadside bombs and police officials demanding bribes.

    The Taliban, by contrast, makes it easy. It picks up opium from farms directly.

    It's also possible the Afghan government may scuttle the plan. The government hasn't been afraid to rebuff western strategies to reduce the poppy business. For instance, the Afghan government battled the U.S. for years over its desire to start aerial spraying of opium crops with herbicide.

    The Afghan government argued farmers would believe the spraying was poison and such a move would increase support for the Taliban.

    Now, the U.S. has abandoned efforts to eradicate the poppy and is focused on providing farmers with alternatives.

    "Alternative livelihood is a dream," Reinecke said, "if every farmer is able to sow illicit crops and get more than five to 10 times more benefit than they do with the licit crop."

    Reinecke said he is working on the low-morphine poppy effort with an Austrian company called Zeno Projekte, which specializes in plant breeding, and with researchers from the University of Vienna. They first approached the UN drug agency in November 2008 but were rebuffed, he said.

    But the agency later contacted Reinecke to revive the plan. They met July 21 in Vienna to discuss particulars, according to a copy of the agenda. Several UN drug office staffers say that may highlight agency head Antonio Maria Costa's desperation to record some semblance of improvement in Afghanistan.

    In 2000, when Taliban leader Mullah Muhammad Omar banned the growing of poppy, Afghanistan produced a mere 185 tonnes of opium. Two years later, in Costa's first year on the job, that amount skyrocketed to 3,700 tonnes.

    Now, it's nearly double that total.

    "Afghanistan today is cultivating megacrops of opium," Costa said two years ago.

    The 68-year-old Costa is expected to leave office next year.

    "He is absolutely desperate for some kind of legacy achievement here before he leaves," said one UN drug agency staff member.

    Sep 14, 2009 04:30 AM


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