The area under opium cultivation in Afghanistan is seven per cent higher this year than last, according to the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) Afghanistan Opium Survey 2011. A total of 131,000 hectares was under cultivation, compared to 125,000 ha last year.
However, that obscures the fact that the amount of opium produced will rise by 61 per cent this year compared to last, to a total of 5,800 metric tonnes. This is because crops were affected by disease last year, which dramatically reduced yields.
With rising prices, it will also mean that the roughly 200,000 families - about five per cent of the total population - involved in the business will see their incomes rise dramatically, in some cases almost doubling. The average farm-gate price is up 41 per cent on last year. Total farm-gate income is likely to be around $1.407bn, from a per-hectare income of around $10,700.
Ninety-five per cent of cultivation took place in nine provinces in the South and Western regions of the country, with three fewer provinces being poppy-free this year. Baghlan, Faryab and Kapisa were the provinces that returned to cultivation. The UNODC points out the strong correlation between opium production and insurgency and reckons the Taliban will earn around $700m from the opium trade this year.
There have been some counter-narcotic successes, with a reduction in opium cultivation in central Helmand province, mainly due to the successful introduction of counter narcotics programmes by the central government. But in the north and south of the province production increased. To put things in context, total eradication amounted to only about three per cent of the area under cultivation.
While Afghanistan continues to be the source of much of the world's heroin, the main sufferers from this trade are the Afghans themselves, with tens of thousands of new addicts and a growing problem with HIV/AIDS infection.