Cultivation of opium poppies decreased in Afghanistan this year for the first time since 2001, a success that saw one in every five farmers abandon the drug-producing plant for legal crops, according to a United Nations report.
The decision by some 50,000 farmers to give up the highly lucrative poppy was undercut by the 2005 crop being one of the best in years. As a result, production declined just 2.5 percent, with Afghanistan still accounting for 87 percent of the world's supply, the U.N. Office for Drugs and Crime said.
Still, even that shift suggested Afghanistan's drug-eradication program, begun in 2004, is having some effect on poppy production and legal sectors of the economy are expanding, the report said.
"It may seem that in a country where reality is so stark, opportunities for the poor so limited, and consequences so dire, that there is not a great deal we can do to stop people from engaging in such a lucrative, albeit illegal, activity," it said. "That, however, is not what this year's survey results reveal."
The report said Afghan farmers devoted 256,880 acres to poppies this year, down from 323,500 acres in 2004. But because of good weather and low disease, average yield rose 22 percent, meaning 4,100 metric tons of opium were produced. That was barely down from last year's 4,200 metric tons.
The report also found 309,000 Afghan households were involved in opium cultivation, down from 356,000 in 2004.
In figures released separately Wednesday, the U.S. government reported a similar trend. It estimated Afghan poppy cultivation dropped nearly half from last year and said total opium production fell only 10 percent, to about 4,500 metric tons.
The U.S. report estimated Afghans grew 265,278 acres of poppies this year, down from 510,549 acres in 2004, but still above pre-U.S. invasion levels. Some 150,670 acres were in cultivation in 2003, 75,900 acres in 2002 and 4,160 acres in 2001.
John Walters, director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, called the drop in poppy acreage welcome news. But, he added, "the overall scope of the drug threat in Afghanistan remains unacceptably high."
U.N. anti-drug chief Antonio Maria Costa said the prospects for 2006 were not good because of several worrisome indicators. Those include reports of drug traffickers distributing poppy seeds for free and farmers complaining of a lack of help from the international community.
Also, Costa said, many farmers didn't grow poppies this year because of fears of the government's eradication campaign, but might go back if they saw the program hadn't worked.
"As a consequence, there is a risk that opium cultivation may not decline in 2006," he said.
The report highlighted just how tempting opium cultivation can be for farmers in Afghanistan. A farmer earns nearly $2,200 for an acre of opium poppies, while those growing wheat make about $220 an acre.
In another worrying finding, Costa said, Afghans grew 74,100 acres of marijuana. That put Afghanistan second in the world behind Morocco, the AP reports.