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    Afghan opium output halved: UN

    KABUL (PAN): Opium production in Afghanistan, the world's largest producer of the illicit drug, has dropped by almost 50 percent this year due to an unspecified plant infection in major poppy-growing provinces, the United Nations said on Thursday.

    However, the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) chief, launching the 2010 Afghan Opium Survey, warned the production level was unlikely to remain low, as soaring prices enticed impoverished farmers to grow more poppies.

    UNODC Executive Director Yury Fedotov told reporters in Kabul through a video conference from Vienna: "This is good news but there is no room for false optimism. The market may again become lucrative for poppy crop growers."

    Opium production this year is estimated at 3,600 metric tonnes, showing a 48 percent drop from 6,900 tonnes in 2009 -- the lowest in seven years, according to the report, which linked the fall to a plant disease that hit the illegal crop in Helmand and Kandahar provinces.

    Helmand alone produced about 60 percent of Afghanistan's total output of the drug, the survey said, adding the total area under poppy cultivation stayed unchanged at 123,000 hectares. The former Russian diplomat underlined the need for a comprehensive strategy to ward off the threat.

    In Kandahar, cultivation went up by 30 percent and in Farah by 17 percent, the survey revealed. The price farmers were paid by traffickers shot up from $48 per kilogram to $128 per kilogram.

    The link between insecurity and opium cultivation was highlighted by the fact that most of poppy cultivation took place in nine provinces in the southern and western Afghanistan, where 20 provinces have been declared poppy-free.

    "Ninety eight percent of the total cultivation took place in nine provinces in the southern and western regions, including the most insecure provinces in the country," the report said.

    "It is worrying that the current high sale price of opium in combination with a lower wheat price may encourage farmers to go back to opium cultivation," the report added.

    Unlike in 2009 when wheat prices rose and poppy rates declined, 2010 saw farm-gate opium prices sky-rocketing from $64 to $169 per kilogramme. Despite the massive yield cut, opium production accounted for five percent of gross domestic product this year, compared to four percent in 2009.

    The UNODC pointed out per hectare income for poppy growers had gone up by 36 percent to $4,900 from $3,600 last year. On the other hand, the gross income per hectare of wheat slumped from $1,200 in 2009 to $770.

    According to the annual report, the number of households involved in opium cultivation grew by one percent to 248,700 -- six percent of the country's estimated population.

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