Fungus attacks poppy crop

Afghanistan’s opium yield is likely
to drop as much as 30 per cent this year because a disease is destroying fields
full of poppies in the south _ driving up prices amid a countrywide push to
grow legal crops, a U.N. official said.

Higher prices also could mean more
money pouring in to the Taliban, which funds much of its insurgency with
profits from the drug. Afghanistan supplies 90 per cent of the world’s opium,
the main ingredient in heroin.

The disease-a fungus-, which turns
the poppy plants black as they apparently rot from the inside, has hit about
half of the poppy crop growing in the northern part of Helmand province _ the
centre of Afghanistan’s poppy production, said Jean-Luc Lemahieu, the top
official for the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime in Afghanistan. The
lower yield on the surface seems to be a boost to reducing opium poppy cultivation,
but it is leading to wild price speculation that instead could encourage
farmers to plant more poppy next year.

The price of fresh opium has jumped
57 per cent from last year to about $85 a kilogram in April, while dry opium
prices are up 37 per cent, according to U.N. data.

A spokesman for the Afghan Counter
Narcotics Ministry said that higher prices mean interdiction efforts will get
more difficult.

Zalmai Afzali said a team for the
ministry working on poppy eradication was just attacked in eastern Nangarhar
province a few weeks ago and more funds for the insurgents will likely mean
more attacks.

It is still unclear what is causing
the fungus, though there has been speculation that a poppy-killing blight could
have been introduced in secret by NATO forces, Lemahieu said this was unlikely.

A spokesman for NATO and U.S.
forces rejected outright the idea of a military plot by NATO’s International
Security Assistance Force.

“The idea that NATO or ISAF
could be responsible is absolutely ludicrous,” Col. Wayne Shanks said.
“We are not in the eradication business. What we do is take action where
we see the nexus between the insurgency and the drug trade.” This means
going after financing or interdiction of those smuggling the drugs.

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