Insecurity and rising opium prices drove Afghan farmers to increase cultivation of the illicit opium poppy by 7 percent in 2011 despite a major push by the Afghan government and international allies to wean the country off of the lucrative crop, according to a U.N. report released Tuesday.
Afghanistan's is the world's largest producer of opium _ the raw ingredient used to make heroin _ providing about 80 percent of the world's crop. Revenue from the drug has helped fund insurgents and the number of people invested in the underground opium economy has made it difficult for the Afghan government to establish its presence in opium-heavy regions.
Tuesday's report also shows that opium cultivation is spreading to new parts of the country, a troubling trend as international troops are trying to stabilize Afghanistan so that they can hand over security responsibilities to the government.
Farmers cultivated 131,000 hectares of opium poppies in 2011, a 7 percent increase over the previous year, the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime said in its periodic Afghan opium survey. Farmers said they turned to the illegal opium poppy because of "economic hardship and lucrative prices," according to the report.
The jump came even though the Afghan government increased crop eradication by 65 percent and made significant seizures in recent months.
There are now 17 provinces in Afghanistan affected by poppy cultivation, up from 14 a year ago. And three provinces that had been declared "poppy free" _ a label that brings extra development funding _ have backslid and are now opium producers again, the report said.
Much of this happened because farm-gate prices have soared. Dry opium costs about 43 percent more than it did a year ago. Farmers who chose to grow opium in spite of the counternarcotics push received a windfall. The per-hectare price of opium more than doubled to $10,700 from $4,900, according to the report.
Jean-Luc Lemahieu, the head of UNODC in Afghanistan, said this extra revenue is helping to fund crime.
"We cannot afford to ignore the record profits for non-farmers, such as traders and insurgents, which in turn fuel corruption, criminality and instability. This is a distressing situation," Lemahieu said in a statement.
The largest areas of opium poppy cultivation were the violent south of the country, where it can be hard to make money on legal crops and where criminal networks exist to buy and sell the poppy crop. About 78 percent of cultivation was in the southern provinces of Helmand, Kandahar, Uruzgan, Day Kundi and Zabul, according to the report.
Opium production is also expected to increase significantly. Production in Afghanistan had dropped significantly in 2010 because of a plant disease that killed off much of the crop.