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Afghan-Canadian governor orders eradication of opium farms in Kandahar

Afghan men harvest opium in a poppy field in Farah province.

GORAN TOMASEVIC/Goran Tomasevic/Reuters

The Afghan-Canadian governor of Kandahar has ordered a crackdown on the cultivation of opium after the United Nations urged him to stop the unabated growth of poppy production in his province.

Tooryalai Wesa met Sunday with his district governors and chiefs of police, ordering them to do what they can to eradicate poppy farms amid mounting concerns that more farmers will turn to the illicit but lucrative crop this year.

"Poppy cultivation is prohibited in Islam and illegal in the constitution. Therefore, we are supposed to ban this cultivation," Mr. Wesa said during the meeting at his palace in Kandahar city, according to a statement from his office.

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"Although poppy cultivation has been reduced in a few districts of Kandahar, it is not enough. We are supposed to bring it to zero and pave the way to award logistical support for the farmers."

It is illegal in Afghanistan to grow opium, the raw ingredient used to make heroin. But the law is viewed by many farmers as more of a nuisance than deterrent and has been widely ignored for years by some police officers.

Attempts at eradicating opium in the province have so far failed. But district governors and police chiefs said they were optimistic such efforts would work this year because security has improved.

Mr. Wesa's announcement comes a month after the UN released a report warning that a dramatic jump in opium prices could lure more Afghan farmers to grow the narcotic, reversing the hard-won gains against the drug trade in recent years.

"This bonanza [for some]may provide farmers with a strong incentive to continue growing opium and even expand cultivation in 2011," the report said.

There was a 48 per cent plunge in opium production last year mainly due to a plant disease that ravaged crops. That was the likely factor driving the average price of dry opium to $169 (U.S) per kilogram, up from $64 in 2009, according to the UN Office on Drugs and Crime's Afghanistan Opium Survey.

While opium production fell throughout most of Afghanistan, cultivation in the southern province of Kandahar, where the majority of Canada's 2,900 troops in the war-torn country are based, surged 30 per cent.

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"The significant expansion of cultivation in Kandahar province over the past two years must ... be stopped, and we urge the governor and other partners to play an active role in preventing any further increase and to ensure progress is made in eradication," the report said.

"Further growth in poppy cultivation in Kandahar would have an adverse effect on other provinces as well."

Just last week, Afghan National Army troops trained by the Canadian military seized 108 kilograms of what was believed to be opium in southeastern region of Panjwaii district.

"The time is right to do this," Mr. Wesa said in a brief interview after the meeting.

The UN estimates that 25,835 hectares of land in Kandahar province was used to grow opium last year – roughly half the geographic size of Montreal. That's more than five times the area used to cultivate opium in 2004.

The opium growing season lasts from December to May and is about six times more profitable than wheat.

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It helps pour cash into the coffers of insurgent groups and is a large factor behind the spike in violence ISAF forces and Afghan civilians encounter during the country's summer fighting season.

With the funds from the trade of opium and other drugs, insurgents pay young, often unemployed men eager for a quick buck to take up arms, plant improvised explosive devices, serve as spies or help their cause in any other way possible.

Mr. Wesa said people caught growing opium would face a prison sentence of one year.

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