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With Afghanistan’s opium production having jumped last year 22 per cent to $3 billion in value and to 87 per cent of the world’s illicit output, the head of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) will visit the Central Asian country this week to discuss ways of stopping the march towards an “opium economy.”

Executive Director Antonio Maria Costa, due to start his five-day mission on Wednesday, said everything must be done “to make sure that the increasing trend of recent years is reversed, in order to avoid that the country will further drift into an opium economy, generated from illicit activities and largely going into the hands of criminals.”

The Geneva-based UNODC’s “Afghanistan Opium Survey 2004” showed that although bad weather and plant diseases significantly reduced the opium yield, the output in 2004 was about 4,200 tons, “the second-largest opium harvest in the history of Afghanistan,” and its farming now covered 130,000 hectares, or 2.9 per cent of the country’s arable land.

Some 356,000 households grew the opium poppies used to make heroin last year, compared with 264,000 households using 80,000 hectares in 2003, it said.

“There is no easy way to solve the opium problem in Afghanistan and the focus must be on long-term development, which may take a generation or more,” Mr. Costa said.

UNODC has said mounting evidence shows drug money being used to finance criminal activities and it has called on security forces in the country to break up narco-trafficking chains and clandestine laboratories. Among its recommendations have been providing alternative crops, seeds, fertilizers and equipment for opium farmers and finding alternative sources of income for landless workers and returning refugees.

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