KABUL, Afghanistan -- Opium poppy cultivation rose substantially in 2012 in an "alarming" trend, despite a major opium eradication effort by Afghan governors, said United Nations officials as they released the organization's 2012 opium survey, which was undertaken with the Afghan Ministry of Counternarcotics.
The higher cultivation levels were driven by high prices for the crop as well as instability in the main growing areas, which made it easier for farmers and traffickers to operate. Another factor was the lack of a governmentwide commitment to counternarcotics, said Jean-Luc Lemahieu, the chief of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime for Afghanistan.
Poppy cultivation nationwide increased by 18 percent between 2011 and 2012, with a similar increase in Helmand Province, the biggest opium-producing region, despite an aggressive campaign by the governor to eradicate the crop and promote alternative jobs.
Afghanistan is the world's largest producer of opium, the raw material for heroin, with its farmers harvesting about 80 percent of the world supply. Large quantities of Afghan heroin are exported to Russia, Iran and Europe.
While cultivation rose, the actual production of opium dropped by about a third in 2012 compared with 2011 because of a plant blight that reduced its yield. Counternarcotics experts watch both production and cultivation levels, but cultivation is of particular importance because it is an indicator of farmers' intentions. As long as Afghan farmers remain committed to trying to grow poppy, Afghanistan will remain a major producing country, United Nations officials said.
"We think it's alarming, but we are not panicking, because now it is up to us to tell the government what needs to be done to correct the situation," Mr. Lemahieu said, adding that it will be a very long road. "It will take one decade, two decades."
The Afghan government has been seen as ambivalent about a wholesale assault on opium cultivation and trafficking for several reasons. One is that high-production areas tend to be among the least secure, making it dangerous for the police and the army to take on well-armed traffickers. But widespread corruption also plays a role, with officials at every level seduced by opium profits and loath to disrupt the patronage networks that could deliver them.
Undercutting the government's best efforts are the Taliban and other insurgent groups, who tax the crop in areas they control. The Afghan counternarcotics minister, Zarar Ahmad Muqbil, estimated that the Taliban made at least $155 million from the poppy crop in 2012, and perhaps considerably more.
In a measure of some of the risks of fighting opium production, Mr. Muqbil noted that 102 Afghan police officers, soldiers and civilians had died from attacks by farmers and the Taliban in the course of this year's eradication efforts, and that another 127 people were injured. And those numbers do not reflect the full number of police officers killed fighting traffickers, said Baaz Mohammed Ahmadi, the deputy interior minister for counternarcotics.
Reducing Afghan farmers' dependence on opium has been an uphill battle, not least because growing opium poppy is far more lucrative than almost any other crop and because it thrives even in relatively poor soil. A farmer makes just $120 dollars per hectare, or about 2.5 acres, of wheat, but can make up to $10,000 in a good year on a hectare of raw opium, Mr. Muqbil said.
As a whole, the Afghan government, in coordination with British military and civilian officials active in the south, used a combination of incentives and penalties to persuade farmers to switch to legal crops in the fertile Helmand River Valley. The area was designated as a food zone, and the government undertook an aggressive opium poppy eradication program at the same time that it provided farmers with high -quality seeds for wheat and other crops. The result has been that opium poppy now grows on only about a seventh of the usable agricultural land, while in the adjacent desert land, opium poppy covers about a third of the usable land, according to the United Nations report.
In a less encouraging trend, more and more farmers are moving out of the well-patrolled food zone and expanding the cultivation of poppy in the desert areas, according to United Nations officials as well as tribal elders in Helmand.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.