UNITED NATIONS, Aug 27: Opium production in Afghanistan has hit a record $3 billion this year, accounting for more than 90 per cent of the world’s illegal output, a United Nations report said on Monday.

The production concentrated mainly in the strife-torn south of the country, where the Taliban, who once banned poppy cultivation, now profited from the drug trade, the report alleged.

The UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) showed that the area under opium cultivation rose to 193,000 hectares from 165,000 in 2006, while the harvest soared by more than a third to 8,200 tons from 6,100 tons.

The amount of Afghan land used for growing opium was larger than the total under coca cultivation in Latin America, it said.

No other country has produced narcotics on such a scale since China in the 19th century, the report said.

But the number of opium-free provinces in the centre and north of the country more than doubled from six to 13, revealing an intensification of markedly divergent trends between the north and south.

UNODC Executive Director Antonio Maria Costa called for a more determined effort by the Afghan government and the international community to combat the threats of drugs and insurgency by building upon promising developments in the north and reacting to the dismal failures in the south.

In the centre and north, where the government has increased its authority and presence, cultivation is dropping. In Balkh province cultivation collapsed from 7,200 hectares last year to zero.

By contrast, 80 per cent of opium poppies were grown in a handful of southern provinces along the border with Pakistan.

In Helmand, cultivation rose by 48 per cent to 102,770 hectares. With a population of 2.5 million, Helmand has become the world’s biggest source of illicit drugs, surpassing the output of entire countries like Colombia (coca), Morocco (cannabis) and Myanmar (opium).

Poverty could not be used as an excuse for growing poppy, Mr Costa said. Some of the most fertile regions in the south had become the opium-producing heartland while poorer provinces in the centre and north, where per capita income was half that of the south, were opium-free.

“Opium cultivation is inversely related to the degree of government control. Where anti-government forces reign, poppies flourish,” he said, noting that the Taliban had reversed their edict of 2000 banning cultivation. “What used to be considered a sin is now being encouraged.” But UNODC village surveys indicated that the main reason farmers chose not to grow poppies was that they consider it against Islam. “Only 14 per cent of the population is involved in opium cultivation. The vast majority of Afghans want to turn their country away from drugs and crime. They deserve our support,” Mr Costa said. He called for higher rewards for non-opium farmers.

“Assistance is plentiful but not being disbursed fast enough. I see a risk of some provinces sliding back to poppy cultivation,” he noted.

He underlined the need for greater deterrents to dissuade farmers from planting opium, and an end to collusion that enabled rich landlords to evade eradication. A no-opium pledge should be embedded in all development aid programmes. He also urged the Afghan government to get tough on corruption.