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Afghanistan had a record opium harvest this year. That's really saying something, considering that in some past years, Afghanistan has been the world's leading source of the raw material for heroin. The United Nations says the production of poppies has been rising for three straight years.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Afghan government efforts to eradicate poppy cultivation have declined, and the illegal trade remains the single-largest sector of the economy. NPR's Sean Carberry reports on why stopping opium cultivation is so hard.

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SEAN CARBERRY, BYLINE: Lashkar Gah is the capital southern Helmand province. This volatile region alone grows half of Afghanistan's opium poppy. The streets of the small city are abuzz with motorcycles and rickshaws. People visit the ramshackle shops lining the streets.

(SOUNDBITE OF ANIMAL SOUNDS)

CARBERRY: On Fridays, hundreds of men gather at the bazaar along the Helmand River, the lifeblood of this arid province. Vendors sell everything, from livestock to boxes of artisanal medicine.

KHARIULLAH: (Foreign language spoken)

CARBERRY: There's no sign of poppy here. In fact, the farmers we talk to, like 26-year-old Khairullah, who goes by one name, say they're actually too poor to grow it.

KHARIULLAH: (Through translator) It requires a lot of effort to grow, and you have to wait a long time to harvest.

CARBERRY: He says he barely gets by growing legal crops, and he can't afford the extra labor and risk to cultivate poppy. Others here agree, adding that poppy is the main source of insecurity. But, it's not hard to find farmers who do grow it.

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CARBERRY: We drive across the city and down a quiet residential street of tan brick compounds. We stop, and 27-year-old Abdullah hops in the car. It's not safe to visit his village, so he came to the city to meet us.

ABDULLAH: (Foreign language spoken)

CARBERRY: Abdullah says his family has been farming opium poppies for more than 20 years. He says they can't make a living any other way.

ABDULLAH: (Through translator) The major source of income for people in Helmand is opium.

CARBERRY: He says they grow about 70 kilograms and make about $9,000 a year, which is four times what they can make from any other crop.

ABDULLAH: (Through translator) We understand that opium is bad. All drugs are bad. But it's difficult for us seeing a neighbor with a new car when we are riding bicycles. So, we have to do this to have a better life.

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CARBERRY: About six miles outside of Lashkar Gah, past brown fields and mud houses, is the government compound of Nad Ali district.

SHARIFULLAH: (Foreign language spoken)

CARBERRY: Fifteen Afghan farmers with creased, leathery faces sit in the meeting hall. Sharifullah, who also gives only one name, explains why in addition to corn, cotton and potatoes, they also grow opium.

SHARIFULLAH: (Through translator) That's because for the rest of our product, we have no market. We can't export them, and we can't get a good price for them. And we can't even sustain our families.

CARBERRY: Sharifullah says they don't grow opium in the district, but rather on the outskirts, in the desert.

SHARIFULLAH: (Through translator) This is a very wide area for the government to eradicate it completely.

CARBERRY: He says that they all grow small amounts - four to 20 kilos - and small teams of middlemen come to their farms to collect their crops. The Taliban, who make hundreds of millions on the poppy trade, levy taxes on Afghan farmers.

SHARIFULLAH: (Through translator) In the past two years, we haven't grown any opium, because the government gave us alternatives. So that alternative was cotton at a high price.

CARBERRY: But he says the government didn't show up to buy their cotton at the subsidized price, so they've returned to growing opium.

MOHAMMED IBRAHIM: (Foreign language spoken)

CARBERRY: Nad Ali District Governor Mohammed Ibrahim doesn't deny that. He says the government can't provide subsidies to all the small farmers in the district. Plus, a multi-million dollar program funded by the international community to provide seeds and fertilizer to farmers in Helmand has ended. So Ibrahim says they now focus on promoting awareness.

IBRAHIM: (Through translator) We have been holding campaigns, gathering people into mosques and centers and telling them if they grow poppy, they will lose.

CARBERRY: Ibrahim says he's also been focused on getting construction projects in the district to create new jobs. But many of the farmers here believe the government isn't really serious about counternarcotics.

KEN YAMASHITA: The farmer's not able to say, OK, you know, please help me out here, because the governance structures continue to be weak.

CARBERRY: Ken Yamashita is director for assistance and field operations at the U.S. embassy. He says there isn't a simple solution to the poppy problem, because it's tied to the larger illicit economy in Afghanistan. He and other officials say this is a long-term challenge that requires reforms within a number of government agencies that will easily take 10 to 15 years. Jean-Luc Lemahieu, head of the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime in Afghanistan, agrees.

JEAN-LUC LEMAHIEU: Narcotics is as a virus, which is festering.

CARBERRY: On a sunny fall morning in Kabul, Lemahieu and a host of Afghan and Western officials gather for the ceremonial burning of some 20 tons of drugs and alcohol seized by Afghan law enforcement.

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CARBERRY: It's events like this that lead Lemahieu to refer to 2013 as the year of the paradox. He says that counter-narcotics institutions are making progress. Still, cultivation has set a new record.

LEMAHIEU: The prognosis is not very positive. This illicit economy seems to be established, seems to be taking over in importance from the licit economy.

CARBERRY: Lemahieu says that the political uncertainty of the next couple of years with the NATO withdrawal has people hedging their bets and growing more poppy today. And he says there's another growing problem supporting the poppy trade: domestic demand for opium. Despite a substantial investment in new clinics and programs, the country only has the capacity to treat 20,000 of its more than one million addicts at a time.

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CARBERRY: As a result, people like Laila Haidary are taking matters into their own hands. She's opened a clinic and a restaurant, where the employees are recovering addicts.

LAILA HAIDARY: (Through translator) My brother was an addict, and I was witnessing an addict's life with him living under a bridge full of garbage. It's difficult for animals to live there.

CARBERRY: Her clinic has treated more than a thousand addicts. But she says treating addicts has come at great cost to her.

HAIDARY: (Through translator) My personal life has been ruined, because my husband says that he can't live with a lady that works with addicts and owns a restaurant. This is the culture of our people.

CARBERRY: And changing culture - whether it's attitudes towards women, or the poppy culture - can take generations. Sean Carberry, NPR News, Kabul.

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