U.N. setting up satellite monitoring of drug crops

Program will keep tabs on countries' promises to reduce production


The United Nations program charged with reducing illicit drugs is creating its own satellite monitoring system to identify the cultivation of narcotics.

The U.N. International Drug Control Program received the go-ahead in March at the annual meeting in Vienna, Austria, of the world body's Commission on Narcotic Drugs, getting unanimous approval from the 53 member countries, including the United States.

Acquiring satellite capability is important for the program because a more accurate assessment of the illicit drugs being cultivated would provide a universally accepted benchmark against which countries' promises to cut drug production could be measured.

The targets were set by the General Assembly in June.

More intensive surveillance also would expose the so-called balloon effect, in which illicit crops reduced or eradicated in one region or country tend to shift to another.

Pino Arlacchi, executive director of the drug-control program, said the European Space Agency will provide the satellites and technical expertise to monitor the drug crops for member countries.

The European Commission has agreed to pay some of the costs.

He estimated that the satellite monitoring could cost as little as $15 million a year and would start in about a year.

"For the first time, the international community will have a very reliable instrument to measure the extent of illegal crops," Arlacchi said in Vienna.

The program will confirm its satellite findings with more detailed surveys on the ground and aerial photographs by conventional aircraft, Arlacchi said.

He has set a goal of eliminating drug cultivation in 10 years through a combination of eradication and development programs inducing farmers to switch to less lucrative but legal crops.

Until now, the United States provided satellite data gathered by the Central Intelligence Agency, Arlacchi said. But the CIA's overflights did not focus specifically on coca and opium cultivation, and the spy agency did not share its remote sensing methodology to explain its findings.

The CIA's conclusions have opened it to charges of political bias from some drug-producing countries.

For example, the Colombian government said it eradicated 123,500 acres of coca last year, mostly by aerial spraying. The CIA reported that only 14,000 acres were eradicated, prompting protests from the Colombians, Arlacchi said.

When the Commission on Narcotic Drugs met in February, Colombia asked the counterdrug program to help provide governments with tools to monitor illicit drug-growing.

Because the United Nations is generally viewed as impartial, its satellite monitoring could end such controversies by creating a surveillance system with a uniform methodology accepted by member countries.

The United Nations counterdrug program has enjoyed better access to drug-growing regions than the United States and other countries trying to stop narcotics at their source. But coming up with an accurate count is difficult in regions that are remote or ravaged by warfare.

The satellite monitoring for the United Nations will concentrate on five countries that produce more than 90 percent of the raw ingredients used to manufacture heroin and cocaine.

They are Myanmar (formerly Burma) and Afghanistan, the foremost sources of opium, and Colombia, Peru and Bolivia, which grow almost all the coca.

Pub Date: 5/09/99

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