Opium Cultivation Reaches High

Jul 04, 2011
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Rapid increase in opium cultivation in Myanmar is an alarming trend for Southeast Asia.

1049 A growing concern for the region. (Photo credit: Manoocher Deghati)

Opium production in Myanmar’s Shan State has increased by 250 tonnes – from 330 in 2009 to 580 currently.

“The resurgence of opium cultivation is a great concern for the region,” said Gary Lewis, UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC)’s regional representative for East Asia and the Pacific.

“Poor farmers in Shan State turn to poppy farming, knowing the risks, because they need a cash income to buy rice and pay back debts incurred to feed their families,” Lewis explained. To reduce cultivation of the drug, “farmers need to be given alternatives”, he said.

The East Asia-Pacific region has 3 million injecting drug users, 600,000 of whom have become infected with HIV as a result, according to UNODC.


Addicted to poppy farming

Poverty and lucrative profits make poppy cultivation increasingly attractive to farmers who would otherwise produce legal crops to feed their families and make a living, say experts.

"More of the rural poor continue to be drawn into participating in the illicit drug trade as a last means of finding money to feed their families," said Jason Eligh, Country Representative for UNODC Myanmar.

Shan State, 400km north of the capital, Yangon, between Myanmar, Laos and Thailand, produces more than 90% of all opium in Myanmar, an estimated 35,000 tonnes in 2010, according to UNODC.

UNODC is the only international agency directly involved in supporting different crops in poppy cultivation areas, with three agriculture projects in southern Shan State trying to reach 100,000 people. However, much more needs to be done to stop farmers from reverting to opium production, said Eligh.

"UNODC wants to see a strong alternative development response, one that includes market access, community mobilization, access to credit, improved technology and better overall infrastructure in rural areas."


Cash crop

In 2010, a higher proportion of farmers' income came from poppies than in previous years, reversing a trend of steady decline in the past six years.

Between 2003 and 2009, the proportion of total household income from poppies fell from 70% to 20%, according to a December 2010 UNODC report.

In 2010, however, high prices paid for poppy in Myanmar and low food security throughout the country meant income from the seed contributed to 43% of total household income in Shan State, the report stated. About a quarter of the state's population was involved, estimate aid agencies.

Though prices at source (farm-gate) for poppy fell marginally in 2010 from 2009, opium overall remained lucrative at US$305 per kilo. Poppy farmers can earn 13 times more money cultivating poppies than rice, making poppies the cash crop of choice for most, based on the UNODC report.

Farmers forced out of poppy cultivation are having problems growing other food to survive. U Tin Kyi says, "I grow enough vegetables to keep my family going, but that is all.”

U Tin Kyi grew poppy seeds to supplement his income until authorities destroyed his fields two years ago. Like many of his neighbours in this hilltop village, U Tin Kyi has little extra income.

He says, "The fuel cost to get to the market outweighs any profit I would make from selling vegetables.”


Eradication efforts

Poppy cultivation continued to rise in Myanmar in 2010, despite an official 15-year drug elimination plan developed in the late 1990s. In 2009, the authorities initiated the final five-year phase of this plan.

Government figures claim 8,268 hectares of poppy-cultivating land were eradicated in 2010, double from the previous year.

But other groups calculate that Myanmar's poppy cultivation area and yield actually increased during this period.

"In 2010 we estimate that there [was] 20% more area under opium poppy cultivation, a 46% in average opium yield, and a 17% increase in the number of households involved in domestic opium poppy cultivation," said Eligh of UNODC.

In northern Shan State, in 2008, government figures showed 25% of poppy fields were destroyed, but a 2010 report by Palaung Women's Organization (PWO), an NGO based in Mae Sot along the Thai-Myanmar border, stated only 11% of poppy fields had been eradicated.

Government anti-drug teams were only destroying easily visible poppy fields and filing false eradication data to the police headquarters, the report said. At the same time, farmers were forced to pay taxes to continue growing poppies.

In Mantong village in northern Shan State, PWO estimated the government collected approximately $37,000 in poppy taxes in 2008.


This article was first published in IRIN.