Opium cultivation in Burma increased for a sixth consecutive year in 2012 despite increased government efforts to eradicate the crop, while in Laos land devoted to poppy production rose by more than half of the previous year, according to a new report released Wednesday.
Parts of the two nations, along with Thailand, make up the Golden Triangle region, a lawless area notorious for the production of narcotics sold by cartels throughout Asia.
In its annual Southeast Asia Opium Survey, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) said that opium cultivation in the region had doubled since 2006, despite officials reports from Laos, Burma and Thailand that nearly 25,000 hectares (61,766 acres) of poppies were eradicated in 2012.
The UNODC said that the vast majority of regional demand for opium comes from China, and that the trade there is helped by porous borders in the country's southwest.
In Burma, the report said, poppy cultivation grew 17 percent in 2012 to 51,000 hectares (126,000 acres) from 43,000 hectares (106,250 acres) in 2011.
The Burmese government more than tripled its eradication efforts in 2012, the report said, destroying nearly 24,000 hectares (59,300 acres) of poppy fields during the growing season from fall 2011 to early summer this year from just over 7,000 hectares (17,300 acres) the year before.
But despite the unprecedented anti-poppy program, the UNODC said that the significant increase in area of cultivation nationwide threatened to derail Burma’s plan to end its opium problem by 2014.
Gary Lewis, UNODC Regional Representative for East Asia and the Pacific, said the significant increase in opium poppy cultivation in Burma “reflect[s] a growing human security threat to the region.”
"Despite the increase in eradication what really matters is the increase in cultivation,” Lewis said.
“Cultivation indicates intention. And unless the farmers have a feasible and legitimate alternative to give them food security and reduce their debt, they will continue to plant poppy.”
Burma is the world’s largest opium producer after Afghanistan, the UNODC said, adding that the country currently accounts for 25 percent of global illicit poppy cultivation and—together with Laos—as much as 10 percent of global opium production. Afghanistan accounts for almost all of the remaining 90 percent.
The UNODC estimates Burma’s total 2012 opium production at 690 metric tons—a 13 percent increase from 2011 and the highest level of production since 2003.
The report said that the center of Burma’s illicit drug production remains in Shan state, which accounts for 90 percent of opium poppy production in the country, while the remaining 10 percent is mainly produced in Kachin state.
Some 300,000 Burmese households engage in opium cultivation, it said, marking a 17 percent increase from an estimated 256,000 households last year.
Jason Eligh, UNODC Country Manager in Burma said that eradication alone is not the answer to reducing opium cultivation.
“We must remember why farmers grow poppy. In most cases it is because they need cash to buy food to feed their families,” he said.
“Growing opium poppy provides much-needed food security for many of them.”
Farmers in the Burmese part of the Golden Triangle often opt to use their land for growing poppies, which earn them 19 times more per hectare than rice, the report said.
“A sustainable long-term solution to poppy can only come through significant investment in stability, the rule of law and alternative development,” Eligh said.
Four out of every ten households surveyed in poppy-growing villages grew the crop themselves, but other households participated in the cultivation and harvesting, making it vital to the economies of whole communities.
The UNODC noted that while poppy farming in Laos remains low compared to a decade ago, and accounts for significantly less production in Southeast Asia than Burma, findings indicate that cultivation is “increasing substantially.”
The amount of land used for opium cultivation in Laos soared by 66 percent in 2012 to 6,800 hectares (16,800 acres), up from 4,100 hectares (10,130 acres) in 2011, and almost to 2004 levels, the report said.
The UNODC estimated the potential for dry opium production in Laos would also jump by 64 percent to 41 tons from 25 tons a year ago.
As many as 38,400 households in Laos cultivated poppy fields in 2012, it said, up from as many as 20,000 a year ago.
The average yield of opium per hectare in Laos remained the same year over year at 6 kilograms, also suggesting that the drastic increase in production reflected the growth in the number of households choosing to devote their land to poppy cultivation.
Meanwhile, government eradication efforts grew only slightly by 7 percent to 707 hectares (1,750 acres) destroyed compared to 662 hectares (1635 acres) a year ago—a drop in the bucket compared to the 2,700-hectare (6,670-acre) increase in overall land used to cultivate the crop.
The UNODC believes that most of the opium produced in Laos is intended for domestic consumption.
China accounts for more than 70 percent of all heroin consumption in East Asia and the Pacific, it said, adding that the number of registered users there had risen to 1.1 million people in 2010—at least a 22 percent increase since 2002.
"The opium numbers continue to head in the wrong direction," said UNODC’s Lewis.
"However we have seen more progress on responding to the root causes of opium cultivation in the past year than we have in the past decade.”
He called on governments to work harder to curb cultivation and to eradicate poverty amongst the farming population in order to fight the opium problem in the region.
Reported by Joshua Lipes.