Opium Production in Golden Triangle Rising Rapidly

laos-poppies-2006.jpg Poppies grow in a field in northern Laos, as seen in a file photo from the UNODC.

Opium production in Southeast Asia’s Golden Triangle region increased rapidly in 2013, the U.N. has said, warning of high drug use in poppy-growing villages in Myanmar and Laos.

Opium production in Myanmar is at the highest level in over a decade, while in neighboring Laos, poppy cultivation has leveled off but remains a concern, according the latest survey by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC).

Together, the two countries produced 893 metric tons of opium—a 22 percent leap from the year before, with the rise likely fueled by a growing demand for opium in local and regional markets, the agency said.

The total accounts for 18 percent of the opium made worldwide, with Myanmar’s production second only to Afghanistan’s.

“The figures make clear that efforts to address the root causes of cultivation and promote alternative development need to be stepped up,” UNODC Executive Director Yury Fedotov said in a foreword to the report.

He called for stronger efforts in the poverty-stricken villages where the poppies are cultivated, saying it was “important to do so quickly” before drug trafficking networks were able to benefit from future integration efforts in the planned Greater Mekong sub-region allowing trade to flow more easily.

'Strong link' with poverty

Myanmar's uptick in production was driven by a 13 percent rise in cultivation, combined with higher yields, the report said.

Most of the country's opium comes from poppy fields in Shan state, with the rest mainly in Kachin state—both areas in the Golden Triangle region where the borders of Myanmar, Thailand, China, and Laos converge.

The areas are home to ethnic rebel groups that fought with the Myanmar military for decades and are in the process of forging peace as the country emerges from junta rule.

In Laos, the survey confirmed poppy cultivation in the northern provinces of Phongsali, Xiangkhoang, and Houaphan—though it did not measure total opium production in Laos compared to the year before.

In both countries, use of heroin, opium, and synthetic drugs—known locally as “yaba”— is “much higher” in poppy-growing villages than in other areas, the survey reported.

UNODC’s Myanmar Country Manager Jason Eligh said there was a “strong link” between poverty and poppy cultivation.

“In poppy growing villages, significantly more households are in debt and food insecure than in non-poppy growing villages."

"Opium farmers are not bad people, they are poor people. Money made from poppy cultivation is an essential part of family income,” he said.

Eradication efforts

This year is the seventh in a row in which the UNODC measured a rise in opium poppy cultivation in the Golden Triangle, despite government eradication efforts.

In Myanmar, a 15-year plan targeting illicit opium poppy production that was supposed to end in 2014 has been extended by five years to target 2019.

As part of the plan, this year authorities destroyed thousands of hectares of poppy fields in Shan state and neighboring Kayah (Karenni) state, according to China’s Xinhua news agency.

Kyaw Htin Aung, a representative from the Karenni Youth Union, which works to fight drug use in Kayah, said the extension of the plan's time frame marked a step back in efforts to stop producing opium by essentially giving growers license to cultivate the crop for longer.

“It is as if the deadline was extended five more years to allow people to plant opium until 2019,” he told RFA’s Myanmar Service.

“After the government asked people who had grown opium poppies in 2012 and 2013 to decrease the amount of it they plant and switch to other crops, some of them moved to the cities and bought houses as an investment.”

“But because the government declared the new plan to eliminate illicit crop production by 2019, those people came back and have planted opium again, and of course [will do so] until 2019,” he said.

Reported by RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khet Mar. Written in English by Rachel Vandenbrink.

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