PEKHON TOWNSHIP, Shan State — In west-Padaung, a hilly region located on the border of Shan and Karenni states, farmers are hard at work in their fields. It’s harvest season and the ethnic Kayan tribes here are busy tending to their crop: Papaver somniferum, or the opium poppy.
In the valleys between the rugged, green hills, poppy fields bloom with bright red, pink and white flowers. The isolated region has poor soils and cold nights that suit the hardy herb but few other cash crops, leaving the impoverished farmers with little choice when it comes to sustaining a livelihood.
“We could not grow any other plants here to make a living, except poppy. If they [the government] ban it, we will have no other jobs,” said a 50-year-old villager, before asking a reporter if such a ban is being planned.
Farmers said poppy has been cultivated in the region, which straddles southern Shan State and northern Karenni State, for more than a decade. A Loikaw-based representative of the National League for Democracy (NLD) estimated that some 20,000 acres are under poppy cultivation here.
According to Aung Than, an ethnic Kayan activist from the Karenni State capital Loikaw, the opium harvested from poppy has offered poor villagers an opportunity to earn a decent living in their remote region.
“These people had no job in the past. They had to find jobs in Loikaw or other towns, which are very far away,” he said. “They had many difficulties, but after they became aware of the fact that their land could grow poppy they became owners of poppy farms. Now, other workers have to come and work for them.”
He pointed at the homes of the roughly 400 families in Be Kin village, named after a sub-tribe of the Kayan minority that live here, and said that before all houses were made from bamboo and thatch. “Now, many people have homes made of bricks and iron roofs,” said the activist.
He added, though, “Everyone wanted to get rich in a short time, and they came to grow poppy, but they did not get rich—only the opium traders become rich.”
The NLD representative said farmers know their livelihoods are considered illegal and fuel an international criminal trade, but they have no other options to survive. “Few use it themselves; they just grow it as a business. Perhaps 2 percent smoke opium themselves,” said the man, who declined to be identified because of the sensitivity of the opium trade.
Burma is the second-largest opium producer after Afghanistan and accounted for about 18 percent of global trade in the illicit narcotic last year, according to the UN Office of Drugs and Crime.
Opium production in Shan, Karenni and Kachin states reached 58,000 hectares in 2013, according to UN, rising for a sixth consecutive year since 2006, when production had sharply dropped from record 1990s levels as a result of a crackdown by authorities and ethnic armed groups.
In June, the Home Affairs Ministry told Parliament that its drug-elimination efforts, started in 1999, had failed and that a deadline to make Burma “drugs-free” would be extended with another 10 years.
For many years, northern Burma has been the hub for the production of opium, its derivate heroin and methamphetamine in Asia, and the trade is directly tied to the country’s decades-old ethnic conflict.
Tens of thousands of poor ethnic farmers grow the opium. Authorities and parties involved in the ethnic conflict—rebel groups, the Burma Army and pro-government militias—tax the drug trade to fund the war, while Chinese criminal syndicates and some militias and rebel groups are directly involved in drug production and trade, researchers have said.
‘Police Do Not Come Here’
Farmers said they plant their crop in late August and it takes about three months before the bulbous fruit and flowers are ready to produce white, raw opium. Farmers cut the bulbs in the early morning and collect resin the next day when the opium has dried and become a sticky brown paste. The bulbs produce opium for about two weeks, while a flowering plant lasts about one week.
Few of the Kayan farmers speak Burmese and some of the women brought their children to the fields, where the farmers live in small huts during the growing season. Many of the farmers travel on motorbike, while some own a car. Day laborers travel from other areas to west-Padaung to work the fields during the season, earning about US$5 per day.
Many poppy farmers hid in their homes when approached by reporters, but some were friendly and welcoming. Those interviewed said they had little to fear from police and authorities administering the region in Phekon Township, as long as they pay an opium tax to local officials.
“Of course, I am afraid of police, but police do not come here because we pay them taxes. I’ve never seen police come here in my whole life,” said a 68-year-old Kayan woman, who was collecting raw opium from her 1.5-acre field. The woman, who declined to be named, said she was able to harvest around 3 viss of raw opium (about 4.9 kilo) per year from her farm.
Farmers said they were paid about $700 per viss of opium last year, but they added that prices fluctuated and feared getting lower prices this year. When asked who bought the opium harvest, farmers said “Chinese” traders came to their villages. It is unclear if they meant Chinese nationals, or referred to ethnic Chinese communities in northern Shan State, some of which are known to have been involved in the illicit trade.
Ba Khaing, 50, said he had cultivated a 10-acre area of poppy for more than a decade, he explained that authorities never bothered him but collected about $5 in tax from each of the approximately 100 poppy farmers in Be Kin village every week.
He said the amount of poppy planted by villagers varied every year depending on the availability of labor and expected opium prices. “It is depends on the price. If we can get higher prices, we will grow more. A lot of people are waiting to see price conditions first,” he said.
Names in this story were changed at the request of interviewees to protect their identity.