Growing Opium Makes Economic Sense for Kayan Farmers

By Lawi Weng 9 June 2014

PEKHON TOWNSHIP, Shan State — During the dry season, ethnic Kayan people in Loi Wine village have access to water for crops thanks to a nearby irrigation dam. Letters posted in the village by local authorities order them that this water must be used to grow vegetables, rather than illegal opium poppies.

But to locals here in the remote far south of Shan State, opium is just another crop, and one that makes them about 10 times more cash than licit produce.

Risking the censure of authorities, they cultivate and harvest opium poppies in farmland away from main roads. The poppies are normally processed into heroin—either by farmers here or elsewhere—which is exported to international markets or feeds into the growing drug problems of Burma’s ethnic border states.

“I earned 3 million kyat [more than US$3,000] from growing opium this summer,” declares Taung Chang, a Kayan farmer aged about 50. “Usually, I would only earn 300,000 kyat if I grew corn.”

During a visit last week, most of the opium in the village had been replaced with other crops for the rainy season, although some continue to grow opium, despite the unfavorable conditions.

This village alone produces about 2 tons of opium a season, which all together would be worth more than $300,000, based on the current local price of 600,000 kyat (about $600) for 1 viss—a Burmese measurement equivalent to 1.63 kilograms.

The price of land in Loi Wine village has gone up as space here has in recent years become sought after for the opium trade.

Aung Ba, 35, another local farmer, said an acre of land now costs more than 2 million kyat ($2,000).

“All of this area was recognized forest and belonged to no one before.  But some people set up a village and they built houses and took ownership of the land, and that land has become valuable as they can grow opium,” said Aung Ba.

Despite the high price on offer, no one was keen to sell their land, he said.

However, some other local farmers say the risks involved with growing opium are not worth taking. Aung Ba said that, in particular, opium poppies—which require more investment to plant than other crops—were vulnerable to being washed away by rains.

“The location of the land where we grow it is very important. It is better to grow it on the flat land at the bottom of the mountain,” said Aung Ba, adding that this location left the crop at risk of flooding.

But, here and elsewhere in Burma, farmers are increasingly opting to plant poppies. The UN Office on Drugs and Crime estimates that about 58,000 hectares of the country was planted with opium last year, more than double the 24,000 hectares of poppy planted in 2006.

A report published by the Amsterdam-based Transnational Institute last week called for policy reform to address the underlying causes that leave farmers with few options but to plant poppies.

The report said that bans on growing opium enforced by ethnic armed groups in more eastern parts of Shan State, like the Wa and Kokang rebels, had simply pushed production to areas with weaker law enforcement, like southern Shan State.

“The opium bans did at first contribute to a decline in poppy cultivation in the region, but this also had the effect of pushing up the price of raw opium as well as its derivative, heroin,” the Transnational Institute report said.

“At the same time, the main incentive for communities to cultivate opium—poverty—had not been addressed. This in turn created the conditions for an increase in poppy cultivation, as there was no drop in the demand for opiates from the Golden Triangle, and probably even an increase over the same period.”

According to Kayan New Generation Youth, an NGO based in the Karenni State capital of Loikaw, 40 percent of Kayan, who are also known as Padaung, grow opium.

The group’s chairman, Bedu, said that drug addiction is a widespread problem in local communities, and many people end up in prison.

“If we look at the lives of [the Kayan] generally, they are fine as they have some good businesses,” said Bedu.

“But, in my neighborhood, one guy in a family is addicted to drugs. Another guy from another family was detained and put in prison.”

The names of farmers interviewed for this story have been changed.