[gallery type="slideshow" ids="102377,102378,102379,102380,102381,102382,102383,102384"] PEKHON TOWNSHIP, Shan State — Selling “change” to voters leading up to Burma’s Nov. 8 election, the campaign of the National League for Democracy (NLD) has reached deep into the heart of opium poppy-growing country in southern Shan State, where the plant’s sticky resin is also known as “black gold.” For farmers here, it is hoped that this will mean a more concerted effort by the incoming government to introduce alternative sources of income to replace poppy growing, which fuels the heroin trade across much of the region. “As [NLD chairwoman] Daw Aung San Suu Kyi has said, ‘It is time for change.’ We also want to change. We no longer want to grow poppy. But there is the question of how?” said a 60-year-old poppy grower in Pekhon Township, speaking on condition of anonymity. “Among the crops we grow now, only poppy provides us with a secure livelihood. If we don’t grow poppy, what should we do for a living?” Before 2010, poppy growers here used to grow onions, potatoes, corn and rice. These crops all grew well, but when sold to the town markets, they did not fetch adequate prices and growers suffered hardship as revenues failed to cover labor and transportation costs. Under the current government, poppy substitution programs have been little more than lip service to the cause of opium eradication, locals say. As the number of poppy growers in Burma has grown and production has increased, opium prices have seen a steep decline. The price of raw opium has dropped to around 450,000 kyats (US$345) per viss this year, from around 700,000 kyats per viss in 2013, with one viss equal to about 3.6 pounds. The last decade has seen a steady rise in poppy cultivation, a trend that leveled off last year for the first time since 2006, according to the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC). In 2014, a total of 57,600 hectares were under opium poppy cultivation, the UNODC said, making Burma the world’s second largest producer after Afghanistan. The politics of poppies made its way into the rhetoric of Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) campaigns here, some growers of the plant allege, with some candidates for the ruling party accused of using scare tactics to win votes. The consequence of electing an NLD government was said to be the forcible end of poppy growing in a region where financially viable alternative livelihoods are lacking. But at least in Pekhon Township, where the NLD won all four seats at play, the Nov. 8 vote appears to have been a rejection of fear-mongering in favor of turning over a new leaf, as it were. “We don’t mind that we will not be able to grow poppy when the NLD government comes to power. We believe [an NLD-led government] will be more responsible and accountable than the current government,” said a 40-year-old poppy grower who supports the NLD, also speaking on condition of anonymity. Growers here know that opium production is harmful to society, but their role in the global narcotics trade is rarely something they have the luxury to consider the ethical implications of, when there are mouths to feed, children to clothe and few paths to an alternative income at parity with poppy cultivation. A more robust crop substitution effort, combined with secure markets for the harvest, are just a couple of the wish-list items that farmers say could help this region move toward poppy-free agriculture. It appears, for now at least, that among the farmers of southern Shan State, this would be viewed as a welcome change.
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