RANGOON — Opium cultivation in Burma stabilized in 2014 and the area under poppy remained roughly the same as last year, marking the first time since 2006 that cultivation did not expand, a report by the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) said on Monday.
A total of 57,600 hectares was under opium poppy in northern Burma this year, according to the UNODC’s annual Southeast Asia Opium Survey, which based its estimates on satellite imagery and field and village surveys. It noted the area was 200 hectares smaller than last year but discounted the decrease as “non-significant” as it fell within the margin of error of the survey.
The findings “represent the first year of stabilization following consecutive year-on-year increases since the low of 21,600 hectares in 2006,” the report said.
The vast majority of the opium is grown in Shan State, followed by Kachin State, where production is expanding and reached some 5,100 hectares, while smaller areas were found in Karenni State and—for the first time—in Chin State.
Burma’s overall opium harvest declined by an estimated 200 tons compared to last year due to poor climatic conditions this growing season, falling to 670 metric tons with a wholesale value of around US$340 million, UNODC said, adding that the 2014 harvest volume is roughly similar to 2012.
Burma is the second biggest global opium producer after Afghanistan, where the bulk of the world’s opiates are grown. The UNODC survey found that poppy cultivation rose this year in northern Laos, although the area is much smaller than in Burma. In the Golden Triangle region, comprising northern parts of Burma, Laos and Thailand, a total of 762 tons of opium was produced in 2014 that is likely to be refined into 76 tons of heroin, UNODC said.
Tens of thousands of poor ethnic farmers in remote areas of Burma grow poppy, which serves as an essential cash crop that is hardy and more profitable than other crops, while it also provides seasonal jobs for many landless families. The UNODC estimates that the average opium production in Burma was 11.7 kg per hectare and that farmers on average earned $414 per kg of opium this year.
“[S]uccessful reduction of the cultivation and production of opium can only be sustained if alternative livelihoods are available to local communities. Farmers are very vulnerable to losses in income derived from opium,” the report said. “Furthermore, opium cultivation is generally linked to the absence of peace and security, which indicates the need for both political and economic solutions.”
UNODC warned that drug use among communities in poppy-growing areas in northern Burma is rapidly rising. It found that opium, heroin and meth use more than doubled between 2012 and 2014, with 1.6 percent of all villagers using opium, 1.1 percent using meth and 0.6 percent using heroin.
In the past few years, ethnic minority civil society organizations have repeatedly warned that drug abuse is taking on epidemic proportions and ravaging ethnic communities of the Palaung, Shan and Kachin. They have accused authorities of turning a blind eye to the issue.
Northern Burma has long been a regional hub for the illicit production of opium, its derivative heroin and methamphetamine, most of which is destined for China, Thailand and the wider region. China accounts for nearly 58 percent of the 3.33 million estimated heroin users in Asia in 2014, according to the UNODC, providing a massive market on the other side of the long and porous Burma-China border
Burma’s illicit drug trade is directly tied to the country’s decades-old ethnic conflict, which continues in many parts of Shan and Kachin states in the absence of a nationwide ceasefire.
Opium production fell from 1998 to 2006 after some armed groups and the then-military regime came under growing international pressure to stem the flow of drugs, but the production resurged in southern Shan State and most recently in Kachin and Chin states, and in Northeast India.
In the past decade, meth production in Shan State soared as pro-government militias, criminal gangs and rebel groups churned out millions of pills at hidden meth labs.
In June, the Home Affairs Ministry acknowledged that a 15-year drug elimination program started in 1999 had failed, and it announced plans to extend the deadline for eliminating all drugs in Burma to 2019.
A Change of Tack?
Tom Kramer, a leading researcher on Burma’s drug trade, said a range of interlocking factors had caused the opium trade to flourish since 2006, notably poverty and isolation of rural communities, strong demand from the region and growing domestic demand, and ongoing conflict and instability.
“Most farmers grow opium as a strategy for food security and as a cash crop… For many, opium is a solution, not a problem. It also has medicinal value in areas without health care, it has cultural value such as during ceremonies,” he said, adding that small-scale opium traders offered incentives by offering loans to farmers.
“In Shan State, most, if not all conflict actors, including the Myanmar Army, are involved,” he said, adding, “High-level corruption among authorities in neighboring countries also contributes.”
Opium and heroin trade, he said, “Still goes a lot to China, and some goes on to Laos and Cambodia and the wider region. We think that a lot of Chinese gangs are involved—but it’s hard to get data on that.”
Kramer, who works with the Amsterdam-based Transnational Institute, said drug elimination policies in Burma and in the region had further contributed to the drug problems as these have been “deadline-oriented” and repressive, and failed to prioritize socio-economic development of poppy-growing areas.
“We have been promoting a ‘development-led approach,’ the government has taken this up on a policy level, but there now needs to be a strategic plan,” Kramer said, adding that authorities were open to begin consultations with poppy farmers to gain a better understanding of how to stem production and provide alternative livelihood options.