Myanmar is still the world’s second leading producer of opium after Afghanistan, and heroin and opium addiction are rampant within the village communities who rely on opium production for their livelihood. Despite eradication efforts, the United Nations reports that opium production has stabilized at high levels for a third year.
According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) report, Myanmar produced an estimated 647 tons of opium in 2015. In Myanmar, mostly in poor mountainous border regions, there are approximately 55,000 hectares (212 sq miles) of land being used for opium poppy cultivation. In neighbouring Laos opium cultivation has also stabilized at only a tenth of the area in Myanmar with 5,700 hectares of opium fields, and only a few hundred hectares are left in Thailand. These three countries’ shared border makes up the infamous Golden Triangle and the area produces a quarter of the world’s opium.
Jeremey Douglas, the UNODC’s chief in Southeast Asia and the Pacific, warned against calling the stabilization a “success”. The challenges and problems created by opium cultivation, including opium addiction, will be a daunting obstacle for the new government of Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi that takes power in February.
Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) party won a landslide election victory in November, but made only minimal references to heroin and opium addiction and production in their election announcement. “We do recognise the existence of this problem but we’re too preoccupied with preparations for transfer of power and can’t find a chance to think of it seriously at the moment,” Win Htein, a senior NLD leader, told Reuters.
Even with the new NLD government taking office, the military will retain its formal control over border affairs which is crucial to counter-narcotics efforts as most opium cultivation occurs in border areas that are either controlled by the Myanmar military or ethnic rebel armies.
Why Opium Poppy Cultivation Remains High in Myanmar
In 2006, opium poppy cultivation reached record lows. Hopes were high that this trend would continue, however by 2014 poppy cultivation had again more than doubled. Eradication efforts without giving farmers viable crop alternatives only further contributed to even greater widespread poverty. The scarcity of opium caused prices to skyrocket making returning to opium cultivation an incredibly attractive option.
Poverty, conflict, and an ever growing demand in China are three main factors that make reducing the amount of opium coming out of Myanmar a difficult task. The UNDOC estimates that 70% of heroin produced in Asia fuels China’s ever growing demand where there are now almost 1.5 million registered heroin and opium addiction cases and many more that are undocumented.
Approximately 90% of opium comes from Myanmar’s Shan state which is home to ethnic armed groups and government-backed militias. The ongoing conflict between these groups makes law enforcement difficult and each takes a poppy tax from farmers, so there is no incentive to stop the trade.
According to the Myanmar Opium Farmers’ Forum, held in September, “the large majority of opium farmers are not rich and grow it for their survival.” Village leaders surveyed by UNODC said that buying food was the main reason for cultivating opium. Representatives at the forum called for eradication efforts to cease until people could find alternative incomes.
While most of the opium and heroin goes to China, it is still readily available in the villages that grow it and heroin and opium addiction have become serious issues.
Finland Donates $3 Million to help Combat Opium Addiction and Production
Finland has made a donation of US $3.3 million that will be distributed by UNODC over three years to help farmers convert their opium fields to coffee plantations in an effort to reduce problems associated with opium cultivation including opium addiction.
UNODC has already spent around $6 million over the past six years for an Alternative Development programme aimed at helping some of Myanmar’s 200,000 opium farmers switch to harvesting other crops. The additional funding will help more farmers join the programme and buy items such as coffee seeds and fertilisers.
According to Troels Vester, country manager for the UNODC in Myanmar, “UNODC has been helping to set up a cooperative of 800 farmers so far. We hope that we can add another 1,000 farmers into this cooperative, and we need to connect them to coffee buyers in the world.”
However, it is not easy for farmers to leave a trade that is deemed quick and lucrative, despite opium addiction plaguing their villages.
Lashi La, coordinator of the Myanmar Opium Farmers Forum says that cooperation and discussion is needed between the actual farmers and UNODC to determine the most effective ways to phase out opium. Convincing opium poppy farmers to switch crops is difficult because of the many advantages of opium, such as it being easy to keep and such a high value that no other crops can compare.
The UNODC programme is still relatively small, and one of the challenges is that opium cultivation is high in areas where ethnic armed forces are in control. However, the ethic armed groups are also suffering from the opium cultivation due to drug abuse and opium addiction within their own armed forces.
According to Vester, “If one looks at an ambitious goal, is it possible to change all area of opium adoption into coffee in Myanmar? The answer is yes. We have calculated that more or less, the amount needed is US$150 million. Considering the amount of money that has gone into other countries around the world, switching from opium plantation into coffee, this amount is relatively small.”
The problem is certainly complex, but one thing is for sure that as long as opium cultivation continues at high rates, so will heroin and opium addiction. However, opium cultivation is also only one piece of the picture, addiction treatment options in the area are scarce and also necessary to create long-term changes. Without intervention, not only Myanmar, but neighbouring countries of Laos, Thailand, and China will continue to suffer from the societal harms addiction causes.