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Myanmar, Laos see large increase in opium cultivation, U.N. says

October 31, 2012 |  6:05 am

NEW DELHI -- Despite stepped-up eradication efforts by the government, the amount of land used to grow opium in Myanmar increased 17% during 2011, the sixth straight annual increase, according to a United Nations report released Wednesday.

Myanmar, also known as Burma, is the second-largest opium grower in the world after Afghanistan. In contrast with Afghanistan's production, which tends to be on larger plots and on a more industrial scale, growers in Myanmar tend to work smaller fields in remote border highlands areas.

Land devoted to opium production in neighboring Laos, meanwhile, grew 66%, albeit from a far smaller base, while in Thailand it declined by 4%, according to the report by the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime. The area where the three countries meet, called the Golden Triangle, has been a notorious region for drug production and smuggling for decades.

"The opium numbers continue to head in the wrong direction," Gary Lewis, the U.N. office's regional representative, said in a statement from Bangkok, Thailand. "Unless the farmers have a feasible and legitimate alternative to give them food security and reduce their debt, they will continue to plant poppy."

Most of the Myanmar's production is made into heroin, which finds its way into China, Thailand and India. Myanmar produces about 10% of the world's heroin, compared with nearly 90% for Afghanistan.

Myanmar's production is closely linked to long-standing conflicts between the government and ethnic minorities, including the Shan, who have the largest area under cultivation, and the Kachin, who are increasing their production the fastest. These groups often have used the proceeds from the opium trade to fund their resistance movements.

Although the Myanmar government has signed a series of cease-fire agreements in recent months, these haven't been in place long enough to convince people that they'll hold nor that it's necessarily in their interest to find alternatives to opium. For poor farmers, growing opium can earn about 19 times more than growing rice.

"We need some stability so we can present alternatives," said an official in Myanmar working on the drug issue. "Crop substitution is one of many approaches. But you can't just exchange poppy for corn."

Ideally, he added, an integrated approach must include food security and better education, healthcare, roads and irrigation.

From September to May, the Myanmar government embarked on a massive eradication project, cutting down about 58,000 acres of opium, according to its figures, a near four-fold increase over the prior year. But it wasn't enough to counter the production increases.

"Eradication doesn't work alone," said Pierre-Arnaud Chouvy, author of the book "Opium: Uncovering the Politics of the Poppy." "As long as you don't address the causes of illegal opium production, production will continue to go up and down. The solution is economic development."

An added problem in the region is production of methamphetamine, often made in jungle labs. A former methamphetamine user in Yangon said the drug is so widespread that dealers will provide door-to-door delivery. While heroin is quite cheap at around $1 per injection in Myanmar, he said, methamphetamine prices have risen to upward of $12 per hit.

A major driver of regional opium and methamphetamine production is strong demand from China, aided by porous borders with Myanmar and Laos. China accounts for over 70% of all heroin consumption in East Asia and the Pacific, the U.N. said.

"It's all very simple and at the same time very complex," said Chouvy, a researcher with France's National Center for Scientific Research. "It's easy to state the problem, but it's very difficult to implement solutions."

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-- Mark Magnier

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