Published November 11, 2010
The war on drugs should not be a war on farmers. Yet poppy farmers in the ‘Golden Triangle,’ or the mountainous regions of Myanmar, Lao People´s Democratic Republic, and Thailand who once supported their families through opium production, are still waiting for sustainable alternatives. Destroying poppy fields has hurt family incomes and lessened the ability to buy rice and other food items.
In 1998, reports a United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) report, about one-third of the world’s opium was produced in the Golden Triangle. As of 2007, poppy production had declined to 5%. Today, most opium is produced in the ‘Golden Crescent’, the area made up of Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Iran.
Kathleen Gillogly, assistant professor of anthropology at the University of Wisconsin-Parkside, and field worker with the Lisu tribe in Chiang Mai province of Thailand, says, “These people lived in an area that is environmentally unstable, with high mountains, thin soil, earthquakes and landslides so there is a limit as to how many food crops you can grow. But opium allowed people to make use of land that hadn´t been previously available. Because opium poppy is a weed it will grow anyplace, and because it already had a significant regional market it meant that people could plant opium and sell it, and buy food with the proceeds from opium.”
Eradicating opium production is a major goal for both local governments and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), who called for closer regional cooperation, stating that the drug trade threatens political stability and the economic well-being of the region, increases corruption, and imposes social and health costs. Each country has approached the task in its own way and achieved different results.
“In terms of opium poppy reduction you have a number of things to keep in mind if you want it to be sustainable and successful,” says Gary Lewis, UNODC Regional Representative for East Asia and the Pacific. “You must first of all engage with the community to provide them with alternatives.”
“In Thailand, the effort was preceded by extensive interaction with local communities that saw a significant reduction in poppy in the past 20-25 years. In the case of Myanmar there was a more significant emphasis on pure eradication. There was some support provided for the farming communities, but that was largely coming from the international community,” Lewis explains.
When considering Thailand´s success, it is tempting to suggest the Thai way as a model for Myanmar and Lao PDR. However, as Martin Jelsma, Drugs and Democracy Programme Coordinator for the Transnational Institute (TNI), told MediaGlobal, “It is difficult to relate it directly to specific alternative development options; it has to do with the economic development that Thailand as a whole went through: Thailand, even at its peak, always had a quite low level of production compared to Laos or Burma. Thai production was never very relevant for the region as a whole, it was mainly for the domestic market.”
When asked whether low levels of opium production in the Golden Triangle were sustainable, Lewis says, “We are seeing, a sustained increase in the last three years, and it is our job to find a way of turning that around. But if insecurity, financial need, and lack of a credible threat of law enforcement are all combined, people will go back to it. Plus the fact is that many people are food insecure, and they are starving.”
Many different crops have been suggested as an alternative to opium: coffee, cabbage, potatoes, strawberries, and commercial flowers. However, none of them fit into the local ecology or economy as well as opium did. These alternative crops require chemical fertilizers and transportation through roadless terrain, leaving farmers dependent on a market that is not as reliable as the opium market. Struggling to provide for their families, Gillogly said that the resulting economic downturn often forces young men into the heroin industry and girls into the sex industry.
Rubber is a cash crop with the potential of replacing opium in the region since it fetches US$400-US$500 per hectare at today´s prices, which is higher than opium, which only brought US$200 per hectare. However, the rubber tree is slow to mature, only producing rubber after seven years and needs a large amount of investment capital. Entire mountain ranges in northern Laos and Myanmar are now covered with rubber trees, causing some people to coin the phrase ‘Latex Triangle’ when referring to Laos, Burma, and Yunnan province of China. Farmers will have to wait out those seven years before they see the gains from rubber, accumulating debt all that time
Opium production has lessened dramatically in the region, but the former poppy farmers have still not been provided with sustainable alternatives. They were amongst the poorest people in the world as opium farmers and, today, they still face food insecurity.
A MediaGlobal Article