UN: Opium growth increasing in Myanmar, Laos

Opium cultivation is back on the rise in Burma and Laos despite government eradication campaigns, with impoverished farmers lured by higher prices and strong demand from neighbouring countries, a United Nations report said on Thursday.

Land used for growing opium, a paste from poppy used to make heroin, has increased by 14% in Burma from last year and 38% in Laos, according to satellite and helicopter surveys carried out jointly by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) and the Burma and Lao governments.

The two countries form part of Southeast Asia’s infamous Golden Triangle, which once accounted for more than 70% of the world’s supply of heroin.

Burma accounts for 91% of regional production and an estimated 9% of global output. Afghanistan supplies at least three-quarters of global production.

Poverty and food security were a big concern in all the areas of Burma surveyed, with an estimated 35% of people having insufficient food, providing little incentive for farmers to stop growing poppies.

Cultivation in Southeast Asia climbed 16% in 2011 and there was twice as much land growing opium as five years ago, the survey said.

“There needs to be recognition that the lack of security, political stability and sustainable development are some of the key drivers behind increased opium production,” Yuri Fedotov, UNODC executive director, said in the report.

Cultivation rose for a fifth consecutive year in Burma after six years of decline. The survey showed 43 600ha of land was used for opium, up 14% from 2010. Although average yields had fallen 8%, the larger area under cultivation resulted in an overall increase.

Drugs and conflict
The affected areas were Shan State, which accounts for 91 percent of total growth, and Kachin State, where cultivation was up 27% from 2010.

Kachin and Shan States bordering China have for decades been battlefields between ethnic rebels and the Burmese military, leaving the areas virtually lawless and deprived of state funds.

Critics have long doubted Burma’s commitment to wiping out the lucrative trade because some of the military generals who led the country until early this year enjoyed close ties with tycoons linked to the drug business.

However, Western countries are hoping the new civilian government that took office in March, which seems keen to improve Burma’s image and engage with the international community, might take a tougher line on opium.

The government has embarked on a series of reforms that have stunned its critics and is now seeking peace talks with rebel groups in Shan and Kachin. It has made cooperation to suppress drug production central to proposed ceasefire deals.

In Laos, large concentrations of growth were detected in two provinces previously identified as opium-free.

The total area under cultivation was still low compared with 10 years ago, but it represented a 38% increase from 2010, expanding 4 100 hectares, with a potential yield of 25 tonnes that was drawing more families into a business geared mostly towards serving local addicts, the UNODC said.

The government was not doing enough to tackle the problem, it said, with only 10% of 1 100 villages that had stopped growing opium receiving alternative development assistance.

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