Opium fight fuels food insecurity

By Nan Tin Htwe
Volume 32, No. 634
July 9 - 15, 2012

Policemen destroy a poppy field near the village of Tar-Pu, Shan State, on January 27.
Pic: Reuters/Damir Sagolj

POPPY eradication campaigns have left farmers in Shan State more vulnerable to food insecurity, a United Nations official said last week, as figures showed opium production increased in 2011.

Mr Jason Eligh, country manager of UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) in Myanmar, told The Myanmar Times that the destruction of poppy had made the lives of many farmers and their families more difficult because it had not been accompanied by crop substitution programs.

“These [farmers] are not hardened criminals, not [drug] syndicate members. These are the poor people. Poppy is another farm crop that they use and rely on so that they can have food for their family,” Mr Eligh said.

In UNODC’s World Drug Report 2012, released on June 26, Myanmar remained the second-largest poppy producer in the world after Afghanistan, with an production estimated at 610 tonnes from 43,600 hectares of fields, up from 580 tonnes and 38,100 hectares in 2010.

The government reported that 7058 hectares of fields had been destroyed in the same year, down slightly from 2010 when 8268 hectares were destroyed but otherwise the largest campaign since 2002.

Mr Eligh said increased conflict and reduced food security are the main reasons behind the steady increase in the scale of poppy cultivation since a low of 21,600 hectares in 2006. Other factors are also involved, however.

“[The] opium price is increasing as well [so] it becomes a lucrative alternative. Poppy has always been a solution for many of the household in the area for many years. It’s simple to grow [and] the market for opium comes to your door. So, for farmers who live up in the mountains, what better crop is there to produce where somebody comes to your door to pick up? You don’t even need to transport it. We are looking at the situation which is very complicated and a lot of socio-economic values that are affecting this,” he said.

Mr Eligh said Shan State is a priority for his agency and UNODC has four programs in the region, which it is implementing in close cooperation with the central government, state government, World Food Program, Pa-O National Organisation, Rehabilitation Council of Shan State (RCSS), Shan State Army-South (SSA), village development committees and village-tract leaders.

“It’s important that all these people are involved in program because only when that is the case you begin to make progress or [find a] solution. Our approach has always been working closely with locals,” Mr Eligh said.

“It’s not up to us to give the solution. It’s up to us to work together with local population to develop a solution together.”

But he conceded that the “massive” eradication campaign last year had done little to dissuade farmers from cultivating poppy.

“They see eradication is happening but with an absence of assistance; they don’t see any other help coming,” he said.

“I know that Shan State authorities and police have difficulties with this because of course they are concerned about the farmers and they want the best thing happen to them. They are only doing their jobs to eliminate the drugs.”

He said progress on building peace in Shan State represented an important step towards tackling opium production, with illicit drug production playing a central role in the conflicts that have wracked the region for decades.

“In order for a political solution to be achieved in Shan State, there also needs to be a solution achieved around the issue of poppy and drugs in Shan State. The two cannot be treated separately,” Mr Eligh said.

“It’s important we recognise the process that made the ceasefires is a significant step forward in responding to drug production in this country. The recent agreement signed between Shan groups and the government is a further step forward. It’s important now that we find ways to implement that agreement.”

Funding remains a major challenge: UNODC’s four programs are implemented with US$9 million from the German and Japanese governments but the Myanmar government has estimated it needs $500 million to eradicate opium cultivation.

While Myanmar has started to receive more aid from the international community, it is not earmarked for combating illicit drug production, Mr Eligh said.

“It’s targeted to other humanitarian matters in the country,” he said.

“But the [national] government can’t do this alone. The Shan State government can’t do this alone. The SSA, RCSS and Shan State government can’t do this alone. There needs to be strong partnership between the government, the UN and donors alongside the people of Shan State to try to [reach] a solution. It’s going to take time,” Mr Eligh said.

The government has a genuine desire to eliminate opium production, Mr Eligh said, because of its damaging impact on the country’s reputation

“The government has recognised that they don’t like the image that [drug production] portrays to the world. This is why U Thein Sein and others have made constructive efforts to try to step up the response to poppy cultivation and other illicit drugs,” Mr Eligh said.

“That is an inadequate way of trying to come up with reliable statistics. We do really need to get on the ground and verify data,” he said.

He also said that UNODC was concerned the conflict would create an environment where “rule of law is largely absent” and make it easier for illicit activities – not only drug production but also illegal logging and mining – to take place.

“I would like to see a resolution to the Kachin conflict. I know there is work being done on this. I hope [when a ceasefire is reached that] those things that are breeding poppy cultivation in that area can also be addressed as part of peace initiative.”