Alternative Crop Programs For Myanmar Opium Farmers: Doomed to Fail?

In the coming years, Myanmar will legally sell coffee to China instead of illicitly selling opium; at least that is how the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) is planning (again) to tackle rising poppy cultivation in the country.

A recent New York Times report into Myanmar's rising opium poppy cultivation highlighted how the UNODC is trying to promote an alternative development program that would allow poor farmers in southern Shan State where the majority is grown to abandon their poppy fields and replace them with an expensive, high-grade variety of coffee. 

The story of opium production in Myanmar has been one of intense fluctuations in recent decades. In the 1980s, Myanmar was the world’s largest grower of the opium poppy. However, at the beginning of the 1990s, Afghanistan took its place as leading opium producer -- thanks to Afghan opium yield per hectare being higher -- and then eventually outstripped Myanmar in terms of total area under cultivation in 2002.

Talks of putting in place an alternative development plan in the country are not new. In 1999, the Burmese government developed a 15-year plan to eradicate illicit opium production, envisioning that by 2014, opium poppies would have been replaced by a licit crop. The plan saw collaboration with the UNODC, the World Food Program (WFP), the Pa-O National Organization, the Rehabilitation Council of Shan State (RCSS) and the Shan State Army-South (SSA).

Ultimately, the initiative failed, instead seeing the complete opposite take place; after years of decline, opium poppy cultivation began to surge again in 2007 and the dream of a poppy-free nation by 2014 drifted away. By the last estimate, poppy cultivation had tripled in eight years standing at  57,600 hectares in 2014. 

There is now to be a renewed emphasis, though. Hans Jochen Wiese, a UNODC technical advisor with more than 30 years of experience in alternative development programs in Peru for coca farmers, is leading on the project to divert poppy growers onto coffee and believes he can turn the project into a success. Speaking in 2013, Wiese held out high hopes, stating that he believes farmers in Myanmar have an advantage over their Peruvian counterparts, both politically and geographically. 

Though they may have an advantage, this does not mean the situation of Burmese farmers and their involvement in the opium trade is a straightforward challenge. According to a UNODC estimate, one hectare of land can yield 15 kilograms of opium, with each kilogram having the potential to be sold for anywhere between $300 and $500. Myanmar is a Least Developed Country (LDC), and 80 percent of its people are subsistence farmers who live on $2 or less per day.

As Tom Kramer, a researcher with the Transnational Institute, told the New York Times, “For many people in this country opium is not a problem, it’s the solution.”

Mr. Wiese, therefore, could well have a difficult time in convincing local farmers that opium is the problem and not the solution, since farming opium gives them food on their tables, medicines if they are ill, and allows their children to go to school.

In an early 2014 interview, Jason Eligh, Country Manager for the UNODC office in Myanmar, explained the situation in southern Shan State and the difficulties for farmers when dealing with alternative crops:

“The roads are terrible, [Shan State] suffered under conflict for up to 50 years, there are few markets available, and the farmers really don’t have any access to anything else but what exists around them. Add the fact that access to land itself is extraordinary complicated in this area.”

Despite the situation, Mr. Eligh is positive about the future of the UNODC project in Burma. A similar program saw success in neighboring Thailand during the 1990s and for Mr. Eligh it is simply a matter of time: “We are not talking about a solution that is going to come in one or two years, it will be realistic to look at a timeframe of 10 years or 15 years.”

Others are far more skeptical. As noted by the New York Times, “experts warn that without curbing the demand for heroin and creating peace in the area, the war on drugs will continue.”

Skepticism among poor poppy farmers in Shan State would also be understandable in light of the failure of previous attempts to overturn their only livelihoods and give them another option.

Maybe the first time it did not work well because cheroot, buckwheat, rice, avocado and sugar cane weren't the right crops to go with. Who knows? Maybe coffee will be the right choice. China’s coffee consumption has been steadily increasing in recent years after all ... just as heroin demand has been.