Opium Production Continues To Rise in South-East Asia

The UNODC’s South-East Asia Opium Survey 2012, released today, has reported that the rise in poppy cultivation in the golden triangle around the borders of Lao, Thailand and Myanmar, has continued.  The area managed a consistent reduction in opium production from 1998 to 2006, with Myanmar, the biggest producer, targeting the compete eradication of opium cultivation by 2014. Since 2006, though, there has been a constant rise, and more than twice as many hectares are now being used to grow opium; the vast majority in Myanmar.

This does not reflect a lack of action by the governments involved; opium poppy eradication in the region increased by 211% last year. Instead the UNODC attributes the rise to increased demand and to poor conditions for farmers. East Asia and the Pacific accounts for around a quarter of the world’s opiate users, with 70% of them in China. The number of registered heroin users in China rose from 0.9 million in 2002 to 1.1 million in 2010. This increase in demand pushes up the price of opium, making it more attractive to grow.

The UNODC reports that opium is grown predominantly by families who have access to small amounts of poor quality land. Those who have access to plenty of well-irrigated land can devote more space to food production, but when the yield from opium is 19 times that of rice, it is not surprising that those under pressure will turn to it. The areas that have seen the sharpest increase in opium cultivation, such as Myanmar’s war-torn Shan state, are those most affected by poverty and political instability.

In light of this, the region’s eradication strategy, which is clearly failing, must be examined. Eradication, or the forced destruction of poppy crops before harvest, does stop that harvest from reaching the market. However, it also has unintended negative consequences on drug control strategies. Eradication increases instability, poverty and opium prices; in turn encouraging more opium cultivation. The UNODC’s Jason Eligh stated that “eradication alone cannot be the principle response”. A political settlement in Myanmar is vital. Gary Lewis, also from the UNODC, said that “the emergence of peace and security is an essential ingredient in tackling the poppy problem”. Further to this, rural poverty and land issues must be addressed to help farmers toward sustainable alternatives.