Burma's Opium Cultivation Nearly Triples in 8 Years: UNODC

Myanmar Opium poppy

Opium poppy cultivation in Southeast Asia’s "Golden Triangle" has surged in recent years, a new UN report reveals, and shows little sign of abating.

The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime's (UNODC) Southeast Asia Opium Survey 2014, released December 8, revealed that poppy cultivation in the so-called "Golden Triangle" had increased 3.4 percent since 2013, rising to 63,800 hectares between Myanmar and Lao (N.B. figures from Thailand, the third country in the "Triangle," are still pending for 2014 so are not included in the 2013 overall hectarage used in this calculation).

In Myanmar -- the world's second largest opium producer behind Afghanistan and which accounts for 90 percent of the Golden Triangle's opium poppies -- cultivation has increased 166 percent in the eight years since 2006, though dropped off very slightly from 2013-14 (see graph, below). The more or less stable trend of the area under cultivation in the past 12 months, combined with the drop in the yield per hectare resulted in a 23 percent drop in opium production in 2014.

In Laos, the total area under cultivation in 2014 was estimated to be 6,200 hectares, a rise of 2,300 hectares. However, 2014 data is not directly comparable with the much lower 2013 estimate, partly because the survey area has been extended in the last year, according to the UNODC. 

In 2014, opium production in Laos and Myanmar accounted for 762 tons, an overall decline on the previous year, but more than double the quantity produced a decade earlier.

While the caveat on Laos' statistics is a significant one in potentially explaining the uptick in regional cultivation, the overall trend witnessed in recent years is indicative of a seemingly redundant approach to combating the trade. For example, though Myanmar increased the area eradicated by 24 percent in 2014, this only resulted in a 0.3 percent fall in total area. This hardly bodes well for the ambitions of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) which wants a Drug-Free ASEAN by 2015.

According to the UNODC report, in the surveyed areas there is a consistent relationship between poverty, a lack of alternative income and the decision to cultivate poppy. Farmers in isolated areas have limited options to earn a livelihood given the difficulties involved in the cultivation of crops other than the opium poppy. In rural areas opium is used as a cash crop for financial shortfalls, providing basic necessities such as food, education and housing. In this sense, the report highlighted the need to find a balanced approach addressing opium production through alternative livelihood initiatives.

In addition to the lack of income alternatives contributing to increased cultivation, rising regional demand is another key factor. According to the 2014 Annual Report on Drug Control in China (ARDCC), the number of heroin users in China increased by approximately 500,000 between 2007 and 2013 to 1.3 million, while Laos, Thailand and Singapore all registered a rise in use this year, the UNODC note. The opiates and heroin markets in Southeast Asia are now valued at over $16.3 billion, states the 2014 ARDCC.

UNODC regional representative Jeremy Douglas told Al Jazeera, "[Myanmar and Laos] have to do better to stem the two-way flow of drugs in and out of their countries," citing border corruption as a major concern. Given the success of interdiction and eradication-led efforts throughout history, though, it would seem that trying to reinforce these will only lead to displacing the trade and have little impact on use and production overall.

The news from Southeast Asia comes on the back of a separate UNODC report last month which showed that both opium poppy cultivation and average yield per hectare in Afghanistan had increased by 7 percent and 9 percent respectively in the past year.