No Blowing Smoke: Poppies Fade in Southeast Asia

16 September 2007
In the media
Published at
The New York Times
Quotes Martin Jelsma
THE enduring image of Southeast Asia’s Golden Triangle is of brightly colored poppy fields, opium-smoking hill tribes and heroin labs hidden in the jungle. But the reality is that after years of producing the lion’s share of the world’s opium, the Golden Triangle is now only a bit player in the global heroin trade. “The mystique may remain, and the geography will be celebrated in the future by novelists,” said Antonio Maria Costa, executive director of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. “But from our vantage point, we see a region that is rapidly moving toward an opium-free status.” The decline of the Golden Triangle is a major, if little noticed, milestone in the war on drugs. The question now is whether that success can be sustained. Three decades ago, the northernmost reaches of Laos, Thailand and Myanmar produced more than 70 percent of all the opium sold worldwide, most of which was refined into heroin. Today the area produces about 5 percent of the world total, says Mr. Costa’s agency. What happened? Economic pressure from China, crackdowns on opium farmers , and a switch by criminal syndicates to methamphetamine production, appear to have had the biggest impact. At the same time, some insurgent groups that once were financed with drug money now say they are urging farmers to eradicate their poppy fields. As a result, the Golden Triangle has been eclipsed by the Golden Crescent — the poppy-growing area in and around Afghanistan that is now the source of an estimated 92 percent of the world’s opium, according to the United Nations. Much of the growth in opium production there is in areas controlled by the Taliban, which United States officials say uses revenue from opium and heroin to finance itself. This shift to Afghanistan has had major consequences for the global heroin market: a near doubling of opium production worldwide in less than two decades. Poppies grown in the fertile valleys of southern Afghanistan yield on average four times more opium than those grown in upland Southeast Asia. A striking aspect of the decline of the Golden Triangle is the role China has played in pressing opium-growing regions to eradicate poppy crops. A major market for Golden Triangle heroin, China has seen a spike in addicts and H.I.V. infections from contaminated needles. The area of Myanmar along the Chinese border, which once produced about 30 percent of the country’s opium, was declared opium-free last year by the United Nations. Local authorities, who are from the Wa tribe and are autonomous from Myanmar’s central government, have banned poppy cultivation and welcomed Chinese investment in rubber, sugar cane and tea plantations, casinos and other businesses. “China has had an underestimated role,” said Martin Jelsma, a Dutch researcher who has written extensively on the illicit drug trade in Asia. “Their main leverage is economic: These border areas of Burma are by now economically much more connected to China than the rest of Burma,” he said, using the former name for Myanmar. “For local authorities it’s quite clear that, for any investments they want to attract, cooperation with China is a necessity.” Myanmar remains the world’s second-leading source of opium but is a distant second; its production declined by 80 percent over the last decade. Insurgents have long used opium to help finance civil wars in the Golden Triangle. But some are now working to destroy the crop. At least one faction of the Shan State Army, a group that long had ties to the heroin business, says it is leading eradication efforts. Kon Jern, a military commander for the group, which is based along Myanmar’s border with northern Thailand, says he is cracking down because government militias and corrupt officials profit from opium. “They sell the drugs, they buy weapons, and they use those weapons to attack us,” he said. The United Nations credits Myanmar’s central government with leading the eradication effort in Shan areas. In Laos, where the political situation is more stable, the government began a crackdown in the 1990s to increase its international credibility and because officials realized their own children were at risk, said Leik Boonwaat, the representative in Laos for the U.N.’s Office on Drugs and Crime. Laos finally outlawed opium in 1996. The government, Mr. Boonwaat said, also saw that opium did little to help poor farmers who grew poppies. “It’s mostly the organized crime syndicates that made most of the profits,” he said. The amount of land cultivated in Laos for opium has fallen 94 percent since 1998. The country now produces so little opium that it may now be a net importer of the drug, the United Nations says. Yet experts warn that the reductions may not hold unless farmers develop other ways to make a living. Pierre-Arnaud Chouvy, an opium specialist at the National Center for Scientific Research in Paris, says it took Thailand 30 years to wean opium farmers from poppy production, a transition led by the Thai royal family, which encouraged opium-growing hill tribes to use their cooler climate to produce coffee, macadamia nuts and green vegetables. But, he said, “In Laos and Burma, we’ve had a very quick decrease.” He asked, “Is it going to last?” Four years ago farmers in Banna Sala, an isolated Laotian hamlet of several hundred ethnic Hmong, grew opium poppies with impunity. No longer. And some farmers are angry. “They stopped me from growing opium, so I don’t have money to send my children to school,” said one villager, Jeryeh Singya, 34, who has seven children. She once bartered the opium she grew for soap, salt and clothing. “If they let me grow it I would,” she said. Mr. Kon, the rebel commander in Myanmar, says farmers are finding it difficult to switch crops. “If they change and grow other kinds of plants nobody comes to buy their products — the transportation is not good,” he said. Experts say that to stay free of opium, isolated villages that depended on it will need assistance and investment for better roads, schools and clinics. But Myanmar, which is run by a military junta, poses a dilemma for Western countries. The United States has an embargo on trade with Myanmar. The European Union has suspended trade privileges and defense cooperation, limiting its aid to humanitarian assistance. “This policy of boycott and isolation has, of course, meant that only very little development aid and humanitarian assistance is flowing into the country,” said Mr. Jelsma, the Dutch expert on drugs. “That makes the chances of the sustainability of this decline very questionable.” © The New York Times