Opium Bans Will Cause Human Misery in Afghanistan and Burma

17 November 2005


Opium Bans Will Cause Human Misery in Afghanistan and Burma
TNI/BCN (Burma Centre Netherlands) Press Release, 25 June 2005


"These opium bans may sound promising to anti-narcotics officials, but for opium farmers it spells disaster" - Martin Jelsma of the Transnational Institute

On the occasion of the International Day against Drug Abuse and Illicit Drug Trafficking on 26 June 2005, the United Wa State Army (UWSA), one of the rebel groups in Burma, has declared opium free the areas under their control in northern Burma. In Afghanistan, the opium ban issued by President Hamid Karzai in 2002 will be enforced more rigorously. These bans are in response to pressure from the international community.

Banning opium has an immediate and profound impact on the livelihoods of 4.3 million people. Many more are indirectly dependent on income generated on the illicit market. The consequence will be a downward spiral of poverty in the opium growing regions of both countries.

"We will comply with international pressure, but please give us a chance for survival" - Ngo Shui of the United Wa State Army

In Nangarhar province in Afghanistan early signs indicate one of the responses being migration from former poppy areas to the provincial capital or into Pakistan. Experiences from the Taliban opium ban back in 2001 showed similar patterns. Other responses include selling off daughters, households, livestock and land, withdrawal of children from school, and abandonment of health services.

In the case of the Kokang region in Burma, where a ban was implemented in 2003, more than a quarter of the population left the region. Over half the population in Kokang now only have food security for six months. In some cases people are trying to survive by eating tree bark. In the Shan State, an estimated 350,000 households - about two million people - stand to lose their primary source of income, comprising 70 percent of their cash income.

"People will need other sources of income as soon as possible, or we'll be the witness to a big disaster" - Gen. Muhammad Daoud, Afghan Deputy Minister of Interior for Counter-Narcotics

Afghan and Burmese authorities alike are urging the international community to accompany their pressure to eradicate opium with substantial aid. International aid to provide alternative livelihoods for opium farmers in both countries, however, risks being too lax, too little and too late.

Despite pledges for substantial financial aid for rural development in poppy growing regions in Afghanistan, the precarious reconstruction being undertaken is likely to be undermined by an ill-conceived war unleashed against the weakest links in the opium economy, the farmers and small opium traders. The dangers of an enforced fast eradication will pull the opium carpet out from underneath the reconstruction process.

"There is a moral, political and economic case for having alternative livelihoods programs in place before commencing eradication" - World Bank

In neither Afghanistan nor Burma have farmers had any say at all in these policies from which they stand to suffer most. It is vital that local communities and organisations that represent them are given a voice in the decision-making process that has such a tremendous impact on their livelihoods. At the UN General Assembly Special Session (UNGASS) in 1998, the international community agreed to involve local communities, but this principle seems to have been forgotten in the deadline-driven efforts to cut supply to consumer countries.

"The reversed sequencing of first forcing farmers out of poppy cultivation before ensuring other income opportunities is a grave mistake", warns Martin Jelsma of the Transnational Institute (TNI). "Aggressive drug control efforts against farmers and small-scale opium traders, and forced eradication operations in particular, will have a negative impact on prospects for peace and democracy in both countries". According to the World Bank, "there is a moral, political and economic case for having alternative livelihoods programs in place before commencing eradication". If they are not even accompanied by significant aid, any reductions will simply not be sustainable.

"Today, many Afghans believe that it is not drugs, but an ill-conceived war on drugs that threatens their economy and nascent democracy" - Ashraf Ghani, former Finance Minister

The only viable and humane approach to reducing opium production is to ease the deadlines, while establishing the basis for alternative livelihoods for opium farmers. This requires more international assistance for a sustainable community-based development focused on capacity building, empowerment and strengthening civil society. It is only such an approach, which will enable opium farmers to participate in decision-making processes about their future.

For more information contact:
Martin Jelsma
Office: + 31 (0)20-6626608
Mobile: + 31 (0)6 55715893
E-mail: mjelsma@tni.org

The Transnational Institute (TNI) and the Burma Centre Netherlands (BCN) published two studies on drugs and conflict issues and the adverse effects of the opium bans in Afghanistan and Burma.

Downward Spiral. Banning Opium in Afghanistan and Burma TNI Drugs & Conflict Debate Paper, June 2005.

The briefing is available online in PDF.

Trouble In The Triangle: Opium And Conflict In Burma, Silkworm Books, Chiang Mai, June 2005.

Contact: Silkworm Books (Chiang Mai, Thailand)
E-mail: ilkworm@silkwormbooks.info
Website: www.silkwormbooks.info

The introduction and table of contents are available at: www.tni.org/books/trouble.htm.