Burma's Opium Production has hit record levels because Farmers have no Choice

U.N. says figures are up by 26% in 2013 — the seventh consecutive year of increase.
19 December 2013
In the media

Opium production in Southeast Asia has hit record levels, thanks in large part to increased poppy cultivation in Burma’s impoverished, war-torn north.

The reformist quasi-civilian government at the country’s helm has brought tentative peace by signing cease-fires with a majority of Burma’s ethnic rebel armies, and it appears that farmers and traffickers are cashing in, to some extent, on the new peace. But the main factors leading to an increase in poppy cultivation are poverty and an increase in regional demand for narcotics, primarily heroin and methamphetamines, both of which are produced inside Burma.

In May, officials pushed back a deadline set in 1999 of eliminating drug production within the country’s borders by 2014. The concession was part of what Eligh claims is a more realistic approach from the government as it begins to both recognize the systemic issues behind soaring opium and narcotics production, and acknowledge the failure of eradication campaigns that make for good PR but strip income from the country’s poorest. In March, the government sent its first high-level delegation to the U.N. Commission on Narcotic Drugs in Vienna, where officials admitted that eradication alone was not a solution for Burma.

A five-year plan for economic development in Burma’s drug-producing regions has now been drawn up. However, as Eligh says, “What they don’t have is enough money or technical expertise.”

Tom Kramer from Transnational Institute (TNI) says blanket development projects may even be pushing more farmers into the trade, because industrial projects lead to landgrabs, which in turn push farmers off their holdings and leave them no choice but to turn to poppy growing for subsistence. Much of the impetus for big developments comes from China, Burma’s neighbor and biggest investor.

“There’s an enormous amount of pressure from China on the Myanmar government to do all sorts of things, including eradication and law enforcement and also on the development side,” Kramer tells TIME. “From TNI’s perspective, the development model of China is not development. It’s business as usual.”

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