Myanmar farmers point at ‘positive effects’ of growing poppy – for them

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Cultivation of illegal opium in Myanmar. Photo: UNODC

In what can be seen as a quite one-sided approach, Myanmar’s opium farmers in a joint statement said that they don’t want to be criminalised any longer for growing poppy because it had “many positive values” for them – at least in terms of making a living.

The statement came from the Myanmar Opium Farmers’ Forum held in September 2015 in Pyin Oo Lwin, a hill town some 70 kilometers east of Mandalay in Shan state in central-eastern Myanmar. With the help of Netherlands-based social think tank Transnational Institute (TNI), the event brought together around 30 representatives of local communities involved in poppy cultivation in Myanmar’s major opium growing regions: Chin state, Kachin state, northern and southern Shan state and Kayah state. Other farming communities also took part in the forum.

TNI released the a report and a joint statement from the September 12 meeting on December 14.

The report stresses that farmers grow opium “to ensure food security for their families and to provide for basic needs, and to have access to health and education.” According to the report, “the large majority of opium farmers is not rich and grows it for their survival. Therefore, they should not be treated as criminals.”

The report also points out that opium had “many positive values.” According to one farmer, “there are few health facilities in our areas, and we use opium as a traditional medicine for diarrhea, coughing, as a painkiller and to keep us safe from poisonous insects. For some of us, we believe it protects us from evil and if offered to spirits it will bring good luck. We also use it to treat sick animals.”

“The main reason people grow opium is poverty. They should be involved in decision-making processes about drug policies and development programmes that are affecting their lives,” said Tom Kramer, the coordinator of TNI’s Drugs Democracy Programme in Myanmar.

The statement, though, also shows that the farmers realise that opium in their areas is causing “many problems related to drug use, especially heroin, in their families and society” and that they “feel threatened” by these problems.

“But until now there are very few services and programmes available to address these problems. We hope these programmes can be improved,” the farmers’ statement says.

Opium farmer in Shan state.

Observers note that TNI is right in the sense that the relation between opium growing and rural poverty is widely acknowledged, most of all by the United Nations, but the specific situation in Myanmar is much more complex than that.

Being the second-largest opium producer in the world behind Afghanistan is only possible for Myanmar due to a wide network of stakeholders in the opium business all of which benefit dearly. The poppy farmers, to make their livelihood, have to pay off local police, village administrators and members of the ethnic armed groups in their area.

The opium is picked up from the farmer by agents and handed over to drug traders who act with permission from the local authorities whereby some officials are thought to be involved themselves in opium trading.

The farmers insist they “know nothing” about where the opium went once it left the fields, saying that “they have nothing to do with them.”

This is apparently where they feel their responsibility ends.

Around 70 per cent of Myanmar’s opium ends up as heroin in large urban centers in China, where it has a street value of billions of dollars to where it gets smuggled by organised groups with connections to ethnic armies in Myanmar and Chinese border authorities. It is also widely available throughout Myanmar, namely as a recreational drug for mining workers, farmers and students, causing HIV epidemics as a result of joint needle use.

UNODC numbers show that there are about 300,000 heroin addicts in Myanmar, most of them in Kachin and Shan states. Addiction rates among young men are thought to approach 70 per cent in the worst affected communities. Heroin comes as cheap as 4,000 kyat (around $3) for a ration packed into a drinking straw. In some towns, such as Myitkyina, the capital city of Kachin State, in the periphery of school, in parks and on university campuses hundreds of used needles can be found on the ground. Heroin is sold openly on market stands surrounding the nearby jade mines, and groups of young people and labourers can be seen injecting the substance sitting at a street corner at dusk. This only works when authorities look the other way.

According to data gathered by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), land in Myanmar under poppy cultivation has more than doubled since a low in 2006 and has continued to grow after President Thein Sein’s quasi-civilian government took office in 2011 up to a level it eventually stabilised.

UNODC’s latest Southeast Asia Opium Survey, published on December 15, states that opium production in Myanmar remained at approximately the same volume for a third year. The country produced an estimated 647 tonnes of opium in 2015, again second only to Afghanistan. Total area under opium poppy cultivation stood at 55,500 hectares in 2015, the UNODC said.

myanmar-heroin-needles
Used needles in an opium field.

Economists argue that the problem is not poverty as such alone, but the absence of a rule of law which allows corruption to thrive and powerful people rule over peasants. Thus, many have hopes that the new government led by democracy fighter Aung San Suu Kyi could change that.

However, while she was repeatedly touching on the opium issue in her speeches, her party’s election manifesto makes no mention of how the new government would tackle Myanmar’s rampant drugs problem, or its mass export of narcotics to other countries, beyond a brief mention of the need to “educate young people on the dangers of addiction.”

And even under a new government, the military will retain formal control over the ministries of defense, border affairs and home affairs – all crucial to counter-narcotics efforts.

Another problem is that the price for raw opium is steadily rising, encouraging farmers and others in the heroin supply chain to grow and trade more of it. The UNODC noted that opium poppies are by far the most lucrative crop for farmers, with a single hectare able to generate $4,600 in income in Myanmar—about 13 times what a hectare of rice could.

With government interventions to replace opium with other relatively high-yielding crops such as coffee or grapes largely unsuccessful, some advocate the farmers demand to legalise poppy growing and convert it into a beneficial and legal business. But this is particularly complicated in Myanmar and especially in the lawless areas where opium is actually grown.

Heroin addicts in Shan state.

Although demand for legal opiates, for example opium-based painkillers is in high demand in the entire region as an alternative to expensive imported pharmaceuticals, despite the huge opium production in Myanmar many hospitals and clinics have difficulty securing access to morphine. Instead, doctors in hospitals advise relatives of patients in severe pain to better try to secure opium on the black market.

Cultivating opium for pharmaceutical purposes has been successful in Australia (in Tasmania, poppy growing has indeed been made legal), France, India, Spain and Turkey, among other nations. However, without a stable legal framework of legal opium production and international supervision, a decriminalisation of opium farming and trading remains a very big task for Myanmar and certainly can’t be fixed in a short time.

“We do recognise the existence of this problem but we’re too preoccupied with preparations for transfer of power and can’t find a chance to think of it seriously at the moment,” Win Htein, a senior leader of Suu Kyi’s party, said after the elections.

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Reading Time: 5 minutes

Cultivation of illegal opium in Myanmar. Photo: UNODC

In what can be seen as a quite one-sided approach, Myanmar’s opium farmers in a joint statement said that they don’t want to be criminalised any longer for growing poppy because it had “many positive values” for them – at least in terms of making a living.

Reading Time: 5 minutes

Cultivation of illegal opium in Myanmar. Photo: UNODC

In what can be seen as a quite one-sided approach, Myanmar’s opium farmers in a joint statement said that they don’t want to be criminalised any longer for growing poppy because it had “many positive values” for them – at least in terms of making a living.

The statement came from the Myanmar Opium Farmers’ Forum held in September 2015 in Pyin Oo Lwin, a hill town some 70 kilometers east of Mandalay in Shan state in central-eastern Myanmar. With the help of Netherlands-based social think tank Transnational Institute (TNI), the event brought together around 30 representatives of local communities involved in poppy cultivation in Myanmar’s major opium growing regions: Chin state, Kachin state, northern and southern Shan state and Kayah state. Other farming communities also took part in the forum.

TNI released the a report and a joint statement from the September 12 meeting on December 14.

The report stresses that farmers grow opium “to ensure food security for their families and to provide for basic needs, and to have access to health and education.” According to the report, “the large majority of opium farmers is not rich and grows it for their survival. Therefore, they should not be treated as criminals.”

The report also points out that opium had “many positive values.” According to one farmer, “there are few health facilities in our areas, and we use opium as a traditional medicine for diarrhea, coughing, as a painkiller and to keep us safe from poisonous insects. For some of us, we believe it protects us from evil and if offered to spirits it will bring good luck. We also use it to treat sick animals.”

“The main reason people grow opium is poverty. They should be involved in decision-making processes about drug policies and development programmes that are affecting their lives,” said Tom Kramer, the coordinator of TNI’s Drugs Democracy Programme in Myanmar.

The statement, though, also shows that the farmers realise that opium in their areas is causing “many problems related to drug use, especially heroin, in their families and society” and that they “feel threatened” by these problems.

“But until now there are very few services and programmes available to address these problems. We hope these programmes can be improved,” the farmers’ statement says.

Opium farmer in Shan state.

Observers note that TNI is right in the sense that the relation between opium growing and rural poverty is widely acknowledged, most of all by the United Nations, but the specific situation in Myanmar is much more complex than that.

Being the second-largest opium producer in the world behind Afghanistan is only possible for Myanmar due to a wide network of stakeholders in the opium business all of which benefit dearly. The poppy farmers, to make their livelihood, have to pay off local police, village administrators and members of the ethnic armed groups in their area.

The opium is picked up from the farmer by agents and handed over to drug traders who act with permission from the local authorities whereby some officials are thought to be involved themselves in opium trading.

The farmers insist they “know nothing” about where the opium went once it left the fields, saying that “they have nothing to do with them.”

This is apparently where they feel their responsibility ends.

Around 70 per cent of Myanmar’s opium ends up as heroin in large urban centers in China, where it has a street value of billions of dollars to where it gets smuggled by organised groups with connections to ethnic armies in Myanmar and Chinese border authorities. It is also widely available throughout Myanmar, namely as a recreational drug for mining workers, farmers and students, causing HIV epidemics as a result of joint needle use.

UNODC numbers show that there are about 300,000 heroin addicts in Myanmar, most of them in Kachin and Shan states. Addiction rates among young men are thought to approach 70 per cent in the worst affected communities. Heroin comes as cheap as 4,000 kyat (around $3) for a ration packed into a drinking straw. In some towns, such as Myitkyina, the capital city of Kachin State, in the periphery of school, in parks and on university campuses hundreds of used needles can be found on the ground. Heroin is sold openly on market stands surrounding the nearby jade mines, and groups of young people and labourers can be seen injecting the substance sitting at a street corner at dusk. This only works when authorities look the other way.

According to data gathered by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), land in Myanmar under poppy cultivation has more than doubled since a low in 2006 and has continued to grow after President Thein Sein’s quasi-civilian government took office in 2011 up to a level it eventually stabilised.

UNODC’s latest Southeast Asia Opium Survey, published on December 15, states that opium production in Myanmar remained at approximately the same volume for a third year. The country produced an estimated 647 tonnes of opium in 2015, again second only to Afghanistan. Total area under opium poppy cultivation stood at 55,500 hectares in 2015, the UNODC said.

myanmar-heroin-needles
Used needles in an opium field.

Economists argue that the problem is not poverty as such alone, but the absence of a rule of law which allows corruption to thrive and powerful people rule over peasants. Thus, many have hopes that the new government led by democracy fighter Aung San Suu Kyi could change that.

However, while she was repeatedly touching on the opium issue in her speeches, her party’s election manifesto makes no mention of how the new government would tackle Myanmar’s rampant drugs problem, or its mass export of narcotics to other countries, beyond a brief mention of the need to “educate young people on the dangers of addiction.”

And even under a new government, the military will retain formal control over the ministries of defense, border affairs and home affairs – all crucial to counter-narcotics efforts.

Another problem is that the price for raw opium is steadily rising, encouraging farmers and others in the heroin supply chain to grow and trade more of it. The UNODC noted that opium poppies are by far the most lucrative crop for farmers, with a single hectare able to generate $4,600 in income in Myanmar—about 13 times what a hectare of rice could.

With government interventions to replace opium with other relatively high-yielding crops such as coffee or grapes largely unsuccessful, some advocate the farmers demand to legalise poppy growing and convert it into a beneficial and legal business. But this is particularly complicated in Myanmar and especially in the lawless areas where opium is actually grown.

Heroin addicts in Shan state.

Although demand for legal opiates, for example opium-based painkillers is in high demand in the entire region as an alternative to expensive imported pharmaceuticals, despite the huge opium production in Myanmar many hospitals and clinics have difficulty securing access to morphine. Instead, doctors in hospitals advise relatives of patients in severe pain to better try to secure opium on the black market.

Cultivating opium for pharmaceutical purposes has been successful in Australia (in Tasmania, poppy growing has indeed been made legal), France, India, Spain and Turkey, among other nations. However, without a stable legal framework of legal opium production and international supervision, a decriminalisation of opium farming and trading remains a very big task for Myanmar and certainly can’t be fixed in a short time.

“We do recognise the existence of this problem but we’re too preoccupied with preparations for transfer of power and can’t find a chance to think of it seriously at the moment,” Win Htein, a senior leader of Suu Kyi’s party, said after the elections.

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