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December 15, 2011 1:22 pm
Opium production in Burma and Laos, once part of south-east Asia’s infamous “golden triangle” region, has jumped in the past year, driven by the poverty of local farmers, record high prices and the absence of alternative forms of development, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime.
In its annual survey published on Thursday, the UNODC said land used for cultivation of opium poppies in Burma – the world’s second-largest producer after Afghanistan – leaped 14 per cent this year from 2010 to 43,600 hectares. The study was conducted using satellite and aerial images.
Burma’s overall opium production increased by 5 per cent, despite a decline of 8 per cent in the national opium yield to 14kg/ha, way below Afghanistan’s yield of 44.5kg/ha in 2011.
The findings will put a spotlight on Burma at a time when it is trying to gain credit for a programme of accelerated political and economic reforms launched by President Thein Sein. Among the government’s stated aims is to have a “drug-free” Burma by 2014.
However, the goal “looks increasingly difficult to attain” and should be recalibrated while maintaining the focus on opium eradication, said Gary Lewis, regional head of UNODC in East Asia and the Pacific.
Among various initiatives, the Thein Sein government has been trying to end decades of conflict in the ethnic-controlled states and prime opium-producing regions of Shan and Kachin, bordering China in Burma’s north-east. Shan accounts for 91 per cent of all Burmese opium production, according to the report.
Large areas in the north-east region are controlled by armed groups and insurgents who rely on cash income from opium, the report noted.
Prices being offered to opium producers in Burma rose 48 per cent in 2011 to $450/kg – far below the $1,640/kg offered in Laos but a sharp rise from 2010.
Poverty and food insecurity have also driven a resurgence in Burma’s opium production after six years of decline up to 2006, said Jason Eligh, UNODC's Burma representative, noting: “While a person can earn the equivalent of $2 a day to work in a rice paddy field there, you can earn $10 a day to work in a poppy field”.
The ceasefire process is critical to tackling Burma’s opium production, added the UNODC's Mr Lewis. “We hope these agreements mean the UN will be invited into these areas” in order to provide alternative development assistance.
In Laos, production increased by 38 per cent this year to 4,100 ha. Including Thailand, where opium production has steadily dwindled since the late 1990s, total land for opium cultivation in Southeast Asia in 2011 reached 47,916 ha – double the level in 2006.
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