|Opium poppy field, Myanmar. Photo: UNODC|
Cultivation of opium poppy crops in the regions straddling the borders of Myanmar (Burma), Thailand and Laos, known as the 'Golden Triangle' rose again for the eighth consecutive year, nearly tripling the amount harvested in 2006, according to a new report released this week by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC).
The Southeast Asia Opium Survey 2014 – Myanmar and Lao PDR [People's Democratic Republic] found that opium poppy cultivation rose from 63,800 hectares (ha) in 2014 compared to 61,200 ha in 2013 - the money from the crop is essential for the local people.
Myanmar will remain Southeast Asia's top opium producer – and the world's second largest after Afghanistan, UNODC said - an despite the US spending over $7bn on counternarcotics efforts, poppy cultivation in Afghanistan hit an all-time high in 2013 due to corruption and a lack of security.
Together, Myanmar and Laos produced an estimated 762 metric tons of opium, most of which - using smuggled precursor chemicals like acetyl anhydride - was refined into an estimated 76 tons of heroin and then trafficked to markets in neighbouring countries and outside the region.
The survey also found that transnational crime groups are receiving profitable incentives due to the region's large demand for heroin. There is a two-way trade involving chemicals going in and heroin coming out of the so-called “Golden Triangle” – located where the borders of Myanmar, Laos and Thailand converge along the Mekong River – challenging the region's stability and the rule of law.
Not only are they bringing in the chemicals needed to make heroin, but are also are trafficking and distributing the drug to markets in China, Southeast Asia and other parts of the world.
North Myanmar's Shan State, home to a number of conflict areas and insurgent groups, remains the centre of Myanmar's opium and heroin activities, accounting for 89 per cent of opium poppy cultivation in the Golden Triangle. In Laos, the survey confirmed opium poppy cultivation in the three northern provinces of Phongsali, Xiangkhoang and Houaphan.
In his forward to the report, Yury Fedotov, UNODC executive director, urged a comprehensive approach to tackle the varied but linked aspects of the challenge, including dependence on poppy cultivation to offset poverty in some areas, the rise of heroin use in the region and its attendant negative health impacts, and the propensity of traffickers taking advantage of the region's well-intended connectivity.
Indeed, the economic surveys that were part of the report point out that for farmers in poppy-growing villages, the money generated from poppy crop cultivation is essential to prevent food insecurity and poverty, which illustrates the link between poverty, lack of alternative economic opportunities, and poppy cultivation.
The report also warned that the opium business and trade threatens regional integration. Development plans are underway to expand transport connections, and reduce trade barriers and border controls, including around opium producing areas. This carries the risk of providing organized crime networks opportunities to take advantage of the regional integration process.