Poppies in Myanmar

Poppies in Myanmar


In the village of Kyauk Ka Char, in the mountains of Shan Sta, local villagers meet UN representatives to discuss how to eradicate the poppy fields that make Myanmar the world's second-biggest supplier of opium, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC).

Myanmar produced an estimated 610 tonnes of opium in 2011 and the area under poppy cultivation has doubled in the past five years. Now, after half a century of military dictatorship, Myanmar says it wants to buck that trend.

. Kyauk Ka Char, Myanmar. Reuters/Damir Sagolj

Myanmar officials allowed a Reuters reporter and photographer to visit former conflict areas in remote Shan State to examine the campaign, marking the first time in decades that Western journalists were able to report freely in the region.

The Pa-O are devout Buddhists, known for growing poppies and building beautiful temples. At the village of Kyauk Ka Char, the first stop in the five-day tour of the state, the temple was the grandest structure in a community of simple wooden houses with rusting tin roofs.

Inside, three giant Buddha statues smiled down upon a group of villagers waiting to greet their rare visitors: Lewis and Eligh from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), and Police Colonel Myint Aung of Myanmar's Central Committee for Drug Abuse Control (CCDAC).

Lewis delivered a stark message. "The days of poppy are finished," he told the villagers, before asking what help they needed to grow only legal crops.

. Kyauk Ka Char, Myanmar. Reuters/Damir Sagolj

Moe Mohm, 48, a single mother of six daughters, had borrowed 300,000 kyat ($350) from a Taunggyi moneylender to buy fertiliser for her poppies, which were recently destroyed. "I just wanted to cry," she said.

With her cash crop gone, Moe Mohm couldn't repay the loan or even the interest on it - a crushing eight percent per month. She had no way to grow rice until the rains came, and no cash to buy it. "We know your need is great and more help is required," Lewis told her. "We will act on it."

. Kor Miang Pin, Myanmar. Reuters/Damir Sagolj

Most opium produced in Myanmar comes from Shan State, a rugged and lawless region bordering China, Thailand and Laos. It is part of the Golden Triangle, which is probably named after the gold once used to buy opium. Here, and in neighboring Kachin State, poppies thrive not just on cooler weather and higher altitudes, but on poverty and conflict.

Forging a lasting peace is arguably President Thein Sein's toughest challenge, and it is complicated by opium. As in Afghanistan and Colombia, the drug trade has long fueled conflict in Myanmar, providing cash to buy weapons and a lucrative product to fight over. Opium and conflict were so intertwined that one problem could not be solved without the other, said Jason Eligh, UNODC country manager for Myanmar.

"The path to peace is lined with poppies," he said. "We must address that."

. Tar-Pu, Myanmar. REUTERS/Damir Sagolj

Police, soldiers and villagers armed with sticks and weed-whackers have destroyed 21,256 hectares (52,525 acres) of poppy fields since September 2011, more than triple the area eradicated during the previous growing season, according to the CCDAC. This has potentially prevented almost 30 tonnes of heroin, opium's most notorious derivative, from hitting the world market, according to calculations based on UNODC statistics.

. Tar-Pu, Myanmar. Reuters/Damir Sagolj

But opium had been harvested from some poppies before they were destroyed, Reuters found. And while more poppy is being destroyed, more is also being grown: the total area under cultivation will likely rise by about 10 percent between 2011 and 2012, the UNODC estimated. This suggests that, with or without foreign assistance, Myanmar's three-year target is unrealistic.

. Ho Hwayt, Myanmar. REUTERS/Damir Sagolj

Chopping down opium poppies is the easy part. Helping former poppy-growing families develop alternative crops and livelihoods is complicated and costly.

About 256,000 households are involved in opium poppy cultivation, the UNODC estimates. The opium yield from an acre (a third of a hectare) of Myanmar poppy is worth about $1,000. That's a life-saving sum of money in Myanmar, where a third of its 60 million people live on a dollar a day.

. Kor Miang Pin, Myanmar. Reuters/Damir Sagolj

Poppy eradication removes not just a cash crop but, for many hill-tribes, a medicine. The villagers of Kaw Mong Pyin, an isolated village in Eastern Shan State populated by ethnic Akha, regard opium as a life-saving traditional remedy. "We've used it since our ancestors' time," said Asan, 43, a poppy-grower who was raising 10 children and 20 oxen.

When his cattle got sick, said Asan, he fed them a mixture of ginger, garlic, salt and opium. The villagers also baked opium with garlic to treat their own diarrhoea, a life-threatening illness in remote areas. Without opium, he said, the villagers would need basic medical help for their families - the nearest hospital was a five-hour walk away. "We only use a little," said Asan. "Too much makes you dizzy."

. Kyauk Ka Cha, Myanmar. Reuters/Damir Sagolj

The CCDAC is asking the international community for $524.48 million to develop alternative livelihoods for poppy-growing households. Getting it will be an uphill task. Thanks to sanctions, Myanmar receives less humanitarian aid per capita than almost any other poor country.

The UNODC has three projects aimed at current and former poppy-growers in Myanmar. Located in the Shan townships of Hopong and Loilen, the projects offered a range of assistance: developing alternative crops, improving the land with irrigation and fertilisers, providing microfinance to landless households, setting up cash-for-work programmes, vaccinating livestock, and building roads and clinics.

This is funded with $7 million from the European Union, Germany and Japan. It was "barely enough" to help 10,000 of the 256,000 households involved in opium poppy production, Eligh said.