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Poppy farmers seek comprehensive solution to illicit drug problem

NAW BETTY HAN The Myanmar Times Monday  29 OCT 2018

Security forces destroy a poppy field: Photo – Sai Linn Linn Oo

Myanmar poppy farmers are calling on the government to come up with a comprehensive solution to resolve the drug problem in the country and to put an end to poppy cultivation.

Myanmar is the second biggest opium poppy producer in the world after Afghanistan, despite efforts to fight the scourge by the government and international agencies such as the United Nations.

The Drug Policy Advocacy Group-Myanmar, a local anti-drug group, says about 300,000 families in Shan and Kachin states grow opium poppies.

Poppy farmers are predominantly ethnic Shan, Kachin, Kayan and Pa-O, the group said recently at the Sixth Myanmar Poppy Farmers Conference.

Among the issues raised at the conference was the right of Myanmar poppy farmers to be consulted in drafting the country’s drug policy. The organisers also want drug issues to be discussed separately from the national peace process.

According to a study by the group, poppy farmers are not rich and have no choice but to grow poppies because of their location and the weather.

Most poppy growers are small farmers living a hand-to-mouth existence like other farmers and struggle to meet their families’ needs for food, shelter and education.

“Nothing can be grown except poppies in these areas. It is the only way for us to earn a living,” said Kun Angelo, a poppy farmer in Pekon of Taunggyi township, Shan State.

Although government organisations target farmers to eradicate opium poppies, farmers have to pay a “tax” yearly to armed ethnic groups so they can grow the crop, according to Khun Angelo, who added that farmers also have to pay money to the police and the military.

Poppy farmer Khun Tun Tint, who lives in Shan’s Pa Saung village, Hopone township, said that treating farmers like criminals will not eradicate poppies.

He said the government should intensify efforts to give farmers alternatives to growing poppies. Late last year, some government officials met with poppy growers to encourage them to grow other crops but didn’t give them advice and adequate support.

“They asked us to grow beans, maize and coffee, but they couldn’t guarantee a market price. That is why we replied that we wouldn’t do it. We grow poppies because we are starving. We can sell poppies from our homes and earn money,” he said.

The group’s study noted that limited land and no market for other crops make it difficult for local farmers to grow anything but opium poppies.

Opium farmer Daw Khin Oo speaks to the media during the Myanmar Poppy Farmers Conference. Aung Htay Hlaing/The Myanmar Times

“Traders come to the farmer’s door to buy opium and ship it to China and Thailand. The value of less than half a hectare of poppies is equal to two hectares of maize or sesame,” the study said.

Sha Mwe La, spokesperson for the conference, said the opium poppy problem should be dealt with comprehensively with support from the government and other organisations.

“It cannot be easily stopped. Detailed studies must be done to find other crops that can provide an income close to what poppies can earn,” he said.

Sha Mwe La said Myanmar should follow the example of neighbouring countries in dealing with the problem.

He said Thailand started a long-term poppy eradication programme in 1969, managing the cultivation and slowly substituting them with other cash crops.

“Force wasn’t used, but production of poppies fell 78 percent from 145 tonnes to 33 tonnes in 1985. Later, Thailand’s poppy production became close to nil and the destruction of poppy fields is no longer necessary,” he said.

According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), Myanmar’s anti-narcotics effort destroyed 13,450 hectares of poppy fields in 2015 and 3433 hectares in 2017, but poppy cultivation has not decreased significantly and still thrives in Myanmar.

“As poppy cultivation regions are places where the government is hard-pressed to provide basic public services such as healthcare and education, residents of these regions have to rely on opium,” it said. “Opium is used in analgesic drugs, anti-dysentery drugs, anti-malarial and fever drugs. Moreover, it is used to tame elephants and other animals.”

Nan Yone, a poppy farmer who lives in Shan’s Hang Loi, Hsi Hsaing township, said opium is used in his village to treat illnesses because of a lack of basic medical services.

“Our region is in mountains that can reach 1400 metres high. There is no dispensary and hospital, and there is not enough medicine,” she said. “Opium latex is kept in the mouth for dysentery and pain. It relieves suffering. We want to know whether these needs will be fulfilled if opium poppies are not grown.”

She wants authorities to allow the limited use of opium among villagers in the area for medicinal purposes.

“If a little opium is found in the hands of someone, that person is arrested. Taunggyi prison is like a special prison for farmers,” Nan Yone said.

U Thein Nyunt, a poppy grower from Kayan, Yangon Region, said poppy farms are a source of money in conflict zones where there is no effective government.

He said poppy farmers pay “taxes” to armed groups, including the military.

“The armed organisations set the tax rate themselves. Our village has around 20.2 hectares of land, so we need to pay three armed groups K5 million (US$3154) each, for a total of K15 million,” he said.

“They also destroy the fields themselves. As no one takes responsibility for the losses, the farmers are losing twice,” said U Nyunt Thein.

To solve the problem, discussions need to be held by representatives of opium farmers, the group said.

“The government needs to draw up modern drug policies, and drug users and opium farmers should be included in the process,” it said. “Representatives should be invited to policy discussions, and people should be educated about the policies.”

“Instead of forced opium destruction, changes should be made so that both sides suffer less damage and more success,” said the group’s leader, Nan Pan Ei Khan.

From: The Myanmar Times (Myanmar) Monday  29 OCT 2018

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