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Myanmar opium cultivation drops, farmers not happy

Ei Ei Toe Lwin The Myanmar Times Tue, Feb 4, 2020

An opium plantation seen in Shan State. Photo: The Myanmar Times

Opium poppy cultivation in Myanmar declined by 11 percent in 2019 to 33,100 hectares, according to a survey released by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) on Tuesday.

The Myanmar Opium Survey noted the decline of cultivation in all areas except in Kachin State, where cultivation increased slightly.

In Shan State, the total area cultivating poppy dropped by 14pc to 28,000 hectares down from 50,300 hectares in 2015. Shan account for 85 percent of poppy cultivation in Myanmar.

In Kachin State, the total area cultivating poppy is 3900 hectares. It accounts for 12pc of the total cultivation in the country. Chin and Kayah states have combined poppy cultivation of 1200 hectares, accounting for 3pc.

“The drop in cultivation was again significant last year,” said Jeremy Douglas, UNODC regional representative. “We will continue to work with Myanmar and communities in Shan to assist the transition from opium to sustainable economic alternatives. We are also discussing options to help Kachin given the situation and needs there.”

The report also highlighted the decline of the average farm-gate price of poppy by as much as 7pc between 2018 and 2019. It noted that over the last four years the farm-gate price dropped by as much as 63pc.

The UNODC said the decline in values combined with the reduction in supply suggests that demand for heroin in the region is dropping, and that the drug market continues to shift strongly to synthetic drugs.

At the same time, lower farm-gate prices make opium cultivation less attractive and viable, contributing to declining cultivation, it added.

Myanmar opium farmers said opium prices have been decreasing since 2012. The farm gate opium prices per viss (1.6kg) in 2018-2019 range from K350,000 (US$239) to Kyat 800,000 depending on the location and demand.

“We think there are several reasons for the decreasing opium prices. Fewer traders are coming to our villages because of stricter control by the government and some armed groups. The intention of these armed groups is to monopolise the market, and they only allow those traders linked to them to have access to opium,” the opium farmers said in the statement in May last year.

Another reason is that drug traders are more interested in the more profitable amphetamine type stimulants (ATS) trade. There is a growing local demand for ATS and traders can increase production and sales, the statement added.

”The traders are also changing to investing in land and real estate rather than in opium, because this is now more profitable than the opium business,” the opium farmers said.

Despite the decline in production and demand, organised crime groups still generate substantial revenue from the trade, the UNODC said.

Domestic heroin consumption in the country is estimated to be about six tonnes annually with a market value of $290 million, while the export of locally produced heroin generates approximately $1 billion.

The global anti-crime organisation also noted that opium cultivation and heroin production in Myanmar continue to pose a significant public health and security challenge for Southeast Asia and neighbouring East Asia and Australia.

“An estimated 3 million heroin users remain in the region, with the retail market generating approximately $10 billion annually,” it said.

Douglas said crime groups are taking advantage of the conflicts in border areas to carry out their operations.

” Major international organised crime groups are using conflict areas in the north to source heroin and produce and traffic synthetic drugs,” he said. “They have the access to territory and relationships they need to do business.”

The influence of opium poppy cultivation is being mitigated in some areas through alternative development programmes that provide viable sources of legitimate income, the UNODC said.

Myanmar Home Affairs Minister Lieutenant General Kyaw Swe said the government needs to do more in curbing opium cultivation.

“The government is pleased to see further declines, but we need to provide more support to opium producing areas if we are going to continue to make progress and ensure sustainability,” he said.

He reaffirmed the government’s commitment to expand collaboration with Mekong countries and UNODC to address organised crime and the production and cross-border trafficking of drugs and precursor chemicals.

But thousands of opium farmers complained the anti-drug campaign has left them with no alternative livelihood, causing hardships for their families.

In a forum in Shan State in May last year, the opium farmers urged the government to provide them with alternative livelihood and bring development to their villages so they can stop cultivating opium poppy.

The opium farmers revealed in the forum that government anti-drug teams go to their villages during the planting season every year and they have to negotiate with them not to destroy their fields.

”If this is not possible, we ask them only to destroy part of it. Then we agree on a price we have to pay to them in exchange for this,” the farmers said.

Opium farmers said some existing development projects in their areas are problematic, such as the UNODC coffee cultivation programme to replace opium poppy cultivation.

”Those who receive support from the UNODC still cannot get sufficient income from the coffee to survive, so many are still growing opium,” the farmers said in a statement. “The coffee we have to sell at a lower price because the UNODC insists that farmers sell to the company that pays less than the market price.”

But Douglas belied the accusation that the farmers were forced to sell coffee lower than the market price.

”This is not accurate and based on past statements by some that are unfamiliar or have unfortunate agendas,” he said.

He explained that the farmers’ cooperative Green Gold signed a five-year agreement with a company and UNODC is not involved in the contract.

Douglas added the five year agreement is very good for the farmers because the price is guaranteed even if the coffee price drops, and with the high value coffee the farmers are growing they should do well.

”Notably another coffee buying company that did try to take some Green Gold farmers to sell to them has stopped. It is unclear why. The Green Gold farmers are doing well,” he said.

The opium farmers also asked the government to give them more time to shift to alternative crops.

”Alternative crops often take several years to become profitable so insisting on farmers to stop growing opium immediately is unfair,” the farmers said.

They ask the government and other entities to stop the eradication of our opium fields and first provide development support and sustainable livelihoods.

Nan Htay Htay Win, an opium farmer and mother of five children in Shan State, has been growing poppy for many years and admitted she cannot give up poppy cultivation easily.

“I divorced five years ago and I am only one taking care of my five children. How can I feed them well without getting money from poppy cultivation,” she told The Myanmar Times on Sunday.

Because of decreasing price of opium she can no longer afford to send her children to the government school. Two of her children have stopped their studies while the three others are studying in a Buddhist monastery.

” The demand is getting low and the price is falling,” Nan Htay Htay Win said. “If possible to do not want to plant poppy and I want to do other job, but I cannot. We tried to plant other crops, but it didn’t work. Finally we have to go back to poppy even when we earn less income from it.”

She said no one in her village receive support from government and other institutions and their poppy fields are being destroyed by government officials.

“My farm was moved to the hill that is very far from my village so authorities could not destroy it,” Nan Htay Htay Win said. “They (authorities) cannot walk for hours to reach there.”

A UNODC official said they do not participate in or encourage, destruction of fields by local or any other officials and they encourage alternative development approaches.

The UNODC said that it is facing some barriers in implementing its projects because of armed conflict issues and security problems in opium areas as well as funding constraints.

”Sadly we are not funded for more places and some that would like to join the programme have not been able to yet,” Douglas said. “We are seeking additional funding so this can happen. Some might be concerned they cannot join while others can, but we hope to add more.”

From: THE MYANMAR TIMES  (MYANMAR) Tue, Feb 4, 2020

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