CHIANGRAI– Opium cultivation in Southeast Asia’s main poppy-growing countries has more than doubled over the past six years driven largely by rising heroin demand in China and despite recent efforts by regional governments to eradicate the crop, the United Nations’ narcotics office said in a report released Wednesday.
The report’s figures show a resurgence in poppy cultivation in Southeast Asia’s notorious Golden Triangle—an area where parts of Myanmar, Laos and Thailand converge—that abuts southern China. It is one of the world’s two main opium-producing regions, the other being the Golden Crescent across Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iran.
In Myanmar, the increase in illicit drug production comes despite recent political and economic reforms in the country—which as the world’s second-largest grower of poppy after Afghanistan accounts for a quarter of global cultivation—and risks reversing inroads made in a 13-year effort to eliminate opium there. The planted areas are extremely rugged and often controlled by insurgents turned traffickers.
“Because it threatens both the livelihoods of desperately poor people as well as income for armed groups, the act of eradication involves a lot of risk,” said Gary Lewis, the representative for the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime’s East Asia and Pacific division.
“We must engage with the farming communities and persuade them—with alternative development —to stop growing poppy,” Mr. Lewis said.
The number of opiate users in East Asia—particularly China—and the Pacific now accounts for a quarter of the world’s total use, up from a fifth between 2000 and 2005. According to the World Drug Report, also put out by the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime, registered heroin users in China rose to 1.1 million in 2010 from about 900,000 in 2002 and account for more than 70% of all heroin users in East Asia and the Pacific.
While estimates of the total number of heroin users in China—including unregistered users—are harder to gauge, the total number of injecting drug users is believed to be about 2.5 million, according to the U.N.
A spokesman for China’s Foreign Ministry on Wednesday said the country has contributed to regional and global counter narcotics initiatives and “made great efforts in preventive education and the prohibition of drugs and drug rehabilitation.”
In July, China’s Ministry of Public Security said the Golden Triangle remains China’s biggest source of illicit drugs.
The drug trade remains a funding source for weapons purchases by armed groups in Myanmar, Mr. Lewis said, though cease-fire negotiations in many of the conflict zones mean progress has been made in breaking part of this nexus. About 90% of the country’s cultivation takes place in Shan state in the north, where a cease-fire between the Myanmar military and several ethnic militias was recently brokered. The area also produces methamphetamines, which are sold in abundance across the border in Thailand.
The annual report, which focused on cultivation patterns in Myanmar and Laos, with Thailand’s poppy production now negligible, found that while annual cultivation is still well below the highs seen in the late 1990s, it has made a steady comeback since the low levels seen in 2006.
Opium cultivation in Myanmar increased to 51,000 hectares in 2012 from 21,600 in 2006, while cultivation in Laos rose to 6,800 from 2,500 over that period. In 1999, when
Myanmar had more than 89,500 hectares under cultivation, the country outlined a 15-year plan to eradicate illicit opium cultivation by 2014, a target that the government clings to, with hedging.
“No one can say absolutely we will be drug free by 2014,” said Lt. Col. Zaw Lin Tun, deputy director of Myanmar’s Central Committee for Drug Abuse Control in the Ministry of Home Affairs, though he thought that cultivation and drug use can be reduced. He said that the U.N. assessment was accurate.
With the monetary yields of opium crops about 15 times as high as other cash crops, the plant has remained a far more compelling livelihood for many farmers, who live on steep hillsides and often lack means to get other crops to market.
Seng Wan, secretary of the anti-narcotics committee of the political arm of the Shan State Army, which has mostly made peace with the government, said that many young people in the state, home to about 4.8 million people, are addicted to drugs and blamed the increase in cultivation on the lack of alternative development options.
“When you try to cut down poppy plants, you are taking away their livelihood,” he said. “We are trying to cooperate with the government and the UNODC to reduce farming of poppies.” But the unrest in the state has meant the U.N. group has until recently been barred from all but two small districts in Shan to help promote alternative crops.
Myanmar remains on the U.S. government’s list of major drug-producing and drug-transiting countries, although the U.S. is now exempting the country from aid restrictions due to its recent democratization reforms and efforts to work with the U.S. on drug enforcement.