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Change brewing in Burma’s poppy country?

MOE BYE VILLAGE, Kayah State — As pompom-clad women sprinkle water with the shake of a roselle branch on dancers, a shaman suddenly raises his hands and the dancers come to a halt. Circling him, they bow.

Then, with the snap of a chicken’s neck, the animist ritual proceeds.

In Kayah State, eastern Burma, this traditional ceremony not only brings together the different ethnic minorities in the region for a state day celebration, but it also foreshadows the upcoming year’s luck.

“There are two chicken bones that he reads,” murmurs a crowd member standing next to me. After another moment of silence, there is an announcement made in the Kayah language that causes everyone to then erupt in cheers. Turning to me, several crowd members exclaim, “It will be a good harvest, good luck this year!”

Beyond the hills where this celebration is conducted lie swathes of poppy fields. Northeastern Burma is the epicentre of opium poppy production, covering parts of Shan, Kayah and Kachin states. Total production ranks Burma as the world’s second-highest opium poppy producer, after only Afghanistan.

Poppy production dropping

There’s been a steady decline in the cultivation of opium poppy in recent years.

From 2015 to 2017, the production of poppy has decreased from 54,000 hectares to 41,000 hectares, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC).

Using satellite imagery, surveys and on-the-ground interviews, UNODC’s Burma country director, Troels Vester, says he is confident there will be a fall in production this year too.

When asked why there’s been a decrease, Vester states: “Because of a drop in demand.”

There are fewer buyers of opium and fewer traffickers who want to sell it.

“Opium has been used by villagers themselves but most times it is transformed into heroin and going to China,” explains Vester.

The trade route of opium and byproduct heroin has historically been to smuggle the illicit cargo over land borders into China and Thailand. But it has also trickled elsewhere through Asia to countries such as Laos, and by boat to Australia and New Zealand.

Because there is less demand, there’s also been a drop in the price. And with that, farmers have been looking at growing other crops. The price is estimated to have dropped by 40 percent, from $235 per kilogramme of fresh opium in 2015 to current prices of about $153 per kilogramme.

The trade route of opium and heroin has historically been to smuggle the illicit cargo over land borders into China and Thailand from Myanmar. (Photo: DVB)

Alternative cropping hopes for farmers

For decades the Shan and Kayah hills have been marred by war. And many civilians have also turned to growing opium out of desperation to survive. Just because farmers are growing opium “doesn’t mean they’re bad people,” says youth leader Than Than Sint. She continues: “It’s often for pragmatic reasons; so they can feed their family.”

As part of her youth programme, Kayan Stars, they raise awareness about the health problems with drugs and partner with other local groups to encourage alternative cropping and reforestation programs.

Growing alternative crops such as coffee and avocados is becoming more and more popular in these parts of the country. In a model Kayah State locals may one day replicate, more than 1,000 farmers in southern Shan State have been recorded to have made the switch to alternative crops. French company Malongo has signed an agreement with a local farming collective around Taunggyi to buy the entire crop.

Greater awareness about how opium poppy cropping depletes the topsoil is one contributing factor pushing farmers to make the switch. “So the mother and father of this generation have an income, but what about their children?” asks Vester. Another motivator for switching is the added risk of having one’s crops destroyed by government enforcers of anti-drug law or vigilante counterparts.

In a report last year by the UNODC, 29 percent of village heads said they feared eradication of opium poppy by the government.

Dancers at Kayah State day. (Photo: Libby Hogan / DVB)

Challenges with making the big switch

Still, the higher profit margins that come with growing poppies compared to other crops, and the black market appeal of receiving a large sum of cash all at the one time, has kept some farmers from moving to alternatives.

Farmer Kyaw Myint says turning to opium poppy farming wasn’t his first choice: “Before I was a teacher. I taught English and computer science. Because my family wasn’t doing well, it was hard to make a living. I began to grow opium this year.”  

The UNODC hopes seeing for themselves the benefits of growing a licit crop will encourage more farmers to move to alternatives. Vester believes that in three or four years farmers will be able to earn close to the same annual income of around $2,000 that they received for opium, as coffee production techniques improve and farmers make their coffee organic or free-trade certified.

For farmer Myo Chin U Pan in a village two hours’ drive from the nearest big town of Pekhon, the greatest obstacle he faces is lack of transportation and easy access to markets.

Another mindset challenge is showing farmers evidence that alternative crops won’t fail them. He points out that under the former government administration, a castor bean growing project failed as the crop didn’t make a lot of profit or farmers didn’t have knowledge of the market’s buyers.

“The farmers grew the castor beans but there was no market for that,” explains Myo Chin U Pan. “So when we mobilise farmers to grow avocados as alternative crops, they doubted our actions and raised questions [indicating] that they don’t want to be deceived again.”

The UNODC confirms that one of the biggest pitfalls of alternative crops is that much of the produce never enters local markets, let alone the international market. This, Vester explains, is “because of infrastructure problems or the new skillset on how to grow crops like coffee.”

The UNODC office has since brought in internationally recognised experts such as Colombian and Peruvian coffee growers who are now based in Shan State. “The programme is not about entering in a suit or just talking about coffee, it is about literally growing it and working with the farmers on their knees.”

The price for opium has dropped over the past three years confirms UNODC. (Photo: DVB)

New trends in the drug market

While opium poppy cultivation has decreased overall in Shan State, there has been no decrease in poppy cultivation in conflict zones, says Vester.

Speaking at a conference in Naypyidaw earlier this year on the drug problem in Burma, Police Colonel Zaw Lin Tun said their focus is now shifting from targeting opium production to the growing problem of methamphetamine and particularly one of its lowest-grade forms, known as “yaba.”  

He said the conference continued to call for a regional response to the evolving drug problem in Burma and targeting border areas. “The four areas we are working on are law enforcement, a new drug policy, public education and prevention,” added Zaw Lin Tun.

As conflict continues to afflict the country, Vester says so too will the drug problem. “The issue of conflict is so interlinked to the drug production because crime groups are in fact looking for those areas.”

Last year a record number of 450 million meth pills were seized across Burma.

Zaw Lin Tun, the police colonel, confirms that yaba is the new threat for Burma, but one that requires a regional response: “Drug elimination is our national duty, but we can’t fight it alone.”

Coffee production has continued to soar in Shan and Kayah State as more poppy farmers make the switch. (Photo: Libby Hogan / DVB)