Coaxing farmers to grow tea, not opium

Before opium, green tea was the cash crop of choice in Myanmar, and donors have tried for years to convince farmers to grow tea and other crops again. But these are less lucrative than opium poppies, the country’s highest-earning crop, and few growers have been persuaded.

“There are many challenges in persuading farmers to abandon poppy cultivation,” said Brian Agland, country director of Care International in Myanmar, an NGO that has worked with poppy growers since 2005.

Poppy seeds contain the crudest form of opium and bring in nine to 15 times more money per hectare than rice, says the most recent opium survey by the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC). 

When Care International started working with farmers in the northern Wa and Kokang special regions, it found that the poor soil and scant water for irrigation on the high slopes were sufficient for opium poppies, but little else, said Agland.

“In the early stages we faced many difficulties experimenting with agricultural crops in these remote harsher conditions. Rice and maize and tea are more labour intensive than poppies, and require expensive inputs such as fertilizers to cultivate and access to nearby markets.”

For the past decade, UNODC has tried to do the same with farmers in northeastern Shan State, who are responsible for 91 percent of Myanmar’s opium production.

The opium trade has long fuelled conflict in Myanmar, with armed groups cashing in on opium as their main source of income. Local media have reported continued clashes in parts of Shan State as recently as late June 2012, despite a ceasefire agreed in December 2011 between the government and one of the main armed groups.

Shan villagers told international media earlier in 2012 that they had lost money growing garlic, sugar and plants used in local cigarettes because there were fewer buyers and lower prices.

With support from the European Union and the Swiss and Norwegian governments, Care International instead tried tea. Agland noted that before the introduction of poppy seeds, tea had been the main cash crop in Wa and Kokang special regions for hundreds of years.

“Poppy farmers, like most farmers, are interested in the profit margin. In the opium industry, poppy farmers are at the bottom of the value-chain and sell their raw product at a low price to middlemen, who produce the opium and make most of the money.”

Persuading farmers that the long-term profits from non-poppy crops can bring in more cash than short-term poppy harvests is often the key to change. But there is little assurance farmers will not grow it again if they do not have access to loans, roads, technology, and markets, Jason Eligh, UNODC’s country manager in Myanmar, told IRIN in 2011.

For Care International, this meant combining “longer-term interventions with short-term activities such as food-for-work, income generation activities such as pig and chicken raising, home gardens, construction of rural roads, and school building”, said Agland. The NGO is preparing to start helping farmers export their tea.

Opium poppy cultivation in Myanmar increased by 14 percent in 2011, with an estimated US$275 million being paid to farmers, making it the world’s second largest opium poppy producer after Afghanistan.

fm/pt/he