Upwards of 90 percent of the opium poppies in Myanmar’s northern region are grown in Shan State, even though farmers are aware that if they grow an illicit crop, it may be eradicated and they could lose everything. Alternative livelihood support is needed if growers are to be weaned off this double-edged source of income.
“Farmers grow opium poppy to buy food, pay off debt and have a cash income to pay school fees and health expenses,” Gary Lewis, regional representative of the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) told IRIN. “To be effective we need to give farming communities alternatives which can provide a sustainable basis for them to earn a livelihood.”
UNODC and NGOs have been working with local farmers for the past decade, trying to lure them away from poppy cultivation by providing alternative livelihood solutions, along with improved access to roads, waterways, irrigation, and community health services.
"Until recently, UNODC alternative development assistance, funded by the European Union and the governments of Germany and Japan, was limited to small development projects in just three south Shan townships - wholly inadequate to Shan State and Myanmar's needs for improved infrastructure, markets, schools and sustainable livelihoods”, said Lewis.
More than half a century of internal conflict between government forces and various ethnic and political rebel groups tore the country apart, causing instability and poverty. Ceasefire treaties signed in early 2012 with groups in northern Myanmar, like the Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA) and the Shan State Army-South (SSA-S), have allowed access to areas that were previously unreachable.
After the ceasefires, the government approved townships where the UN drug agency can work, including access to 25 additional townships in Shan State.
“We are encouraged by the recent ceasefire agreements and the fact that the national authorities have expanded the areas in Shan State in which UNODC is allowed to work,” Lewis said. “Solve the challenges of chronic poverty, decreasing rural food security, and armed conflict - and you can begin to draw farmers away from poppy.”
An opium survey by UNODC in 2011 points out that there has been a marked increase in the area under opium cultivation in Myanmar - from 38,100 hectares in 2010 to 43,600 hectares in 2011 - mostly in Shan State. Yet the government has significantly increased its eradication efforts and a total of 6,124 hectares of opium poppy were destroyed there in 2011, compared to 5,316 hectares eradicated in 2010, the survey noted.
“What happens in Myanmar’s Shan State affects the whole region’s security,” Lewis warned. “Now is the time for the international community to engage in alternative development in the poppy-growing regions… as a natural counterbalance to the increased enforcement being conducted.”
But political instability and poverty remain high in the area and there is a strong chance that farmers could return to poppy cultivation if there is no alternative. According to the annual opium survey, poppies can bring in nine to 15 times more money per hectare than rice. Crops like maize, tea and rice are more labour intensive than poppies, and require expensive inputs, such as fertilizers, to cultivate and transport to markets.
“Food shortages still exist and most households rely on purchasing food than on their own production,” said Ohnmar Khaing, coordinator of the Food Security Working group (FSWG) in Myanmar, an umbrella group of national and international NGOs.
“Today, poorest of the poor ex-poppy farmers need help to turn to other crops… The reality is that the internal push to reduce opium poppy is proceeding too quickly, and without adequate resources or examination of the implications for the forgotten, impoverished poppy farmers,” Khaing noted.
“The essential challenge is to create development initiatives and economic incentives that provide attractive and viable legal alternatives for farmers.”