Eradicating poverty and not drug crops is the way to curb Shan state’s addiction to the opium trade.
The situation in Shan state, the main poppy producing region of Myanmar, is deeply complex and unstable.
A change in approach is needed to combat the illicit poppy cultivation that lies at the heart of the region’s problems. The current approach is dominated by goals set by international organisations, which are unrealistic and lead to myopic policy decisions.
Such approaches fail to pay sufficient attention to the farmers involved in poppy cultivation. Even when this issue is dealt with however, the scope for what can be achieved globally through combating poppy cultivation locally is limited.
The goals set by international actors need to be adjusted to reflect the realities of the situation – namely that long-term, sustainable solutions to poppy cultivation requires time, patience, and above all, dialogue with poppy farmers.
The 1961 UN Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs laid out a set of deadlines for ending various drugs, which were not met. Following his declaration of the war on drugs, Richard Nixon estimated that the goal of ending drugs would take ‘three to four years’.
Subsequent goals of ‘ending drugs’ by 1998 (US), 2008 (UN), or 2015 (ASEAN) have, needless to say, not happened, and the extended deadlines of 2019 (UN) or 2020 (ASEAN) will be extremely difficult to meet.
These overly ambitious goals in short time frames are a problem because they result in ‘quick fix’ solutions. These quick fix solutions – think eradication of poppy fields with machete-wielding soldiers and aerial pesticides – are not only impotent as they fail to curb poppy cultivation, but also dangerous as they have destabilising consequences for the region.
In order to truly improve the poppy problem, more attention must be paid to the often overlooked poppy farmers and the poverty they endure. Understanding and addressing such poverty is vital for an effective anti-poppy policy.
Any to attempt to solve the poppy issue in Shan without understanding this factor is comparable to a weeding process that deals only with what is above the ground – narrow-minded and ultimately futile.
The main thing to understand about poppy farmers is that outside the scant money it generates, growing poppy has few benefits. While vast amounts of money is generated from the refinement, trafficking and eventual dealing of poppy products, only a tiny percentage (2.6 per cent3) goes to the farmers themselves, which is barely enough to cover basic primary goods such as food, education and healthcare.
As well as meagre returns, growing opium has other drawbacks; those who grow it face the constant risk of the eradication of their crop (and thus their entire annual income) by armed groups, the degradation of the land through forced over-cultivation, and even when the crop is produced and sold, the payment of bribes to a host of local groups, including the army, local militia, the police (pretty much anyone with a gun).
Why do they do it then? Because the farmers have no viable alternatives.
Compared to other farmers, poppy farmers live, on average, 20 kilometres further away from the nearest market, making the crops which other farmers grow unviable, particularly as these crops are harder to transport and less valuable per kilo.
Growing poppies is not an act of greed but an act of economic reality, desperation and poverty; opium farmers are an impoverished group doing whatever they can to provide enough income for themselves and their families.
Give them an alternative to doing this and they’ll more than happily take it.
Charlie Artingstoll is a graduate of Cambridge University and has just finished working at the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime in Myanmar.
This article is the first in a three-part series on tackling Myanmar’s opium trade. The second and third articles will be published in coming days. Photo: Adam Dean/ New York Times.