Opium cultivation on the rise in Golden Triangle


Bangkok : Opium cultivation in South-East Asia rose 11 percent this year as soaring prices in Laos and political instability in Myanmar drew more farmers to the illicit poppy crop, a UN report revealed Monday.

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Cultivation increased to 33,811 hectares from 30,388 hectares last year in the Golden Triangle – comprising parts of Laos, Myanmar and Thailand – which two decades ago accounted for more than 70 percent of the world’s supply of heroin, a refined derivative of opium.

After years of crop-substitution and development projects that reduced the acreage under cultivation in the region, the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) now acknowledges a “worrisome” trend towards increased cultivated in the illicit crop since 2006.

“We are worried about the trends, especially in Myanmar where we see potential for an unravelling of much of what containment has produced over the past two decades,” said Gary Lewis, UNODC regional representative for the Asia Pacific.

According to the report Opium Cultivation in South-East Asia, between 1988 to 2006, poppy growing in Laos, Myanmar and Thailand dropped from 157,900 hectares to 24,157 hectares in 2006.

But cultivation has since been on the rise, increasing 47 percent in Myanmar and 19 percent in Laos. Thailand, historically a minor opium grower although a major conduit for heroin from the Golden Triangle, saw its cultivated acreage drop 27 percent this year to only 211 hectares.

Myanmar accounts for the lion’s share of opium cultivation in the region, with more than 50 percent coming from the Shan State, a base for several ethnic minority groups such as the Wa and the Shan.

“The eastern Shan State has seen a really dramatic increase in opium cultivation over the past four years, from 3,000 hectares to 11,000 hectares,” Lewis said.

Myanmar’s military regime has little control over the east Shan State, although it has demanded that all minority groups place their armed militias under state control this year. Few have complied.

In Laos, where opium sells for $1,327 per kg, up 8 percent from 2008, the increase in cultivation is market driven.

“It’s all about supply and demand,” said Leik Boonwaat, UNODC country representative for Laos. “In Laos, the price is high because of the scarcity of supply, while demand remains high.”

By comparison, this year’s the price for a kg of opium was $317 in Myanmar and $48 in Afghanistan, now the world’s leading provider of the drug.

Leik estimated that there were at least 12,000 opium addicts in the land-locked country.