Opium cultivation is back on the rise in Myanmar and Laos despite government eradication campaigns, with impoverished farmers lured by higher prices and strong demand from neighboring countries, the United Nations said on Thursday.
The area of land devoted to growing opium, a paste from poppy used to make heroin, has increased by 14 percent in Myanmar from last year and 38 percent in Laos, according to satellite and helicopter surveys carried out by the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) and the Myanmar and Lao governments.
The two countries form part of Southeast Asia's infamous Golden Triangle, which once accounted for more than 70 percent of the world's supply of heroin.
Myanmar accounts for 91 percent of regional production and an estimated 9 percent of global output. Afghanistan supplies about 90 percent of global production.
Poverty and food security were a big concern in all the areas of Myanmar surveyed, with an estimated 35 percent of people having insufficient food, providing little incentive for farmers to stop growing opium poppies.
Cultivation in Southeast Asia climbed 16 percent in 2011 and there was twice as much land growing opium as five years ago, according to the said.
"There needs to be recognition that the lack of security, political stability and sustainable development are some of the key drivers behind increased opium production," Yuri Fedotov, UNODC executive director, said in the report.
Cultivation rose for a fifth consecutive year in Myanmar after six years of decline. The survey showed 43,600 hectares (107,700 acres) of land was used for opium, up 14 percent from 2010. Although average yields had fallen 8 percent, the larger area under cultivation resulted in an overall increase.
DRUGS AND CONFLICT
The affected areas were Shan State in the northeast, which accounts for 91 percent of total growth, and Kachin State in the north, where cultivation was up 27 percent from 2010.
Large parts of Kachin and Shan states bordering China have for decades been battlefields between ethnic minority rebels and the military, leaving the areas virtually lawless and deprived of state funds.
Critics have long doubted Myanmar's commitment to wiping out the lucrative trade because some of the military generals who led the country until early this year enjoyed close ties with tycoons linked to the drug business.
However, Western countries are hoping a new civilian government that took office in March, which seems keen to improve Myanmar's image and engage with the international community, might take a tougher line on opium.
The government has embarked on a series of reforms that have stunned critics and is now seeking peace talks with rebel groups in Shan and Kachin states. It has made cooperation to suppress drug production central to proposed ceasefire deals.
"A ceasefire would be a welcome first step in all this. What we need to do is invest in these areas, which we have not been able to go to, where intensity of cultivation is the highest, and therefore are in greatest need," UNODC country director for Myanmar, Jason Eligh, told reporters.
"If we were given access and can provide assistance to these areas, it would have an enormous impact on cultivation in Myanmar."
In Laos, large concentrations of growth were detected in two provinces previously identified as opium-free.
The total area under cultivation was still low compared with 10 years ago, but it represented a 38 percent increase from 2010, expanding 4,100 hectares (10,000 acres), with a potential yield of 25 tons that was drawing more families into a business geared mostly towards serving domestic addicts, the UNODC said.
The government was not doing enough to tackle the problem, it said, with only 10 percent of 1,100 villages that had stopped growing opium receiving alternative development assistance.