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UN Asks More Aid for Burmese Farmers Switching to Alternative Crops

The United Nations reports another sharp drop in opium production by Burma. But U.N. drug experts say Burmese farmers need alternative income sources to keep their fields poppy-free.

The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, UNODC, says in its annual opium survey of Burma that the country's 15-year plan - for eradication of the entire opium crop by 2014 - is on target.

But UNODC officials warn that tough counternarcotic measures could result in a humanitarian disaster. Antonio Mario Costa, executive director of the U.N. agency, says as cultivation declines, the poorest sector of the population is hurt the most by lost drug-production income.

The U.N. survey says the area where opium is cultivated dropped by 26 percent this year, to just under 33,000 hectares. Burma's total opium output fell to 312 metric tons, from 370 metric tons last year. That compares to a recent peak of nearly 1,800 tons in 1993.

Burma's military government signed cease-fire agreements with several ethnic groups in the late 1990s. Since then the country's opium output has been trending lower, as authorities exert greater control over areas where opium poppies are grown.

The UNODC representative for East Asia and the Pacific, Akira Fujino, says poverty pushes farmers into opium-growing. Drug crops often account for as much as 50 percent of their annual income.

"The majority of farmers cultivate opium primarily to ensure food security," he said. "They either get cash or barter opium for rice. And the reason for not growing opium poppy... in the majority of cases, it is law enforcement."

But unless they get help in finding other income sources, Mr. Fujino says many farmers may be forced to return to growing opium poppies.

"We cannot allow opium poppy [to] disappear and at the same time allow the communities [to] disappear. That's why I try to focus on the need for food assistance, food crops, because farmers must be able to survive," added. Mr. Fujino. "Otherwise they go back to opium poppy crops or there will be a humanitarian disaster."

Burma is the second largest opium grower in the world, behind Afghanistan, and its share of the global opium poppy crop has fallen to 21 percent, from 23 percent last year.

Burma's northern Shan State, which produces 90 percent of all the country's opium, is the focus of the new U.N. survey. Authorities of the ethnic Wa community in Shan State declared a total ban on opium cultivation and trade in late June.

However, Mr. Fujino says prospects are uncertain for a further reduction of Burma's opium output. Deforestation by Chinese logging companies in nearby Kachin State is clearing new areas suitable for growing drug crops.

The United Nations says neither the Burmese government, whose human-rights record is widely criticized, nor international relief agencies are doing enough to persuade farmers to switch from opium to other crops.