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UN Official Urges Helping Burma Farmers Cut Down Opium Production

A U.N. official says the key to cutting opium production in Burma is to ensure farmers have other ways to make a living.

A U.N. drug control official in Rangoon says Burma has made progress in reducing opium production.

But the head of the U.N. Office of Drugs and Crime in Rangoon, Jean Luc Lemahieu, warns that unless there is economic support for farmers, efforts to cut opium crops could trigger a humanitarian crisis among some of Burma's poorest minority groups.

"The opium farmer, what they gain out of the opium is very, very small, again $150 on an annual basis," he said. "I mean its peanuts. For them it is extremely important because it is their primary income. So if you take it away you create a humanitarian disaster."

He adds that unless farmers have other ways to earn a living, opium-eradication programs could mean many become impoverished migrants, subject to human trafficking and other abuses.

Opium is used to make heroin, an illegal drug. The border area of Burma, Thailand, and Laos, the so-called Golden Triangle, is one of the biggest opium production regions in the world.

Japan, Australia, the United States, and Germany are helping fund a program to reduce opium output in Burma's northeastern Shan State, in the Golden Triangle.

Mr. Lemahieu said that with international help, Burma and Laos have since 1998 sharply reduced the amount of land growing opium. "We can demonstrate some very tangible results with regard to the drug control issue," he explained. "I refer to the 24 percent opium acreage reduction, which we consider as extremely positive at this stage."

His comments follow release of a U.S. government report assessing how countries are cooperating in fighting illegal drug trafficking.

The report identified more than 20 countries in Latin America, Central Asia, and East Asia as major producers of illegal drugs or as major trafficking routes. The report says Burma has failed to curb drug production and trafficking.

U.S. officials say Burma is cooperating with U.S. law enforcement in areas such reducing opium output. But, they say, Rangoon has done little to end the production of synthetic narcotics, especially methamphetamines.

Factories along the border with Thailand produce almost one billion methamphetamine tablets a year.

A recent U.N. report says if the current rate of crop reduction in Southeast Asia can be maintained, the Golden Triangle may become a minor source of illicit opium within a few years.