Burma, long one of the world's major sources of illegal narcotics, says it has a plan to eradicate the drug trade in a little more than a decade. The United Nations is providing some assistance, but the projects are hindered by limited funding. Poverty seems to be a major factor in this complex issue.
Southeast Asia Correspondent Scott Bobb recently visited opium-producing areas in northern Burma, in the so-called Golden Triangle, and has this report.
It is only mid-morning, but the sun is already beating hard on the mountains and green fields in the Mong Pawk area of northern Burma. An elderly lady named, Amun, is vigorously hoeing her small plot.
Although she is hard of hearing and has almost no teeth, Amun looks younger than her 94 years. She heads a family of a hundred offspring. She is also at the base of Burma's illegal drug trade.
"I have been growing opium since I was young," she said. "Other than growing poppy, I don't know any other work."
The lush plants in Amun's field signal another good year. After the poppies bloom in a few weeks, she will scar the seed capsules and scrape off the opium sap that has oozed out. It will yield her about 20 kilograms of opium gum, worth about $2,000 to her and tens of thousands of dollars to drug lords, but it will buy her family rice and medicine.
The head of the United Nations Drug Control Program in Burma, Jean-Luc Lemahieu, says farmers cultivate opium because of a chronic shortage of rice, due to poor soil and inadequate rainfall, common at high altitude. The hardy poppy thrives under these conditions, and likes to grow on steep mountain slopes.
"They [the farmers] have a rice deficiency ranging from one to two, to over six months on an annual basis," he said.
Burma last year produced 800 tons of opium. That is two-thirds of the opium worldwide, and 90 percent of the drug produced in East Asia.
One-third of the crop is consumed inside the country, where traditionally it is smoked to cure illness and ease hunger. Part of the opium crop is refined into heroin in secret factories along the border, and then trafficked abroad.
The opium and heroin industry generates more than a half-billion dollars a year in Burma. But opium addiction afflicts tens of thousands of people in Burma, and heroin addiction is a rising scourge in neighboring China.
Burma has a long global reputation as a major illegal source of narcotics, but the head of Burma's anti-drug agency, General Kaw Thein, says his government is working to change that. "The main objective is the total elimination of, not only of poppy fields, but also of drugs," he said.
The general says his agency plans to eliminate opium cultivation in northern Burma within three years, and there is a plan to eliminate all illegal drugs in 11 years. Officials want to eliminate the villagers' dependence on the opium crop, by making them self-sufficient in food.
Burma is getting help from the United Nations. The U.N. Drug Control Agency launched a program three years ago to wean farmers from opium cultivation by helping them become self-sufficient food producers.
The agency is assisting with irrigation projects, providing fertilizer, better seeds and introducing new crops that do well in this climate, like sweet pea, faba bean, and buckwheat.
Here in the Mong Kar valley, workers break rocks to line an irrigation canal. Engineer Tin Maung Myint says the canal will provide water year-round to 500 hectares of rice paddy, and increase rice production by almost one half.
"In monsoon season, with rainwater and some surplus water from irrigation, one crop," he said. "And in the summer time, double drop."
The director of the northern Burma project, Xavier Bouan, says growing food crops is only part of the battle to get locals to give up growing poppy. He says other needs must also be addressed.
"No education system, no health system, very poor access. The roads are very bad," he said. "So, it's difficult for the people to market any products, or to do any kind of business."
The United Nations is providing bulldozers and fuel to improve the region's bad roads, constructing schools to combat rampant illiteracy, and building medical facilities.
U.N. officials say the project here in Mong Pawk could serve as a model for all of northern Burma, but they are short on funds. International donors are reluctant to finance large, visible projects, until the military government begins a transition to democracy, and improves human rights.
Mr. Lemahieu, the U.N. drug control chief in Burma, says linking politics to the drug issue is a mistake.
"Opium reduction will help with the political transition, will help regional stability, and, definitely, benefits the international community," he said.
But for people like Amun, who depend on her small opium crop for survival, the prospect of an end to poppy cultivation is a deep worry.
"I have no idea what I'll do," she said.
Burmese officials say they have reduced opium production by 50 percent in the past five years. But drug experts worry that, if crop substitution programs and social services are not sustained, farmers will resume cultivating opium, and reverse the progress made to date.
Part one of a three-part VOA series