Newsbrief: End of Opium Cultivation Spells Looming Disaster for Burmese Peasants 10/22/04

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Citing United Nations officials, ethnic Wa leaders, and unnamed foreign assistance workers, the Bangkok Post reported last week that the coming end to opium cultivation in Burma will bring poverty and hunger to hundreds of thousands of Wa and other peasants traditionally dependent on the poppy for economic survival. According to the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), opium production is already down dramatically in Burma and as a consequence peasants are already suffering.

incised papaver specimens (opium poppies)
The UNODC reported last week that poppy production had fallen dramatically this year, in part because of official policy and in part because of drought. UNODC head Jean-Luc Lemahieu told the Post the area under cultivation had shrunk nearly 30%, while overall production was down 54%. Opium production fell nearly 90% in northern Shan state, though less in Wa tribal areas, where most remaining production is suspected to take place.

Still, Wa leaders have committed to eradicating opium production in their areas, with top Wa leader Bau Yuxiang vowing to cut off his own head if the Wa fail to keep their promise. "Opium has been with us for more than 100 years and it has been disastrous for our health and development," the Wa chairman told the Post. "If people plant opium and they smoke it, they don't want to do anything else. If they stay like this, there is no hope and no future for our people. We are very determined to stamp out poppy cultivation in our areas," Bau Yuxiang said.

Some 350,000 Wa and Kokang peasants have already stopping growing poppies, the UNODC head told journalists in Rangoon earlier this year. "This will increase to more than two million people next year," he said.

According to aid experts who spoke to the Post only on condition of anonymity, hundreds of Kokang and Wa peasants have died for lack of food and medicine since they quit growing poppies, the leading cash crop in northern Burma. While neither Burmese nor UN officials would confirm such stories, the Post also reported that a village in Shan was wiped out by malaria for lack of money to buy medicines, with some 300 to 400 people killed.

With more peasants expected to quit growing poppies, Wa and Burmese officials are worried. "It will take three to five years for the farmers to recover from the crisis that will follow the end of poppy cultivation," the Wa's second in command, Shao Min Liang, admitted to the Post earlier this year.

For many of the peasants, not growing poppies means leaving their homelands, said UNODC head Lemahieu. "The lessons of the Kokang region after the opium ban in 2003 are a warning signal for what is going to happen in the Wa areas," he said. "The population fell by 60,000 [from 200,000 to 140,000], with the most people heading inland in search of a better living. Two out of three private Chinese clinics and pharmacies closed their doors and one in three community schools ceased operating. About 6,000 children were forced to leave school, effectively halving the enrolment rate compared to the previous year," Mr Lemahieu recounted.

"We don't know what we are going to do," said former poppy grower Ti Kwan Sum. "We just hope for the best."

But according to the UNODC, crop substitution and alternative development programs will not replace the income generated by the lost poppy crops. Other than emigration, peasants may find income opportunities in working in casinos, the sex trade, or other illegal occupations, and with ethnic Chinese criminal gangs waiting in the wings, the region could become insecure and unstable. Or the peasants could go back to growing opium, the Post suggested.

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Issue #359, 10/22/04 Editorial: Twenty Years? | California Initiative to Rein-In Three-Strikes Law Appears Headed for Victory | English Drug Reformers Map Route to Post-Prohibition Drug Policy | In California Senate Race, Judge Jim Gray Gets No Respect from Media, Polls, or Debates, Despite Strong Showing | DRCNet Book Review: "15 To Life: How I Painted My Way to Freedom," by Tony Papa with Jennifer Wynn Feral House Press, $22.95 HB) | A Message from the Executive Director on What DRCNet is Planning After Election Day and Why We Need Your Help | Newsbrief: Kerry Says Feds Should Butt Out of Oregon Laws | Newsbrief: Alaska Marijuana Initiative Backers Sue Lieutenant Governor Over Election Pamphlet | Newsbrief: Bush, Kerry, Nader Respond to HEA Query | Newsbrief: African-American Professional Groups Form Coalition to Change Drug Policies | Newsbrief: Federal Judge Rules Cops Can Lie on the Stand | Newsbrief: End of Opium Cultivation Spells Looming Disaster for Burmese Peasants | Newsbrief: Three Dead in Peru Coca Confrontation -- Cocaleros Occupy Buildings in Provincial City | Newsbrief: Dutch Medical Marijuana Program Runs Up Against Law of the Market | Newsbrief: Actress's Marijuana Bust Challenge Causing Waves in South Korea | Newsbrief: Canadian Government to Reintroduce Marijuana Reform Bill, But Adds Driver Drug Testing, Too | Newsbrief: This Week's Corrupt Cops Stories | This Week in History | The DARE Generation Returns to DC: Students for Sensible Drug Policy 2004 National Conference Next Month | Apply Now to Intern at DRCNet! | Administrative Assistant: Part-Time Job Opportunity at DRCNet | The Reformer's Calendar
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