Opium, not for the people

The struggle against drugs in the ‘Golden Triangle’ – Laos, Birma and Thailand – causes many victims among the poorer farmer families. Traditionally, they are specialized in growing opium poppies. Following severe efforts of governments to counter opium growing, these farmers are now deprived of their income.
There was a time when the ‘gold’ in the ‘Golden Triangle’ indicated the dominance of the region on the worldwide opium market. But that domination shifted to the advantage of Afghanistan. The Afghan opium growers dominate the market nowadays, good for 82 percent of the worldwide production and the Afghan processing even reaches 93 percent. The Golden Triangle is left with as little as 12 percent of the growing and 5 percent of the processing, according to the 2007 numbers of the UN Office for Drugs and Criminality (Unodc).
‘The quest for modernisation and poverty reduction’ inspired the three countries to genuinely tackle their impressive opium industry according to Unodc. If one considers the hectares available for growing and tons for processing, this war against drugs turned out to be a big success. On a humanitarian level however, only Thailand can consider its results a victory. Under influence of the disappearing opium production poverty rises in Loas and Myanmar. Farming families living off opium growth can no longer support themselves because of the prohibition. This is evidenced by recent research by Martin Jelsma and Tom Kramer, two political scientists working for the Transnational Institute in Amsterdam and specialized in anti-drug campaigns. The Thai government avoided such situations by offering alternative income sources for the opium farmers. In stead of opium they now grow coffee and macadamia nuts for instance.
Such structural reconversion never took place in Loas and Myanmar. On the contrary, the poor farmers were, often forcefully, obliged by the government to quit growing opium poppies. Afterwards, these people were on their own. Therefore, they had to look for a new source of income by themselves. It was not an easy task to deal with: not only is there a serious lack of knowledge and starting capital, their fields often aren’t suitable for anything else but opium poppies. Many decided to migrate or to shift towards a regular day job. Their income however doesn’t reach the level obtained in their opium period. Unodc fears a return to opium growth by a large group of poorer farmers.
Asean, the congregation of South-east Asian countries, wants to have the region drug free by 2015. Jelsma and Kramer call these aims unrealistic. They hope that Loas and Myanmar governments first of all concentrate on offering an alternative life-support for the ex-opium growers.

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