While opium poppy cultivation in Myanmar and Laos has shown a significant drop over the past year, suggesting that eliminating the drug trade in two sides of the infamous "Golden Triangle" may be possible, the two countries will need continued help to sustain law enforcement activities and develop alternative crops, according to a new United Nations report.
The Myanmar and Laos Opium Surveys for 2003, launched today in New York by the UN Office for Drugs and Crime (UNODC), confirms the downward trend in 2002 in opium cultivation in the Golden Triangle - which also includes Thailand. The surveys show a 24 per cent decline for Myanmar and 15 per cent for Laos mostly because farmers shifted crops to rice or other grains, which together with marginal harvest levels in Thailand and Viet Nam, has reduced opium cultivation in Southeast Asia by 60 per cent since 1996.
Still, the report notes that although the current downward trend in Myanmar had been encouraging, the country remains the world's second-largest supplier of opium and heroin after Afghanistan, with the Shan State representing more than 90 per cent of the total opium poppy cultivation in the country. Laos is the third-largest opium producer.
Although their numbers are declining, more than 350,000 households in Myanmar and 40,000 in Laos will continue to derive the largest share of their income from the harvested opium - an estimated 810 tons in Myanmar and 120 tons in Laos. To sustain these declines, alternative development programmes for farmers are required, the report says. It also remains crucial to ensure that significant funding and technical assistance is provided to UNODC's alternative development, demand reduction and law enforcement initiatives.
At a press briefing at UN Headquarters in New York, UNODC Executive-Director Antonio Maria Costa attributed the decline not only to the commitment of the central governments, but also that of local communities, provinces and townships. He also stressed the importance of alternative cultivation efforts to reduce food shortages. One of the main reasons framers had been cultivating opium was because of the revenue it generated. Efforts by UN agencies to improve food security had reduced the motivation to cultivate illegal crops, he said.