The colourful profusion of red and white poppies adorning the northern mountains is a familiar sight in Laos early each new year.
Generations of ethnic hill tribes, mostly Hmong, Akha and Yao villagers, have long welcomed the bountiful harvests of opium poppy in the region, while the sight of the flower in full bloom has beguiled tourists and photographers alike.
But such natural beauty is the last thing on the minds of US anti-narcotics agents and other embassy officers faced with a resurgence of this traditional crop. Indeed, while some locals may see the crop as a blessing, to Western officials the poppies are seen more than anything as the source of the heroin addiction plaguing cities back home.
Less than a decade ago, opium production in the Golden Triangle—where the borders of Burma, Laos and Thailand blur together—was on the decline. Thailand had for decades been trying to eradicate opium, and was followed in 2002 by the Laotian government, which launched a rapid eradication campaign following intense pressure from the US government and the UN drug agency. China, meanwhile, had pushed the Wa ethnic rebel forces in northern Shan state to impose a strict ban on poppy cultivation.
By 2005, Laos was proclaiming itself to be opium free, while the United Nations reported that Burma’s harvests had fallen by more than 50 percent from their peak. Indeed, the following year, then-UN Office on Drugs and Crime Executive Director Antonio Maria Costa predicted that the days of the Golden Triangle were numbered.
The optimism was apparently misplaced. Last year’s annual UN opium survey for Southeast Asia reported a 22 percent increase in opium poppy cultivation on a year earlier, while in Laos production surged 55 percent.
There are both political and economic reasons for the failure of externally imposed opium eradication campaigns in Burma and Laos.
In Laos, hill tribe farmers in three provinces in the north of the country are now said to be quietly, but increasingly, defying the government ban on cultivation to try to make ends meet. As commodity prices for other crops have tumbled, poverty rates among poor farmers have been rising. With the price of opium meanwhile soaring, it’s easy to see why growing numbers of farmers are being tempted to cultivate poppies.
Similar economic pressures apply to the Shan states in Burma. As the United Nations has noted, opium poppies are by far the most lucrative crop for farmers, with a single hectare able to generate $4,600 in income in Burma—13 times what a hectare of rice could.
The economic incentives to flout the rules have been compounded by the complex politics of the Shan state, where the military junta’s attempt to subjugate ethnic rebel armies—along with decades of oppression, unrest and lawlessness—have contributed to a flourishing opium trade and heroin trafficking used to fund all sides in the armed conflict.