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.
Critics of the US and UN approach argue that the main reason for the failure of the anti-drug policies in Southeast Asia is that the focus is skewed toward enforcement and punishment.
Hill tribes in Laos feel particularly aggrieved by the tough enforcement approach. With many struggling to eke out a living from standard crops, opium cultivation offers an opportunity to barter for rice from other villages, as well as providing pain relief for remote communities with little access to medical facilities.
Some critics, like David Feingold, an anthropologist who specializes in the study of the Akha people, have long advocated a policy of what he describes as ‘benign neglect.’
But others would go even further. Houmphan Rattanavong, a Vientiane-based academic who specializes in ethnicity and culture, suggests that the crop should be legalized, as it has been in the Australian state of Tasmania.
‘This policy isn’t fair. Why is it that Tasmania can profit from the benefits of opium, but we have to destroy our crop?’ he asks. ‘Why not Laos? We have a much longer tradition of growing opium.’
Tasmania, the only Australian state where opium cultivation is legal, earns over $60 million a year from the crop. And Australia isn’t the only country that allows some poppy cultivation—18 countries including France, India, Spain and Turkey are officially recognised by the UN’s International Narcotics Control Board as being licensed by the international community to cultivate opium for pharmaceutical purposes.
The problem is that this might not be enough.
As former European Commissioner for Health and Consumer Protection Emma Bonino notes: ‘The UN estimates that just 6 countries prescribe 78 percent of the total legal production of opiates, implying shortages of opium-based painkillers in many of the UN’s 185 other member states. Hence the potential legal demand is huge.’
Ironically, despite the jump in opium production in the Golden Triangle, many hospitals and clinics in Burma and Laos still have difficulty securing access to morphine. Indeed, there are reports that doctors in Rangoon’s hospitals advise relatives of patients in severe pain to try to secure opium on the black market.
Until there’s an end to Burma’s military rule, recognizing Burma as a licit opium producer with proper international supervision simply isn’t possible. However, Laos is at peace, making it in principle easier to regulate cultivation there.
So why do other licit opium growing nations object to Laos joining the club? According to Felicity Volk, a former Australian diplomat now based in Vientiane, there’s little rational discussion of the issue. ‘Anyone who advocates a new field of legalisation—even if it’s for medicinal purposes—well, there’s a strong mindset against it,’ she says. ‘This is an issue which brings a lot of emotional baggage with it.’
All this means that while opium is being destroyed in some parts of Laos, other parts are suffering from a shortage of painkilling drugs.
But it’s not just about internal consumption—if Laos were allowed to cultivate opium legally, it would also have a ready-made market for legal pain relief drugs as a member of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. Licit opium producing Turkey could offer a model of how, with strong political will, an illegal opium trade can be converted into a beneficial and legal crop.
Until such a time, though, many Laotians will be left wondering why the West accepts opium cultivation in a small, select number of largely resource-rich countries, while their poor and landlocked nation is expected to survive on coffee exports and Beerlao.
Tom Fawthrop is a Thailand-based journalist and producer