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LAOS: Poor farmers need alternatives to opium

MOONMEUANG, 2 November 2011 (IRIN) - Training in how to prune peach trees may not be at the top of most drug and crime interventions, but perhaps they should be when it comes to opium, experts say.

Opium production was rising in Laos, formerly the third-largest producer in the world after Afghanistan and Myanmar, until the government slashed poppy plots from 26,800ha to 1,500ha between 1998 and 2006.

But since 2007 opium farming has doubled to 3,000ha and the upward trend is still continuing, according to the UN Office of Drugs and Crime (UNODC).

The increase has led some to characterize the previous reduction in poppy growing as a fragile success as some poverty-stricken farmers may yet relapse when left with few livelihood options.

"With no assistance people will grow [poppies]. If they have no regular work or livelihood, then it's opium, because this is what they know how to do," said Edna Legaspi, project manager for UNODC in the country's northern province, Oudomxay.

Most vulnerable are the country's poorest regions easily accessible from neighbouring countries. Oudomxay, at the regional crossroads of the Laos opium trade and only hours by road to China, Thailand, Vietnam and Myanmar, is among the most at-risk communities, according to UNODC.

"Opium is causing problems in this district because people do not have alternatives and because of a remoteness due to a lack of road access," said Khamen Phomally, deputy district governor of Xay District in Oudomxay and chairman of the local committee on drug control. "But those who have access to other options and roads forget opium."

New cash crops such as fruit, corn and rice have helped turn most farmers away from poppy cultivation. But the struggle is constant. From pests to pruning techniques, these crops, which take well to the region's rugged mountainous terrain but typically earn less, demand different skills and knowledge than opium.


Sychan Vakongxiong, a secondary-school mathematics teacher, who struggled to feed a family of six, turned to poppy cultivation in 1993. After nearly a decade of perfecting the practice, the government told her to stop growing the illegal crop.

"I did not know opium was used for making drugs, I thought it was for medication," she said, adding the same was true for many fellow Hmong farmers.

At first the peach trees she turned to did well, but she quickly realized she did not know the orchard business like she knew opium.

While Vakongxiong later benefited from training by UNODC, and the Thai government-backed Royal Project Foundation and Highland Research and Development Institute in vegetable gardening and new crops, including grapes, she said her income was still not enough to support her family.

Her peach trees initially earned as much as 2ha of poppies had (about US$125) but pests destroyed her crop. Limes, vegetables, peaches and fish now fill her farm - but so far no business has lasted as long or been as steady as opium, she said.


A farmer now earns up to $3,200 per kilogramme of poppies versus corn, which brings in $150, said Houmphanh Bouphakham, director of the Oudomxay Provincial Department on Drug Control.

Before government crackdowns on poppy cultivation over the past decade, farmers earned only $80 per kilogramme of opium in 2000.

Opium cultivation has been on the decline in the region, but heroin is still the drug of choice in places like Laos, Singapore and Vietnam, according to UNODC's 2011 World Drug Report.

Half the farmers who quit poppy production during the decade-long crackdown could return, warns the government's National Drug Control Master Plan for 2009 to 2013.

And if the relapse is due to failed promises of other income opportunities, farmers could distrust eradication efforts, making it harder to wipe out opium crops a second time.

UNODC is working with the government to expand irrigation and introduce new rice varieties in 30 villages in Oudomxay, including Moonmeuang.

Before UNODC programming in 2009 the average annual household income in these villages was $572. In 2010 this increased to $1,400, according to the agency's calculations. Some residents attribute the boost to bigger and more frequent harvests of cash crops, especially rice.


Copyright © IRIN 2011
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