Opium Eradication Efforts Hurt Myanmar Farmers

By McCarton Ackerman 05/01/12

Farmers who once depended on poppy profits are now struggling to make ends meet.

poppy plantation.jpg
Potato profits just don't have the same pop.
Photo via

Myanmar's goal to eradicate drug production by 2014 is coming at a high cost to its farmers. The country was the world's second largest producer of opium behind Afghanistan, but the government's recent war on opium has destroyed 23,584 hectares (91 square miles) of poppy since 2011, preventing more than 30 tons of heroin from hitting the global market. However, rural farmers who were able to eke out a living growing the blooms are now making a fraction of their former earnings growing potatoes and tea leaves.  “Two-thirds of the people in this area... are dependent on growing poppy to get this money to buy food,” says Jason Eligh, Myanmar manager for the United Nations drug office.  “When you eliminate the poppy, many get put in a situation where they have no money, no food and are at a huge disadvantage.” Poppy field workers make a cool 5,000 kyat ($6) per day, while those who work in a rice paddy earm only 20-30% of that, which could tempt thousands of impoverished Myanmar residents back into a now-illicit drug trade. But while one-third of the entire opium crop was removed this year in the Shan state (only 3% of the crop was destroyed in Afghanistan), some experts believe Myanmar's goal of complete drug removal in the next three years is far too ambitious. "That is not realistic,” argues Guillaume Foliot, deputy country director for the UN World Food Program, which is providing free bags of rice to compensate for the loss of income. “The magnitude is such that it would be delusional to believe that one would fix everything with free food distribution.”

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McCarton Ackerman is a freelance writer and editor living in Portland, Oregon. He has been a contributor for The Fix since October 2011, writing on a wide range of topics ranging from medical marijuana in Colorado to the world's sexiest drug smugglers. Follow him on Linkedin and Twitter.