DRIVE FOR OPIUM-FREE LAOS BRINGS DISASTER TO HILL TRIBES
AFTER about 200 years of opium poppy cultivation, the Laotian government last month declared their country "opium-free", winning acclaim from international drug suppression agencies for a major victory in the war on drugs.
The United Nations drug and crime control agency UNODC confirmed a drastic poppy reduction of 73 per cent during the past five years in their most recent opium survey, ending the country's reputation as the world's third-largest producer.
But while many benefits have come from the initiative to tackle the illicit trade, not least Laos' relations with the West, others suggest the eradication of the opium crop has brought new problems to the most vulnerable parts of the population.
Academics, researchers and non-governmental organisations claim that rapid opium repression has been a disaster for the hill-tribe communities and the opium shortage has led to a far worse drug epidemic.
The rush to wipe out opium poppy fields in line with a 2005 deadline was spearheaded by the United States and Europe.
An estimated 65,000 hill-tribe people have been displaced from the mountains of northern Laos, where the opium poppy thrives, as part of the eradication programme.
UN development consultant Dr Charles Alton said the mass relocation has come at a cost to the fragile communities.
"Hill-tribe people moving to new villages not only lack sufficient rice, but they face fresh diseases - malaria, gastro-intestinal problems, and parasites," he said.
An international group has documented the plight of the Akha, Hmong and other tribes. Members of all ages are dying of malaria and dysentery.
Soaring mortality rates - at 4 per cent, twice that of hill farmers in their former mountain habitat and almost four times the national average - have been recorded.
The small-scale Hmong anti-communist insurgency linked to the
pre-1975 CIA's secret war is now reduced to an estimated 2,000 men, women and children, most of whom are ready to surrender, according to a US diplomat.
The communist authorities in the country's capital, Vientiane, have long tolerated opium poppy cultivation among the hill tribes that make up more than 45 per cent of the population. In 1999, the Laotian authorities argued that opium poppy cultivation could not be eradicated until alternative crops and economic development were already in place.
However, the US government and narcotics agencies upped the pressure in 2000. A promise of AUKP45 million in aid by the UN drugs control agency led to a capitulation by the Laos authorities. In 2001 they abandoned a more balanced approach and plunged headlong into a hardline Western agenda of all-out war on the opium poppy.
Western embassies concede that their anti-drug policy may have been over-zealously translated into harsh narcotics repression by the authorities.
"The implementation of opium eradication had probably been too rapid and lacked resources," said Sandro Serrato, the EU's chief of mission in Laos.
Mr Serrato said the EU sympathised with the Laos government's resettlement strategy arguing " there is such a scattered population, the government feels that only by bringing people down from the remote areas, can they provide social services and development."
The shift of EU policy is at odds with many non-governmental organisations and academics. Respected Laos academic and researcher Houmphanh Rattanavong said: "Resettlement has caused the disruption of the hill tribes' way of life. Opium has many uses - as a major cash crop, for medicine and in traditional ceremonies and festive events.
"Now it is the lack of opium that is far more dangerous."
The Laotian people, both in the lowlands and the hills, have recently become victims of amphetamines known locally as "ya ba" and heroin flowing across the country from laboratories in neighbouring Burma.
The so-called success in wiping out opium has only contributed to far worse drug, social and economic problems, said anthropologist Dr David Feingold.
"The present opium eradication programme is ill-conceived and badly executed," he said.
"Its likely long-term consequences will be increasing heroin use and greater vulnerability of highland girls and women to trafficking and unsafe migration. Both of these outcomes will contribute to exacerbating HIV/AIDS in the country."