Bangkok - A hike in opium prices in South-East Asia led to a slight increase in poppy cultivation in the Golden Triangle last year, a UN report released Monday said. "We have an increase in cultivation, which is worrying because it implies an intent to produce more," said Gary Lewis, the regional representative of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime.
The UN's latest report on cultivation in the Golden Triangle - which consists of parts of Laos, Myanmar and Thailand and accounts for 5 per cent of the world's opium supply - said the region produced 424 tons of opium last year, down from 472 tons in 2007.
But land under poppy cultivation increased by nearly 1,000 hectares to 33,388 hectares, a trend that worried the United Nations as it has promoted a multimillion-dollar crop-substitution programme in the Golden Triangle for more than a decade.
"Opium prices are rising in the region, and that is an incentive for farmers to plant more," Lewis said.
The region was the world's largest producer of opium and heroin more than two decades ago but has since been dwarfed by Afghanistan's output.
Declining opium output in South-East Asia led to a segmentation of the world market, with addicts in the region paying three to 10 times more for opium than the going price in Afghanistan, the UN said.
"In 1998, the price of opium in Laos was 68 dollar per kilo," said Leik Boonwaat, the UN office's representative for Laos. "We have seen an increase to 500 dollar per kilo in 2005 and more than double by 2008 to 1,227 dollars."
Myanmar, also known as Burma, remains the main producer of opium in the region, accounting for 410 of the 424 tons produced last year.
Most is grown in the Shan state in north-eastern Myanmar, a region that is largely under the control of insurgents who have signed ceasefires with the ruling junta.
Prices paid to farmers for opium have increased in Myanmar as well, prompting producers to cultivate an additional 800 hectares of poppies in 2008.
"We have seen an increase in prices in Myanmar from 2004 to 2008 with prices known to have doubled from 153 dollar per kilo to 300 per kilo, compared with the farm gate price of 97 dollars per kilo in Afghanistan," Leik said.
Vietnam, which is virtually free of poppy cultivation, remained the largest regional market for the drug.
"There is a big population in Vietnam of 160,000 drug addicts, and that is the main target for the drug trafficking," Leik said.
Rising addiction tends to go hand in hand with rising poppy cultivation and trafficking, he noted.
The UN report cited an increase in heroin addiction in the Golden Triangle's border regions, where villagers have been recruited as "mules" to carry heroin to neighbouring countries.
"What we are seeing is that in the border regions where there are ethnic minority groups, certain villagers have been taught to inject drugs, mainly heroin, to make them dependent on drugs," Leik said. "Then they are used as heroin mules to carry heroin to neighbouring countries."
The huge gap in prices fetched for heroin in South-East Asia and South Asia suggests a fragmentation of the drug market that might be exploited in the future, the United Nations said.
"The upward trend of opium prices in South-East Asia is in sharp contrast to the falling prices on Afghanistan, the world's largest opium-producing country, suggesting that the markets of South-East Asia and south-west Asia may not be, as yet, closely linked," the UN report said.
February 2, 2009
The Earth Times