Today, the lion's share of opium production has moved to the poppy fields of Afghanistan
Oct 12, 2007 04:30 AM
The enduring image of Southeast Asia's Golden Triangle is of brightly coloured poppy fields, opium-smoking hill tribes and heroin labs hidden in the jungle.
But the reality is that after years of producing the lion's share of the world's opium, the Golden Triangle is now only a bit player in the global heroin trade.
"The mystique may remain, and the geography will be celebrated in the future by novelists," says Antonio Maria Costa, executive director of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. "But from our vantage point, we see a region that is rapidly moving toward an opium-free status."
The decline of the Golden Triangle is a major, if little noticed, milestone in the war on drugs. The question now is whether that success can be sustained.
Three decades ago, the northernmost reaches of Laos, Thailand and Burma, also known as Myanmar, produced more than 70 per cent of all the opium sold worldwide, most of which was refined into heroin. Today, the area produces about 5 per cent of the world total, says Costa's agency. What happened?
Economic pressure from China, crackdowns on opium farmers and a switch by criminal syndicates to methamphetamine production appear to have had the biggest impact. At the same time, some insurgent groups that once were financed with drug money now say they are urging farmers to eradicate their poppy fields.
As a result, the Golden Triangle has been eclipsed by the Golden Crescent – the poppy-growing area in and around Afghanistan that is now the source of an estimated 92 per cent of the world's opium, according to the United Nations.
Much of the growth in opium production there is in areas controlled by the Taliban, which United States officials say uses revenue from opium and heroin to finance itself.
This shift to Afghanistan has had major consequences for the global heroin market: a near doubling of opium production worldwide in less than two decades.
Poppies grown in the fertile valleys of southern Afghanistan yield on average four times more opium than those grown in upland Southeast Asia.
A striking aspect of the decline of the Golden Triangle is the role China has played in pressing opium-growing regions to eradicate poppy crops. A major market for Golden Triangle heroin, China has seen a spike in addicts and HIV infections from contaminated needles.
The area of Burma along the Chinese border, which once produced about 30 per cent of the country's opium, was declared opium-free last year by the United Nations.
Local authorities, who are autonomous from Burma's central military government, have banned poppy cultivation and welcomed Chinese investment in rubber, sugar cane and tea plantations, casinos and other businesses.
"China has had an underestimated role," says Martin Jelsma, a Dutch researcher who has written on the illicit drug trade in Asia.
"Their main leverage is economic – these border areas of Burma are by now economically much more connected to China than the rest of Burma. For local authorities, it's quite clear that, for any investments they want to attract, co-operation with China is a necessity."
Burma remains the world's second-leading source of opium but is a distant second; its production fell by 80 per cent over the last decade.
Insurgents have long used opium to help finance civil wars in the Golden Triangle. But some are now working to destroy the crop.
At least one faction of the Shan State Army, a group that long had ties to the heroin business, says it is leading eradication efforts.
Kon Jern, a military commander for the group, which is based along Burma's border with northern Thailand, is cracking down because government militias and corrupt officials profit from opium.
"They sell the drugs, they buy weapons, and they use those weapons to attack us," he says. The United Nations credits the Burmese military government with leading the eradication effort in Shan areas.
In Laos, where the political situation is more stable, the government began a crackdown in the 1990s to increase its international credibility and because officials realized their own children were at risk, says Leik Boonwaat, the representative in Laos for the UN's Office on Drugs and Crime. Laos finally outlawed opium in 1996.
He says the government also saw that opium did little to help poor farmers who grew poppies.
"It's mostly the organized crime syndicates that made most of the profits."
The amount of land cultivated in Laos for opium has fallen 94 per cent since 1998. The country produces so little opium that it may now be a net importer of the drug, the United Nations says.
Yet experts warn that the reductions may not hold unless farmers develop other ways to make a living.
Pierre-Arnaud Chouvy, an opium specialist at the National Centre for Scientific Research in Paris, says it took Thailand 30 years to wean opium farmers from poppy production, a transition led by the Thai royal family, which encouraged hill tribes to use their cooler climate to produce coffee, macadamia nuts and green vegetables.
Kon, the rebel commander in Burma, says farmers are finding it difficult to switch crops.
"If they change and grow other kinds of plants, nobody comes to buy their products – the transportation is not good," he explains.
Experts say that to stay free of opium, isolated villages that depended on it will need assistance and investment for better roads, schools and clinics.
But Burma, with its ruling junta, poses a dilemma for Western countries.
The United States has an embargo on trade with the country, and the European Union has suspended trade privileges and defence co-operation, limiting its aid to humanitarian assistance.
"This policy of boycott and isolation has, of course, meant that only very little development aid and humanitarian assistance is flowing into the country," says Jelsma, the Dutch expert on drugs. "That makes the chances of the sustainability of this decline very questionable."