Bangkok - Myanmar's opium production increased 76 per cent this year, accounting for 16 per cent of the world's current supply of the illicit crop, the United Nations revealed Monday.
'This represents a significant increase in light of last year when Myanmar's share was only 5 per cent,' said the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC)'s South-East Asia opium survey for 2010.
The report estimated Myanmar's opium production this year at 580 tons.
Neighbouring Laos also saw a 58-per-cent rise in opium production this year, although its overall production at at 18 metric tons was still insignificant compared with Afghanistan and Myanmar, the world's two leaders in production of opium and the drug derived from it, heroin.
Afghanistan, which has been the world's leading opium and heroin producer for more than a decade, witnessed a decline in production this year due to a fungus epidemic.
The UNODC has been conducting crop substitution programmes in north-eastern Myanmar and northern Laos since 1996, with the main funding coming from the European Union and governments of Australia and Germany.
Although the programme has succeeded in reducing opium production in South-East Asia from a peak of 1,760 tons in 1996 to 312 tons in 2006, production has been on the rise ever since.
One factor may be weather patterns and declining food supply in the areas, forcing more families into growing opium as a cash crop to buy food.
'Food security has deteriorated in almost all regions where the survey took place,' the UNODC report said. 'The erosion of food security is of particular concern because it could trigger a further increase in opium cultivation.'
Deforestation in these remote areas of Myanmar and Laos may be another reason for the decline in food production.
'Certainly the removal of forest cover has had an impact on the soil, erosion and water retention,' said Gary Lewis, UNODC representative for the Asia-Pacific region.
'There has been massive depletion of forest coverage, and with that comes problems of retaining your top soil, and water retention,'
Opium is a notoriously hardy plant, capable of growing in mountainous terrain with arid soil.
Ongoing conflicts between the Myanmar military regime and various insurgencies based in the Shan States in the east of the country, where the majority of Myanmar's opium is grown, are another reason for a lack of progress in the area.
Myanmar's general elections on November 7 are unlikely to resolve the security threats, observers say.
'I think in terms of the post-election environment, the issues remain,' said Jason Eligh, UNODC's representative in Myanmar. 'We need a resolution in terms of the conflict in those areas,' he said.
The UNODC crop-substitution programme is one of the only international aid programmes in the Shan States.
'I would like to think that our partners in the donor community do not wait for a perfect environment to be in place before they engage, because a lot of this can happen even while there is a lot of insecurity,' Lewis said.
Dec 13, 2010, 7:49 GMT