Declining opium cultivation in Myanmar may be leading to drop in heroin production but the market is shifting to synthetic drugs like amphetamines in the country and its neighbourhood.
Poppy cultivation in Myanmar registered a 11% decline in 2019 and the acreage under the opium crop came down by 33,100 hectares (ha) over the previous year, the Myanmar Opium Survey released this week by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) says.
Except in the Kachin State up north on the China border, where cultivation increased slightly, all other opium producing states registered decline of acreage under the devil crop.
Shan State, which accounts for 85% of cultivation in Myanmar, saw a drop of 14% to 28,000 hectares, continuing a downward trend that started in 2015 when Shan had an estimated 50,300 hectares under opium cultivation.
Kachin state accounted for 12% or 3,900 hectares in 2019, and Chin and Kayah states together for 3% or 1,200 hectares.
The national average yield per ha was estimated at 15.4kg/ha in 2019, a 9% increase over 2018.
So the drop in acreage did not necessarily bring down drug output correspondingly.
Jeremy Douglas, UNODC Regional Representative in Myanmar, told mediapersons that the drop in acreage under opium was ‘significant’ in 2019.
“We will continue to work with Myanmar and communities in Shan to assist the transition from opium to sustainable agriculture to develop a viable plantation economy. We are also discussing options to help Kachin state after weighing the situation there.”
The report also highlights opium price data, which is encouraging.
It says average farm-gate values of fresh and dry opium decreased by 4% and 7% between 2018 and 2019 – over the last four years farm-gate prices dropped a staggering 63% and 51%.
The decline in values combined with the reduction in supply again suggests that demand for heroin in the region is dropping, as the drug market continues to shift strongly towards synthetic drugs that should provide pointers for drug enforcing agencies in Bangladesh and Northeast India.
At the same time, lower farm-gate prices make opium cultivation less attractive and viable, contributing to declining cultivation.
Although demand for heroin continues to drop, organized crime groups still generate substantial revenues from the drug in Myanmar.
Domestic heroin consumption of 6 tons is valued at up to US$290 million, and the export of heroin generates approximately US$1 billion locally.
At the same time, opium cultivation and heroin production in Myanmar continue to pose a significant public health and security challenge for Southeast Asia and neighbouring East Asia and Australia.
An estimated 3 million heroin users remain in the region, with the retail market generating approximately US$ 10 billion annually.
The report also reconfirms the link between conflict and opium, with the highest levels of cultivation continuing to take place in unstable and conflict prone areas of Shan and Kachin.
Opium cultivation, heroin production and trafficking, and the evolving illicit drug economy, are affecting peace and stability in the country and surrounding border areas.
Regional Representative Douglas says major international organized crime groups are using conflict areas in the north to source heroin and produce and traffic synthetic drugs.
“They have the access to territory and relationships they need to do business,” he said.
“The situation here is having a profound impact on the broader Asia Pacific region – it is in everyone’s interests to address the illicit drug economy in Myanmar and the Mekong.”
The influence of opium poppy cultivation is being mitigated in some areas through alternative development programmes that provide viable sources of legitimate income.
Minister of Home Affairs Lieutenant General Kyaw Swe told mediapersons, “The Government is pleased to see further declines, but we need to provide more support to opium producing areas if we are going to continue to make progress and ensure sustainability.”
“We will also expand collaboration with Mekong MOU countries and UNODC to address organized crime and the production and cross-border trafficking of drugs and precursor chemicals.”
Other UNODC programmes are helping address different aspects of the drug challenge, including by increasing regional cooperation to address organized crime and trafficking, control precursor chemicals, improve border management, and to provide access to health and social services.
Myanmar’s Golden Triangle bordering China, Laos and Thailand is one of the two leading producer of illicit drugs, the other being Afghanistan’s Golden Crescent.