Alternative Development and Sustainable livelihoods

Lack of alternative livelihoods results in resumption of opium poppy cultivation and vulnerable communities being targeted by transnational gangs to facilitate illicit cross border trafficking

The total area under opium poppy cultivation in the Lao PDR for the 2008 season was estimated at 1,600 ha - an increase of 6 % compared to the 2007 estimate of 1,500 ha. The fact that opium elimination has outpaced the provision of alternative development has not improved an already difficult situation. Although there has been an overall increase in rural incomes since 2005, incomes in former opium poppy growing villages are rising at a slower pace than non opium poppy growing villages .

In 2008, due to the lack of alternative development assistance, some farmers reverted to opium cultivation in order to survive. This mainly happened in remote and isolated Northern areas where government control and development programmes are the weakest. In such an environment, the high price paid for raw opium in the village is a strong incentive to grow opium poppy. As this occurs, drug use increases which directly contributes to increased poverty and offsets profits made from the sale of opium.

Although the Lao Government has reached insignificant levels in opium poppy cultivation, there is a need to expand alternative development assistance and provide more opportunities to former opium poppy farmers at the same time to continue treatment and rehabilitation of remaining opium addicts and prevent relapse. Official Government reports indicate that there were still a total of 12,680 opium addicts in 2008 (down from 63,000 in 1998) with a relapse rate of 34% in 2008.

With the Lao PDR in a transitional post-opium setting, it is estimated that more than 59% of the opium poppy growing communities do not yet have the means or time to develop new alternative livelihoods. Out of these 59%, 15% are considered at risk of quickly reverting to poppy cultivation. In 2005, the Government of Lao PDR and UNODC jointly developed the "National Programme Strategy to Sustain Opium Elimination in the post Opium Scenario" that targeted a total of 1,100 villages at risk of reverting to opium poppy cultivation because of the lack of alternative livelihood options. In those villages, urgent assistance is needed to prevent a return to cultivation of illicit opium. And ensuing loss of confidence of farmers which, associated with the spread of transnational organized criminal activity in border areas, would make elimination an even more difficult task second time around. LCDC/UNODC surveys indicate that some vulnerable communities living along the Lao Vietnamese borders are being targeted by transnational gangs and deliberately introduced to injecting drug use. After becoming drug dependant members of these mainly ethnic hill tribe communities are forced to work as human mules to carry drugs across the porous mountains to neighbouring countries.