Sustainable Livelihoods

Essential problem

Preventing resurgence of drug production and attaining livelihood security

The major part of opium poppy cultivation in South-East Asia takes place in Lao PDR, Myanmar and Thailand, with a total area of 47,917 hectares in 2011. The Government of Viet Nam indicates that only a negligible amount of opium poppy is cultivated there. Between 1988 and 2006, the cultivation of opium in these three countries decreased from an estimated total of 157,900 hectares in 1998 to only 24,157 hectares in 2006. However, since then, opium poppy cultivation has increased in Myanmar and a mixed pattern of increases and decreases have been observed in Lao PDR and Thailand. Overall, opium poppy cultivation in the region has almost doubled since 2006.

Opium Poppy Cultivation in South East Asia, 1998-2011

Opium Poppy cultivation in South East Asia (1998-2011), Source: Opium Poppy Cultivation in South-East Asia 2011

Continued efforts are needed to sustain the decline and to prevent the resumption of cultivation particularly in Lao PDR and Myanmar. As a result of a loss of opium-generated income, families which used to grow opium are now facing very difficult living conditions - often with widespread food shortages for several months of the year. With high levels of poverty, the recent rapid increase in the price of raw opium and an absence of effective law enforcement, there is a high risk of a return to opium poppy cultivation in these communities. UNODC will therefore continue to support a programme of sustainable livelihoods in high-priority target areas, and at the request of partners to do so.
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Strategic concerns

  • UNODC estimates there has been a combined 21% increase in the area of opium poppy cultivation over the past year in Myanmar, Thailand and Lao PDR, from 47,917 ha in 2011 to 58,009 ha in 2012. This is the sixth consecutive year that there has been an increase in opium poppy cultivation in the region. For example, in Myanmar, which is the world's second largest opium poppy cultivation ground after Afghanistan, the production this year has increased by 17%.
  • In Lao PDR and Myanmar, the key factors for the resurgence in opium production include: (i) extreme poverty and food insecurity; (ii) lack of alternative cash income generating opportunities (including access to credit and markets); and (iii) rising opium prices, continued demand and contract farming by transnational criminals. In Myanmar, political and ethnic conflicts also contribute to a lack of drug law enforcement measures. Responses to the problem need to take these factors into account.

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Implications for the future

Integrated and sustained Alternative Development programmes/ and Sustainable Livelihoods continue to demonstrate clear positive results International experience over the past 30 years demonstrates that - when given alternative, legal and sustainable alternatives - most farmers will not grow illicit crops. Tackling poverty and the socio-economic factors underlying illicit crop cultivation in a holistic manner (instead of simply eradicating opium crops) is the key to this sustainability. UNODC will continue to demonstrate that integrated AD projects do work to both reducing opium poppy cultivation and improving the livelihoods of former poppy growers.
Addressing issues of good governance as a part of AD support During 2011, UNODC started to design AD-related projects in Lao PDR to address the issue of good governance and democratic institutional building at the village and district levels.

These projects underline the importance of strong, transparent and accountable as well as democratically-elected village development institutions in ensuring effective and equitable village development processes. The projects are designed to contribute towards instilling good governance principles that will support and enable improving food security, provision of sustainable livelihood options and the reduction of poverty within the households of target communities.
Promoting South- South Cooperation in the Lao PDR

Since 2009, the Royal Project Foundation and the Thai Highland Research Development Institute has been piloting sustainable alternative livelihoods development assistance in Oudomxay. Interventions has seen the household incomes of some farmers increase more than six fold. To formalize this partnership, His Serene Highness, Prince Bhitsatej Rajani, Chairperson of the Royal Project Foundation, Dr Siripong Hungspreung, Director of the Highland Research Development Institute and Mr. Leik Boonwaat, UNODC Representative to the Lao PDR signed a Letter of Intent on the 21 February 2012.

This Letter of Intent embodies the understanding of the Royal Project Foundation and the Highland Research Development Institute and UNODC to the common concern and need to sustain illicit drug crop elimination in the Lao PDR through the provision of sustainable alternative livelihoods development and poverty alleviation interventions for former opium poppy growing communities. It underlines the intent to jointly promote technical cooperation for food security and sustainable alternative livelihood development in the Lao PDR.

Thailand has more than 40 years of extensive experience in continuously providing sustainable alternative livelihood development to former opium poppy cultivating farmers.

In Myanmar, opium poppy eradication efforts have increased, but this cannot be the principle response to tackling the root causes of the problem The continued annual increase in illicit cultivation of poppy is seen as a serious issue of concern by many high-level government authorities, including President Thein Sein. In response Myanmar has dramatically increased its eradication efforts for the current opium poppy growing season. In the three months from the start of September 2011 they reported eradication of 14,500 ha of poppy, of which 14,200 ha occurred in Shan State. This is a significant increase from the 8,268 ha they reported eradicating in the 12-month period from September 2010 to August 2011.

However, eradication alone cannot be the principal response. A sustainable long-term solution to eliminating opium poppy cultivation requires the institution of alternative development programmes which respond to the cultivation push factors of poverty, food insecurity, landlessness, and household indebtedness.
Unless viable and relevant alternatives are provided to opium farmers there is little hope that current widespread eradication efforts alone can effectively and sustainably reduce opium poppy cultivation in Myanmar.
Insecurity in Myanmar's Shan State continues to impact negatively on ongoing and proposed development efforts The recent signing of cease-fire agreements between the government and several ethnic forces in Myanmar is a welcome and a very positive development, particularly in regard to responding to poppy cultivation given the intensity of cultivation evident in these conflict areas. Achieving a peaceful political solution to the ethnic conflicts has been indicated a priority by the President and his new government, as well as many other external observers. We hope these cease-fire agreements are a first step on this path to achieving a lasting, peaceful solution to the conflicts in these border areas.

However, UNODC recognises that these agreements need to be implemented and adhered to. Access needs to be granted to work in these areas. Finally, development assistance needs to be provided urgently to support the households in these conflict areas. Only then can we effectively address their food insecurity and poverty situations in order to support the process of moving many current poppy-growing households away from their current reliance on opium poppy.
Long-term efforts, adequate funding and strong partnerships are required for success  An important lesson learned from the AD experience in Thailand is the need for long-term, consistent support to ensure the sustainable elimination of opium poppy. The current trend with project cycles of just two to three years is not sufficient to ensure sustainable changes in livelihoods. There will be a continued need to convince donors of the need for longer project cycles.

Much higher levels of overall funding are also required to expand services to all those opium growing communities who need support in developing alternative livelihoods. 


Implications for follow-up in 2013 and beyond

UNODC's programme of work in AD/SL will continue to:

  • Give focus to food security and poverty reduction objectives in project development activities.
  • Advocate for and support integrated and sustained AD/SL efforts in Myanmar and Lao PDR, and the mainstreaming of these efforts into government programmes. 
  • Advocate for an expansion of AD/SL efforts, including increased donor support for Myanmar as well as for Lao PDR.
  • In Lao PDR, develop and support implementation of strategies that help address environmental degradation and climate change in the current and former opium-growing communities. 

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