Towards an opium-free Lao (PDR)

On 14 February 2006, this South-East Asian country celebrated the remarkable progress it has made over the last eight years in eliminating the opium poppy crop.

Local people build a water pipeline.In 1998, Laos harvested close to 27,000 hectares of opium poppy and was the world's third largest producer after Afghanistan and Myanmar. With half of its yield consumed locally by 63,000 opiate abusers, Laos also had one of the highest rates of addiction. By contrast, the latest data shows that cultivation stands at a mere 1,800 hectares and the number of opiate abusers has dropped to 20,000.

But not all the recent figures are promising. A 2005 UNODC survey found that poppy fields were eradicated faster than farmers were provided with alternative sources of income. According to the Opium survey and impact study, more than half of the farmers had not yet developed cash or staple food crops to replace opium poppy. Moreover, former opium-producing areas continued to record the lowest human development indicators in the country.

Speaking in the Laotian capital, Vientiane, where he joined the 14 February celebrations, UNODC Executive Director Antonio Maria Costa warned the international community: "Laos is at a critical juncture. The tremendous successes that have been achieved could be reversed if sufficient assistance is not provided. This would have worrying implications for security and economic development throughout the region".

Mr. Costa added that the Laos Government must remain vigilant during the post-opium phase, as the governments of neighbouring Viet Nam and Thailand have been. Despite being opium-free since the 1990s, both countries still eradicate many hectares of opium poppy every year.

In Laos, opium is harvested mainly in remote, mountainous and poor areas in the northern provinces. While traffickers in Australia sell one kilo of heroin for up to 500 times the price of the 10 kilos of raw opium required, the ethnic minorities that grow the crop remain mired in poverty.

Their situation might well be deteriorating. "Opium was produced because of poverty", says Leik Boonwaat, UNODC Representative in Laos, "but its easy availability led to widespread abuse contributing to even greater poverty". Addiction usually affects middle-aged to elderly men, who are then unable to contribute significantly to the family income. Poppy farmers who are not addicted are better off but live in precarious conditions. They use opium as cash or medicine.

A comprehensive solution

Growing peaches earns My Ya Wa (right) more money than opium and gives her peace of mind.One of the world's least developed countries, Laos cannot be expected to deal with drug production, trafficking and consumption on its own. At the same time, eradication alone will not reap lasting results. Solving the drug problem calls for a balanced approach that integrates alternative development, demand reduction, law enforcement and civic awareness.

The UNODC 2006-2009 Strategic Programme Framework (SPF) for Laos incorporates these four elements and will provide special assistance to 1,000 former opium-producing villages that are at a high risk of reverting to opium poppy cultivation. Although most of its US$18.4 million budget will be invested in alternative development projects, the SPF also focuses on treatment and rehabilitation, HIV/AIDS and drug abuse prevention, strengthening the rule of law, training the judiciary, supporting law enforcement and fostering international cooperation.

Alternative development programmes address the causes of poverty and seek to provide farmers with other viable sources of income. These programmes go beyond the agricultural sector and also include local capacity building, infrastructural improvements and access to socio-economic services. The underlying principle is that farmers who have access to arable land, micro-credits, new roads, markets for their goods, improved health care and education will stop growing opium voluntarily and have a chance to pull themselves out of poverty.

Laotian women have experienced first-hand how much better life can be after opium. "When opium poppy was grown", Boonwaat explains, "it was mostly the women who bore the heavy task of waking early and walking for many hours up steep mountain tracks to undertake the labour-intensive chores associated with the production of opium". They often returned to abusive and opiate-dependent spouses. Today, women work closer to the village, where they farm other crops and raise livestock, earning cash and self-respect in the process.

Opium elimination has also persuaded many drug abusers to seek help and prompted communities to request government assistance with treatment and rehabilitation. Partly due to community-based programmes, addiction has declined sharply in Laos. In turn, domestic violence decreased and household productivity and income increased. In light of these successes, continued efforts should be made to assist former and current opiate abusers, and services should be expanded to include prevention and treatment for the growing number of people who abuse amphetamine-type stimulants (ATS).

Since the mid-1990s, ATS trafficking and abuse have increased as transnational criminal syndicates have diversified their products and used aggressive marketing strategies to sell them. These criminal groups are also carrying out more transit trafficking operations. Laos is a key transit and storage country for ATS and heroin coming from Myanmar, while precursor chemicals used to produce illicit drugs are crossing the Lao border in the other direction.

The Laotian Government and the international community must respond to these emerging challenges in the same way they have dealt with opium eradication: by creating an environment that enables sustainable human development while targeting illicit drugs and transnational organized crime.

The Golden Triangle

After France annexed Laos in 1893, opium monopolies were established to finance the heavy initial expense of colonial rule. The French imported over 60 tons of opium per year from the Middle East for this purpose.

When World War II cut off supply, opium production in Indochina (now Cambodia, Laos and Viet Nam) increased from 7 tons in 1940 to 60 tons in 1944. Following the end of French occupation, opium continued to be traded to fund the covert activities of paramilitary forces in the region.

Opium poppy cultivation in South-East Asia expanded significantly during the 1950s due to its suppression in China and the Islamic Republic of Iran. The term Golden Triangle was first coined in 1971 to refer to the opium-producing highlands in Laos, Thailand and Burma (now Myanmar). At its peak in 1989, production in the region exceeded 3,000 tons.

Today, the situation is different: Thailand is opium-free and Laos no longer supplies opiates to the illicit drug market. The Chairman of Laos' National Committee for Drug Control and Supervision, Minister Soubanh Srithirath, has suggested the international community stop using the term Golden Triangle.