Yangon (Myanmar), 23 March 2012 - Every year, UNODC survey teams roam the poppy fields of Myanmar to ground-truth satellite images and validate the cultivation production estimates on which its annual report will be based.
The work is always sensitive and sometimes dangerous. It has just ended and the resulting report will now take a few months to compile.
This year's report will take on great significance for two reasons. First, the government reports significant eradication which, depending on its extent, could have a huge impact on the opium and heroin market flows in the region (most Myanmar opiates are consumed in China). Second, the Government of Myanmar has indicated its intention to make drug control a priority, within the overall context of the fast-paced political changes underway.
When it is launched later in the year, the UNODC South-East Asia Annual Opium Poppy Survey will perhaps be more closely reviewed than ever.
"Our surveyors are unsung heroes," says Mr. Gary Lewis, UNODC Regional Representative for East Asia and the Pacific. "These guys slog over hills and through rough country for months on a stretch to get us the information we need. The work they have been doing for over a decade is critical to UNODC's efforts to assess the extent, patterns and trend of opium poppy cultivation."
The surveys are conducted in both Myanmar and Lao PDR. In each country the methodology is different. In Lao PDR, which accounts for less than 5 per cent of the region's cultivation, aerial surveys are used.
In Myanmar, the survey is more complex. Jointly conducted by the Myanmar Central Committee for Drug Abuse Control (CCDAC) and UNODC, this year's opium poppy survey will be the 10th annual survey of its kind in the country. Combining the use of satellite images with ground verification, the survey was conducted in Shan state, where nine-tenths of Myanmar's opium poppy cultivation usually takes place. In addition, rapid assessments were conducted in Kayah and Chin states to assess opium poppy cultivation levels and monitor possible cultivation displacement. An opium-free certification mission was also conducted in Special Region 1 (Kokang), Special Region 2 (Wa) and Special Region 4 (Mongla).
UNODC, in partnership with more than 140 national surveyors, carried out the field work from December 2011 to mid-March 2012. Ground verification data for satellite imagery survey was collected in collaboration with the remote sensing and GIS section of the Forest Department in Myanmar's Ministry of Environmental Conservation and Forestry.
Now that the survey's ground operations are complete, the UNODC Illicit Crop Monitoring Program (ICMP) will conduct - in close cooperation with the Government of Myanmar - a thorough analysis of the information collected to assess survey results. The main findings will then be presented in the South-East Asia Opium Survey 2012, which will be released sometime during the third quarter of 2012.
The data also assists the development of a series of coping strategies which will assist opium poppy farmers, many of whom grow poppies and harvest opium because they see no other alternatives out of their poverty, indebtedness and, in most cases, significant household food insecurity. In some areas of Shan State up to 80 per cent of village households are involved in opium poppy cultivation.
Recent ceasefire agreements, ongoing negotiations between the Government and ethnic groups, and indications of strong recent eradication efforts give grounds for cautious optimism for next year's opium poppy survey - and a call for international assistance to help Myanmar create infrastructure, markets, schools and sustainable livelihoods so that farmers have an alternative to growing poppy.
"These ceasefires present the opportunity for a new beginning, but what is really needed for the people of Shan is a permanent end to all conflict through the acquisition of a lasting peace," says Mr. Jason Eligh, UNODC Myanmar Country Manager, "and the path to achieving this peace is lined with poppies."
UNODC's Illicit Crop Monitoring Programme (ICMP) promotes the development and maintenance of a global network of illicit crop monitoring systems. ICMP provides overall coordination as well as quality control, technical support and supervision to UNODC-supported illicit crop surveys at the country level.
The implementation of UNODC's Illicit Crop Monitoring Programme in South-East Asia was made possible thanks to financial assistance from the Governments of Japan and the United States of America.
You can download Illicit Crop Monitoring Programme Survey Reports and other publications here.