PACHAKALO, Shan State, Myanmar – It was the middle of the rainy season in Myanmar, when planting begins in the poppy fields of Shan State. Days can go by before the sun briefly appears, only to be quickly obscured again by grey clouds and the steady rain that helps the crops flourish.
For the farmers of one such crop, it takes a two-hour trek through dense forest to reach their field. Hidden in the mountains, it is accessible only by way of winding, slippery footpaths, near-vertical climbs and the crossing of at least two streams forded only by fallen logs, which they must traverse while carrying baskets, seeds and tools.
The farmers, small and thin, easily navigate the treacherous trails that are part and parcel of the only jobs generations of Shan State villagers have ever known.
One of Pachakalo’s four leaders, U Htan Ngwe, 53, says there are 305 households in his village, 300 of which contain at least one member involved in small-scale poppy farming. “In the remaining five households, they do not farm poppy because they are simply too old,” U Htan Ngwe says.
One of the younger villagers, Nu Kyi, 23, cannot remember when she stopped going to school, only that it was when she was very young. Elders say the average resident is educated to elementary level.
Nu Kyi, slender with a wide smile, has worked in poppy fields for almost a decade, since she was 15. Asked if she likes the work, she says: “It is not a matter of like or dislike, it is the only job to do in my village.”
Another villager, U Htun, 78, has been farming poppy in the lush mountains of Shan State for about 40 years, and over that time has been joined in the illegal effort by his daughter, grandson and in-laws.
They are part of what has become something of a cultural and familial tradition of small-scale poppy farming in Myanmar, which is now second only to Afghanistan as a producer of raw opium.
And their efforts show no sign of abating.
A recent report by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) estimates Myanmar had 55,000 hectares of poppies under cultivation in 2015, most of it in Shan State. Some say that is a conservative estimate and place the figure at closer to 160,000 hectares.
By either measure, Myanmar is by far the most prolific producer of opium in the Golden Triangle of Myanmar, Laos and Thailand, Southeast Asia’s illegal drugs hub. The report notes that, after a decline, the country’s opium production numbers have tripled since 2006 and remained stable for a third consecutive year. It accounts for 91 per cent of the Golden Triangle’s raw opium, which is often further refined into heroin.
Opium and heroin produced in Myanmar provides subsistence for farmers, but also supplies a growing number of addicts in the region, including China, which accounts for 70 per cent of heroin users in Asia, according to the UNODC. One of the most devastated areas is Yunnan province, near the border of Myanmar. The southern province is the main entry point in China for Myanmar’s illegal drugs, and has become home to half of China’s registered drug addicts, according to the UNODC. The drugs are often then transported to Shanghai, Beijing, Hong Kong and further overseas.
U Htun, his daughter, 54, grandson, 30, and other villagers would rather not farm the land for poppy, which not only fuels drug addictions worldwide but also puts them at the mercy of the Myanmar army, which regularly threatens to destroy their crops.
“There is no alternative,” U Htun says through a translator at a gathering in the home of a fellow farmer in the village of Pachakalo. “There are no other jobs for us to do. It is very simple – if we don’t grow it, we don’t eat.”
Experts agree there are few options. “Most farmers grow it because of poverty,” says Tom Kramer, a researcher for the Netherlands’ Transnational Institute who has been visiting Myanmar regularly since 1993. “They grow poppy as a cash crop to address food shortages and to access health and education.”
Attempts have been made over the years to convince farmers to grow other crops, with little success.
In 2006, U Aung Soe, 60, invested 1.5 million kyats (US$1,268) to switch to sugar cane. By the time he harvested his second crop, the price for sugar cane had plummeted. U Aung Soe lost his life’s savings. He did not have a job for two years, but eventually returned to work – growing poppy. “In our hearts we sincerely want to stop farming poppy, but it is our only real option because there is no other suitable crop,” says U Aung Soe.
Similar attempts have been made with coffee beans and, most recently, avocados. But poppy remains the king of the cash crops in Shan State due to its light weight and long shelf life. Its compactness is an important factor in Myanmar, where infrastructure is notoriously weak. Village roads are narrow and unpaved, making it impossible or prohibitively expensive to get heavy, large crops onto trucks and into markets. Electricity is unreliable, making processing plants unrealistic.
And unlike sugar cane, coffee and avocados, poppy is eminently portable. While still on the stem, an immature bud is scored several times with a knife to allow a yellow-brown residue to leak out. The sticky residue then dries and is scraped off, ready for further processing. This process has not changed since ancient times, and neither has the resulting convenient, compact size of the product.
A rattan basket full of dried residue from an average year’s harvest from a typical poppy field is easily carried through the steep and narrow forest pathways. The raw opium, which can comfortably fit into a large backpack, will be sold to an agent, who pays about 600,000 kyats. That will be barely provide a family with health care, food and education for a year.
With skirmishes between the Myanmar army and rebel groups still occurring, the drug’s portability is an extra blessing.
“In conflict-affected areas, opium is the perfect crop as buyers come to the village,” says Kramer. “And unlike other crops, opium is easy to carry and can be stored for some years.”
Myanmar has endured decades of convoluted civil war, with dozens of insurgent ethnic groups fighting the army and each other for territory, natural resources, the right to self-determination, religious freedom and the drug trade. Peace talks have been held in fits and starts for years. Ceasefires have been agreed in the past, most recently in October, but the fighting persists.
The ongoing ethnic conflicts and poppy growing are inextricably linked, according to experts. The less developed a village, the more prevalent the opium fields, according to the UNODC.
“There is no infrastructure without peace, hence more poppy growing [in areas such as Shan State],” says Troels Vester, the Myanmar country manager for the UNODC.
The quality of Myanmar’s raw opium that contains the powerful opioids morphine and codeine is said to be superior to that of Afghanistan’s. In addition to global recreational use, the highly addictive drug is regularly used in villages to treat diarrhoea, pain and for anaesthesia. This is critical in the small, poor villages of northern Myanmar that do not have access to modern health care or essential medicines, according to Kramer, the Dutch researcher.
He says opium is also sometimes offered to guests at weddings and funerals, with some small amounts saved in case of an unexpected expense such as a sudden illness that requires hospital treatment.
Presented with statistics showing increasing opium and heroin addiction in neighbouring countries, U Aung Soe expresses concern as well as frustration.
“I have not seen or heard of these statistics, but I trust you that they are accurate,” said U Aung Soe.
“But without an alternative, poppy is our only way of survival.”
This story was originally published in the South China Morning Post.