War-wracked Myanmar is now the world’s top opium producer

Myanmar, already wracked by a brutal civil war, has regained the unenviable title of the world’s biggest opium producer, according to a UN agency report.

The South-East Asian country’s opium output has topped Afghanistan’s, where the ruling Taliban imposed a ban on its production, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) said in its South-East Asia Opium Survey 2023.

The Taliban’s ban has led to a 95% drop in the cultivation of opium poppies, UNODC said last month. Opium, the base from which morphine and heroin are produced, is harvested from poppy flowers.

From 2022 to 2023, Myanmar saw the estimated amount of land used to grow the illicit crop increase 18% to 47,100ha, the new UNODC report said.

“Although the area under cultivation has not returned to historic peaks of nearly 58,000ha cultivated in 2013, after three consecutive years of increases, poppy cultivation in Myanmar is expanding and becoming more productive,” it said.

It also noted that the estimated opium yield expanded by 16% to 22.9kg per ha, topping the previous record set in 2022.

It attributes that increase to “increasingly sophisticated means of cultivation, including increased plot density, improved organisation of plants and enhanced practices, such as the use of irrigation systems and potentially fertilisers”.

The violent political turmoil in Myanmar has contributed to the opium production increase.

“The economic, security and governance disruptions that followed the military takeover of February 2021 continue to drive farmers in remote areas towards opium to make a living,” UNODC Regional Representative Jeremy Douglas said.

The report notes that “opium poppy cultivation in South-East Asia is closely linked to poverty, lack of government services, challenging macroeconomic environments, instability and insecurity.”

For farmers, the bottom line is simple economics. UNODC said the average price paid to opium growers increased by 27% to about US$355/kg (RM1,660/kg), demonstrating the attractiveness of opium as a crop and commodity as well as its strong demand.

The figures mean that farmers earned around 75% more than in the previous year, said the UN agency.

Douglas said that armed conflict in Shan state in Myanmar’s northeast, a traditional growing region and in other border areas “is expected to accelerate this trend”. — AP

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