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Burma: opium cultivation thrives thanks to chaos

In a field surrounded by In the hills, agricultural workers in single file make a cut on each poppy flower bulb to release the opium resin.

The next morning, they will collect the thick, sticky liquid that leaked overnight and package it into packets intended to become heroin after processing.

According to the United Nations, Burma became the world's largest producer of opium in 2023, overtaking Afghanistan after the Taliban government launched a massive crackdown against the crop.

In Burma, the poppy has long flourished near the border with Thailand and Laos, in mountainous regions where ethnic rebel groups and criminal organizations transform it into heroin and where law enforcement turns a blind eye to this trade, estimated to be a billion dollars, according to analysts.

Burma: opium cultivation thrives thanks to chaos

Farm workers cut poppy flower bulbs to release the resin in an illegal field, February 26, 2024 in Pekon, Myanmar © AFP – STR

After the military takeover in 2021, which flattened the economy and sparked armed conflicts across the country, farmers in other regions turned to the crop to get by financially.

“Before, I only had a few poppy plants (..) This year I planted more than a hectare”, explains Aung Moe to AFP Oo, from his field located somewhere between Shan State and Karen State (east).

“Growing poppies is the best way to feed my family,” he says, without worrying about legality. His harvest of resin, which he estimates at 16 kilos, should bring him around 4,500 dollars.

– The poppy replaces corn –

Aye Aye Thein, another farmer in the area, grew rice, corn, beans and avocados. But when conflict between the junta and its opponents broke out in this region, she was forced to leave her fields.

Burma: opium cultivation thrives thanks to chaos

A farm worker cuts a poppy flower bulb in an illegal field on February 26, 2024 in Pekon, Myanmar © AFP – STR

Since the coup d'état, which ended a rare democratic parenthesis in the country, the conflict has led to the displacement of nearly two million people, according to the United Nations.

< p>Even before Aye Aye Thein had to leave her home, the fall in the value of the local currency, the kyat, had made the purchase of agricultural inputs, such as fertilizer, much more expensive. “Since the political situation has changed and there is fighting, we can no longer grow anything in our own fields,” she says.

Aung Moe Oo explains: “To put our rice or corn on the market, there are intermediaries and a lot of costs that we cannot afford.” “That's why we grow poppy flowers,” he continued.

The raging conflict is disrupting transport and slowing exports of agricultural products, said the World Bank late last year.

At the same time, poppy cultivation is becoming more sophisticated, according to the United Nations, thanks to increased investment and improved irrigation, which helps increase yields.

Burma: opium cultivation thrives thanks to chaos

A farm worker cuts a poppy flower bulb in an illegal field on February 26, 2024 in Pekon, Myanmar © AFP – STR

Burma produced around 1,080 tonnes of opium in 2023, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, compared to 790 tonnes the previous year.

Aung Moe Oo said he was unaware that his country was now the world's largest producer of the narcotic. “I only know the poppy fields in my region.”

But as the conflict is not about to end, he thinks that the harvest of this year could be even more important, at least in its locality. “There are more and more displaced people and we can't do any other work,” he says.

All rights of reproduction and representation reserved. © (2024) Agence France-Presse

Teilor Stone

By Teilor Stone

Teilor Stone has been a reporter on the news desk since 2013. Before that she wrote about young adolescence and family dynamics for Styles and was the legal affairs correspondent for the Metro desk. Before joining Thesaxon , Teilor Stone worked as a staff writer at the Village Voice and a freelancer for Newsday, The Wall Street Journal, GQ and Mirabella. To get in touch, contact me through my teilor@nizhtimes.com 1-800-268-7116