As Afghanistan’s opium production plummets under the Taliban’s strict ban, Myanmar has emerged as the new global leader in poppy cultivation in 2023, driven by the country’s ongoing civil war and economic crisis, a new U.N. report says.
The report, Southeast Asia Opium Survey 2023, released on Tuesday, says that Myanmar’s opium poppy cultivation area soared by 18% this year to 47,000 hectares, the highest level since 2013 and the first time it has surpassed Afghanistan since 2002.
Afghanistan, which had been the world’s top opium producer for more than two decades, saw its cultivation area drop from 233,000 hectares in 2022 to less than 11,000 this year, due to the enforcement of a prohibition on poppy farming by the ruling Taliban.
The UNODC estimates that Myanmar’s farmers harvested enough poppy this year to produce up to 1,080 metric tons of dry opium, generating up to $2.5 billion for the entire supply chain, from farmers to traffickers. Most of the opium is processed into heroin and smuggled across Asia and beyond, often through neighboring Thailand.
“The instability and lack of security in Myanmar have caused really significant economic turmoil the past couple of years, resulting in people turning to other ways to make money. So, essentially people that had options before, when the economy was doing comparatively well, are going back to opium production. It’s basically an income earner for them when they have few or no other options,” Jeremy Douglas, the regional representative of the U.N. Office of Drugs and Crime, told VOA.
Opium also offers more incentives for farmers, as the drug traffickers and middlemen pay higher prices per kilo and invest in improving their irrigation and fertilizer systems, which increase the yields per hectare.
“You put it all together, and of course you’re going to see an increase,” Douglas said.
The UNODC report warns that the expected global opium and heroin shortage caused by Afghanistan’s poppy decline is likely to push prices even higher, which will encourage more farmers in Myanmar to start or expand their poppy cultivation in the next season.
Douglas said the same shortage is also likely to see heroin from the notorious Golden Triangle region — where the lawless borderlands of Myanmar, Laos and Thailand meet — reaching markets in Europe and North America again, after being displaced by Afghan heroin more than a decade ago.
“There’s still significant demand out there, and it’s highly likely that we’re going to start seeing Golden Triangle heroin returning to markets that it hasn’t been in for quite some years,” he said.
He said that will also benefit many of the armed groups involved in Myanmar’s civil war, both those allied with and opposed to the junta. While most of the groups rely mainly on methamphetamine trafficking, opium and heroin are still steady sources of income.
“If the global heroin supply continues to dry up due to the situation in Afghanistan, it’s going to be an incentive to back more cultivation and start trafficking a lot of heroin. There’s going to be increasing supply in the country and it’s going to go somewhere,” said Douglas.
“So, they’re going to benefit from this for sure.” The surge in opium farming also has negative impacts on Myanmar, as the UNODC’s research shows that opium growers are more likely to use the drug themselves than non-growers, leading to more addiction and a greater need for treatment programs.
Rising opium prices will also make it harder to sustain a program the U.N. has been running in Shan state, the heart of Myanmar’s opium industry, to persuade farmers to switch to growing coffee and to stick with it.
The UNODC sees little hope of reversing the current trends while Myanmar remains mired in violence and instability, and expects to see even more land under opium poppy cultivation in 2024.
“Farming communities are caught between insecurity and economic hardships,” said Benedikt Hofmann, the UNODC’s deputy regional representative.
So long as those conditions persist, he added, “even more people will look at opium as a viable crop if there are no alternatives, especially in the absence of the rule of law.”