Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Laos declares opium poppies thing of the past

Sign on San Diego

VIENTIANE – Laos, the world's third largest heroin producer only 10 years ago, declared itself free of opium poppies on Tuesday after a six-year campaign against the raw material used to make the narcotic.

'Tuesday is a very important day for the people and government of Laos, as we are declaring to the world the eradication of opium poppy cultivation,' Prime Minister Bounnhang Vorachit told a conference in Vientiane.

Praising the efforts of the communist-run southeast Asian nation, United Nations anti-drugs officials said the days of the infamous 'Golden Triangle' and its 160-year history of making heroin from opium poppies were numbered.

'Who would have predicted that opium cultivation would be progressively wiped out in the Golden Triangle?' said Antonio Maria Costa, head of the U.N.'s Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC).

'China was the first country to do so, then Thailand, and now Laos,' he said. 'It is not a Golden Triangle. It is a deadly triangle.'

Military-ruled Myanmar, which had an estimated 44,000 hectares (110,000 acres) of opium poppies in 2004 – making it the world's number two producer behind Afghanistan with 131,000 hectares – says it is working with the UNODC to eliminate poppies by 2014.

However, diplomats and rebel leaders in opium-rich areas such as the Shan state question the accuracy of U.N. estimates, as well as the faith of a military junta thought to be providing protection to Golden Triangle drug supremo Khun Sa.

Far greater credibility is attached to the efforts made by Laos, a landlocked country of only six million people and heavily dependent on Western donor support.

According to U.N. and government estimates, there were 27,000 hectares under opium poppy cultivation in Laos in 1998, producing around 120 tons of heroin. About 63,000 opium addicts compounded both the domestic and international problem.

Besides announcing the elimination of poppy cultivation, officials said the government had also managed to reduce the number of opium addicts to just 12,000, largely through treatment and education.

Despite his optimism, Costa said risks remained that opium cultivation could creep back if donor countries axed support and if former opium farmers, now growing cash crops such as cabbages or asparagus, were not given fair access to international markets.

'The opium farming communities are the poorest of the poor, and as a consequence they deserve our assistance,' Costa told foreign diplomats at the conference.

Even as heroin production has dropped off in the Golden Triangle, the region appears to have switched to production of synthetic stimulants, such as methamphetamine, fast becoming the 'drug of choice' for youngsters in southeast Asia.

Much of the methamphetamine hitting the streets from Manila to Kuala Lumpur is believed to be manufactured in large drug plants in the jungles of Myanmar.

by Ed Cropley


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