Pubdate: Thu, 11 Aug 2005
Source: Asian Pacific Post, The (CN BC)
Copyright: 2005 The Asian Pacific Post.
Author: BBC News (UK)


The sight of villagers weighing out opium is becoming increasingly rare.

The opium poppy that has long bloomed across the mountains of northern Laos 
has almost been wiped out by the government's drastic eradication campaign.

But what is being hailed as a victory by the international anti-narcotics 
agencies has also spawned a humanitarian crisis, due to the massive 
displacement of hill tribes and their loss of economic livelihood.

The campaign was spearheaded by the US government, with support from the 
European Union.

Such was its success that the authorities in Laos claim the country has 
achieved its 2005 deadline to become an opium-free country. The UNODC (the 
UN Office for Drugs and Crime) has confirmed that Laos had achieved a poppy 
reduction of 73% since 2000.

But unlike the major opium producers such as Afghanistan and Burma, Laos 
was only ever a marginal player in the international drugs trade.

And in order to eradicate production, an estimated 65,000 hill tribe people 
have been displaced from the mountains of northern Laos where the opium 
poppy thrives.

A survey by UN development consultant Charles Alton found that "hill tribe 
people moving to new villages not only lack sufficient rice, but they face 
fresh diseases - malaria, gastro-intestinal problems and parasites."

Many are said to be dying of malaria and dysentery, and mortality rates as 
high as 4% have been recorded - rates normally found only in war zones and 
areas of refugee resettlement.

In the past, the Laos authorities tolerated opium poppy cultivation among 
the hill tribes, which make up more than 45% of the population.

Vientiane's liberal policy was spelt out in a 1999 memorandum entitled "A 
Balanced Approach to Opium Elimination in Laos."

Back then the government argued that poppy cultivation could not be 
eradicated until alternative crops and economic development were already in 

However the US government and narcotics agencies escalated the pressure in 
2000. In the words of one NGO leader, who prefers to remain anonymous, 
"they pushed for opium elimination before economic development was in 
place, so they put the cart before the horse."

The dangling of a $80 million (C$97.3 million) carrot in aid, promised by 
the UN drugs control agency, led to a capitulation. In 2001 the Lao 
authorities plunged headlong into a hardline Western agenda of all-out war 
on the opium poppy.

Western embassies concede that their anti-drug policy may have been 
over-zealously implemented.

Sandro Serrato, the EU's chief of mission in Vientiane, admitted that "the 
implementation of opium eradication has probably been too rapid and [has] 
lacked resources."

But he also sympathised with the government's resettlement strategy, 
arguing: "There is such a scattered population, the government feels that 
only by bringing people down from the remote areas can they provide social 
services and development."

The EU is in favour of offering financial aid for future resettlement, as 
long as the government respects three points: there should be consultation, 
economic alternatives and the relocation must be voluntary.

But the monitoring of government compliance with any of these criteria is 
regarded as highly problematic, given the authoritarian nature of this 
one-party state.

Critics question both the sustainability and objectives of a policy that 
appears to have inflicted more harm than good.

"Resettlement has caused the disruption of the hill tribes' way of life," 
one highly respected Lao academic, who wished to remain anonymous, 
explained. "Opium has many uses - as a major cash crop, for medicine and in 
traditional ceremonies and festive events."

Now, he warned, "it is the lack of opium that is far more dangerous."

The inhabitants of Laos - both lowland and hill tribe people - have 
recently become victims of ya ba (amphetamines) and heroin flowing across 
the country from laboratories in neighbouring Burma.

The apparent success in wiping out opium has only contributed to far worse 
drug, social and economic problems, according to anthropologist David Feingold.

He warned that "likely long-term consequences will be increasing heroin and 
amphetamine use, [and] greater vulnerability of highland girls and women to 
trafficking and unsafe migration.

"Both of these outcomes will contribute to exacerbating HIV/Aids."

Lao specialist Bruce Shoemaker also pointed out that opium produced a high 
value crop using a very small amount of land.

The average opium farmer could earn about C$243 a year, and Mr Shoemaker 
said that "no one alternative crop can come even close to matching this - 
it is just not sustainable."

A growing number of development specialists support an entirely different 
approach. Instead of destroying the poppies, the Lao acaemic advocated "a 
legal opium quota under strict international supervision, to be sold to 
pharmaceutical companies."

"If the farmers of Tasmania get benefit from opium, why not our poor 
farmers too?" he argued.

Although no feasibility study has ever been done, the UNODC chief in 
Vientiane, Klaus Nyholm, instantly rejected any prospect of Laos joining 
the club of legal opium producers - which includes Australia, India, and 

Whether opium is grown under legal control or illegally, many aid workers 
are convinced that only by ignoring human rights can they stop poor farmers 
from growing such a lucrative crop.

William Dangers from Church World Service development agency in Laos said 
these farmers would "always go back to opium unless the government uses 
repression to stop them.
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MAP posted-by: Beth