HTTP/1.0 200 OK Content-Type: text/html Lao Tribes Suffer From Drug Crackdown
Pubdate: Fri, 15 Jul 2005
Source: BBC News (UK Web)
Copyright: 2005 BBC
Author: Tom Fawthrop in Vientiane
Bookmark: (Heroin)


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 

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.

Change In Approach

In the past, the Lao 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 place.

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 $80m 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.

If the farmers of Tasmania get benefit from opium, why not our poor 
farmers too? Lao specialist Bruce Shoemaker

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".

Lack Of Alternatives

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 $200 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 Turkey.

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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