Despite efforts to stem poppy growth in Burma and Laos, production increased for the sixth straight year, according to a UN drug agency report released on Wednesday.
The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) said that opium cultivation in the region had doubled since 2006, despite officials reports from Laos, Burma and Thailand that nearly 25,000 hectares (61,766 acres) of poppies were eradicated in 2012, the report said.
The UNODC said that the vast majority of regional demand for opium comes from China, and that the trade there is helped by porous borders in the country's southwest.
In Burma, poppy cultivation grew 17 percent in 2012 to 51,000 hectares (126,000 acres) from 43,000 hectares (106,250 acres) in 2011, the UN said.
The Burmese government more than tripled its eradication efforts in 2012, the report said, destroying nearly 24,000 hectares (59,300 acres) of poppy fields during the growing season from fall 2011 to early summer this year from just over 7,000 hectares (17,300 acres) the year before.
But despite the unprecedented anti-poppy program, the UNODC said that the significant increase in area of cultivation nationwide threatened to derail Burma’s plan to end its opium problem by 2014.
Gary Lewis, the UNODC Regional Representative for East Asia and the Pacific, said the significant increase in opium poppy cultivation in Burma “reflect[s] a growing human security threat to the region.”
"Despite the increase in eradication what really matters is the increase in cultivation,” Lewis said.
“Cultivation indicates intention. And unless the farmers have a feasible and legitimate alternative to give them food security and reduce their debt, they will continue to plant poppy.”
Burma is the world’s largest opium producer after Afghanistan, the UNODC said, adding that the country currently accounts for 25 percent of global illicit poppy cultivation and—together with Laos—as much as 10 percent of global opium production. Afghanistan accounts for almost all of the remaining 90 percent.
The UNODC estimates Burma’s total 2012 opium production at 690 metric tons—a 13 percent increase from 2011 and the highest level of production since 2003.
The report said that the center of Burma’s illicit drug production remains in Shan state, which accounts for 90 percent of opium poppy production in the country, while the remaining 10 percent is mainly produced in Kachin state.
Jason Eligh, the UNODC Country Manager in Burma, said that eradication alone is not the answer to reducing opium cultivation.
“We must remember why farmers grow poppy. In most cases it is because they need cash to buy food to feed their families,” he said.
“Growing opium poppy provides much-needed food security for many of them.”
“A sustainable long-term solution to poppy can only come through significant investment in stability, the rule of law and alternative development,” Eligh said.
The amount of land used for opium cultivation in Laos soared by 66 percent in 2012 to 6,800 hectares (16,800 acres), up from 4,100 hectares (10,130 acres) in 2011, and almost to 2004 levels, the report said.
The UN said as many as 38,400 households in Laos cultivated poppy fields in 2012, it said, up from as many as 20,000 a year ago.