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Opium as Cash Crop Is Still Difficult to Beat

Growing opium was a family tradition for Zi Zi Fa. His father grew opium, and his father's father.

But the legacy was broken this year when tribal leaders of the Wa ethnic group ordered Mr. Zi and other farmers in this rugged area near the Chinese border to stop planting opium poppies.

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It was a decision that dramatically reduced the income of Zi's family of 10. Last year he received the equivalent of $650 for 12.5 pounds of opium-rich sap harvested from three acres of poppies. This year he is planting soybeans instead and expects to earn about 1/10th of his former income.

Three acres of soybeans replacing three acres of opium poppies is viewed by the US Drug Enforcement Administration as progress in the war on drugs.

But Zi sees it differently. "The family is barely surviving," he says.

It is still too early to know how the Zi family will deal with the economic cold turkey into which it has been thrust. But the ordeal illustrates the difficulty of weaning an entire population of farmers and their families away from the only crop that they believe can give them an economic advantage.

It is essentially the same issue faced by coca growers in the South American Andes, poppy farmers in Afghanistan's Hindu Kush, and even marijuana growers in the American Appalachians: How do you break the cycle of financial dependence on an illicit, lucrative cash crop?

Development needed

One-for-one crop substitution doesn't work, experts say. What does work, they say, are regionwide economic- development projects linked with education and law enforcement. "It is widely understood that you cannot find one crop that will replace opium. There is no magic crop that will generate the same income," says Joern Kristensen of the United Nations International Drug Control Program. "The key is to open up the area so local residents get access to the outside world, access to markets. The key is to link them up to development in a country."

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There is no doubt that opium is an easy crop for farmers here. It grows on steep, unfertilized slopes above 3,500 feet, where few other crops can survive. The harvested sap does not need to be refrigerated. And the opium buyers - primarily Chinese middlemen - come directly to the farmer, so growers don't have to worry about transportation or the prospect that their crop might be hijacked on the way to market. Some buyers even offer financial services - providing growers advance loans on a future opium crop. It's their way of keeping poppy farmers dependent on the opium trade.

Cultural acceptance of opium

In addition, opium has been an accepted crop in this region for centuries and is still widely used among the older generation as a medicine, in cultural rites such as weddings, as well as a recreational drug. "We have to educate the people that this is very bad for mankind," says Col. Kyaw Thein, Burma's top antinarcotics official.

Some skeptics say it is impossible to break the grip of opium on these farmers. Indeed, the order by the Wa leadership to quit poppy growing applies only to a tiny fraction of Wa farmers in the Nam Tit region. The vast majority of Wa farmers are still heavily involved in the opium trade.

But development specialists and many antidrug experts say there is reason for hope. They point to nearby Thailand and even to China's Yunnan Province as examples of how local governments turned the tide against opium production while facing exactly the same cultural and development issues that now exist in Burma.

Success in Thailand

In 1969, the hill tribes in northern Thailand produced 150 metric tons of opium. By 1997, Thai production had fallen to 10 metric tons.

The conditions in northeastern Burma, where more than half of the world's opium is currently grown, are similar to the conditions that existed in northern Thailand in the late 1960s. There is a lack of roads, which in turn means a lack of access to markets to sell legitimate produce. There is no trucking, no refrigeration, no food processing, and no packaging.

It means that even if a farmer decides on his own to switch to legal crops, he will face an uphill battle trying to find a buyer for his produce.

A former Peace Corps volunteer posted in northern Thailand two decades ago says he remembers former opium-growing hill tribesmen carrying their ripe produce into town to try to sell it. Once in town they were denigrated as hillbillies and offered ridiculous prices for their crops. He says many ended up giving their produce away because there was no developed market, no clearly identified buyers at reliable prices.

He says the same problem exists in Burma today. "No one is reaching out to help them market their produce, they are on their own," he says.

China used a combination of antidrug enforcement and infrastructure development to prevent local farmers in Yunnan Province from turning to opium production. Unlike farmers only a few miles away on the Burma side of the border, Chinese farmers have access to roads, trucks, and a central distribution system that creates demand for legitimate produce grown in once-remote mountain areas.

The same crops that are profitable on the Chinese side of the border - rubber, sugarcane, tea, coffee, and mangoes among others - would likely also make money on the Burma side, if roads and other infrastructure existed.

"The trick is to find something that grows in the same season as opium," says a Western diplomat. That season runs from October through February.

Japan is supporting a pilot project in northeastern Burma to see if buckwheat might work. The test is whether farmers can harvest three crops a year, including during the prime opium-growing season. Japanese officials promise that all produced buckwheat will be purchased by noodle factories in Japan. But transportation and storage issues must still be worked out.

A United States-backed crop-substitution program sponsored by American veterans who fought here in World War II is introducing farm-management techniques in northeastern Burma. A development project sponsored by the UN is about to start up in a Wa tribal town near the Chinese border. That project will attempt to address the full range of infrastructure problems such as roads, schools, and health clinics, while also teaching local farmers how to become self-sufficient in food production.

Many farmers use opium revenue to buy enough food to feed their families all year. UN project managers say if that food was grown by the farmers themselves, it would be easier to persuade the farmers to grow a second, legal cash crop.

Rubber, sugarcane, and livestock, such as chickens and pigs, are among possible choices, officials say.

"It is a change of lifestyle, introducing other ways of making money," Mr. Kristensen says. As the local infrastructure is developed with better roads, schools, clinics, and market facilities, project managers will begin exploring the creation of support industries, like food packaging and processing plants.

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