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Lao opium growers returning to the hills
Publication Date : 14-03-2013
A survey team from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) observed large areas of opium poppy fields concealed in dense forest during a recent helicopter survey in the north of Laos.
UNODC senior national communications officer Oudone Sisongkham, was reluctant to discuss the issue in more detail at the "Meet and Greet" event between Lao media and United Nations agencies in Vientiane on Tuesday, but indicated that it might be an issue.
Oudone said he and his team have just finished the 2013 opium poppy survey, which they carried out in remote areas of Xieng Khuang, Huaphan, Luang Prabang, Oudomxay, Phongsaly and Luang Namtha provinces, where most of the crop is grown.
It is evident from previous studies that areas of poppy cultivation are increasing each year since Laos declared it had all but eradicated opium cultivation back in 2007.
In 1998, there were almost 27,000 hectares of opium poppies, but there were just 1,500 hectares remaining when Laos declared itself to be virtually free of the crop. However, subsequent surveys have demonstrated that the total elimination of opium poppies has not been achieved.
Now, the opium fields are gradually making a comeback, although they are still well below the levels when large scale eradication efforts and crop substitution efforts were launched in 1998.
The area under poppy cultivation in 2008 was estimated at 1,600 hectares, and since then it has steadily increased to 1,900 ha in 2009, 3,000 ha in 2010, 4,100 ha in 2011, and 6,800 ha in 2012.
The continuing presence of the crop indicates that opium production is still supplying local users and continues to be a source of livelihood for some communities.
These poppy fields are difficult for the eradication squads to find.
Farmers who cultivate remote fields live on site for months on end in small shacks and feed themselves with locally caught wildlife, as well as with food brought from their villages.
Funding for crop substitution and alternative livelihood programmes has diminished in recent years. Indeed, in the absence of other development initiatives to provide remote upland farmers with an income, opium could easily become a livelihood for more remote communities.
However, Oudone could not say exactly how much illicit opium is being cultivated this year or whether the crop has increased.
What he could confirm was that all observations, helicopter photographs, GPS data and satellite images would be analysed by UNODC, and the cultivation figures will be released towards the middle or end of this year.
Even though there's no answer yet on the 2013 poppy cultivation figure, it's possible that the opium fields have increased again since last year.
The UNODC is now creating the National Drug Control Master Plan for 2014-2020 to continue monitoring the cultivation of opium because the Master Plan for 2009-2013 has nearly come to an end.
In 2012, the Lao National Commission for Drug Control and Supervision reported the number of regular opium users to be 10,776 in 10 provinces in the north, which translates into a prevalence rate of 0.42 per cent among the population aged between 15 and 64 in those provinces.
The provinces with the highest opium usage rates were the two main opium-producing provinces, Phongsaly and Huaphan. Of the total reported users, 17 per cent were female.