Downward Spiral

Banning Opium in Afghanistan and Burma
TNI Drugs & Conflict Debate Paper 12
June 2005

debate12Opium farmers in Afghanistan and Burma are coming under huge pressure as local authorities implement bans on the cultivation of poppy. Banning opium has an immediate and profound impact on the livelihoods of more than 4 million people. These bans are a response to pressure from the international community. Afghan and Burmese authorities alike are urging the international community to accompany their pressure with substantial aid.

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For political reasons, levels of humanitarian and alternative development aid are very different between the two countries. The international community has pledged several hundred millions for rural development in poppy growing regions in Afghanistan. In sharp contrast, pledged support that could soften the crisis in poppy regions in Burma is less than $15 million, leaving an urgent shortfall.

Opium growing regions in both countries will enter a downward spiral of poverty because of the ban. The reversed sequencing of first forcing farmers out of poppy cultivation before ensuring other income opportunities is a grave mistake. Aggressive drug control efforts against farmers and small-scale opium traders, and forced eradication operations in particular, also have a negative impact on prospects for peace and democracy in both countries.

In neither Afghanistan nor Burma have farmers had any say at all in these policies from which they stand to suffer most. It is vital that local communities and organisations that represent them are given a voice in the decision-making process that has such a tremendous impact on their livelihoods.

Beyond the deadline

The opium bans in Burma are the product of international pressure, caused by the deadlineoriented thinking and repressive anti-narcotics strategies of the international community. The US has blamed the drug problem in Burma on ‘narco-armies’ and has indicted ‘drug kingpins’. However, after decades of civil war, the reality of the drug trade in Burma is that few of the conflict parties can claim to have clean hands. Decisions over who to blame for the drug trade and who to indict seem, as in Afghanistan, arbitrary and politicised. Experience from Burma over the last 35 years has also shown that only trying to arrest ‘kingpins’ does not help. On the contrary, those who stand to suffer the most from arbitrary measures are those at the bottom of the trade: the opium farmers in Shan State.

Communities in opium-growing areas have not been able to meet basic needs before the opium bans. These bans will dramatically increase the already ongoing process of erosion of upland rural livelihood bases. A humanitarian crisis is looming, as these regions are moving towards a downward spiral of poverty, malnutrition and disease. There are also uncertainties about the sustainability of the ban.

The only viable and humane approach to reduce opium production is to ease these deadlines, while at the same time creating alternative livelihoods for opium farmers. This requires more international assistance for a sustainable community-based approach, focussing on capacity building, empowerment, and the strengthening and building up of civil society, in order to enable opium farmers to participate in decision-making processes about their future.