Oct 14, 2007

Laos Opium Free?.....Not quite yet

Recently I read on a blog called Imaging Our Mekong that Laos is no longer “opium free”. Of course it never was anyway. The piece goes on to state that overall hectares under cultivation in Laos have increased 40% in 2006, from 1,800 hectares to 2,500. In tonnage that translates into 14 to 20 tonnes, vastly down from the 2001 estimates of 134 tonnes, but a long way from zero.

Update Oct 17,07
Stop the presses! Today the Lao government announced figures for 2007 as being down to 1500 hectares, they also compare to 1998 to further make the figures rosy. Further fudging the numbers they claim a more than 50% drop in tonnage from a 40% drop in hectares. Maybe the most productive fields have stopped growing. Or maybe the numbers are total bunkum anyway.
Vientiane Times

Above is Lung (uncle) who let us stay in the extra house he had for trekkers above Chang Dao in Thailand back in 96. When Thailand started to clean up it’s trekking program the guides stopped staying at his place for the obligatory smoke fest. During a months long wait for a visa I stayed at his extra house to get away from the city for a few days. The setting was idyllic, and I’m not bothered by opium smokers, they are quiet and harmless.

Lung married a Lahu girl back in the 60s and has made Thailand his home. Originally a KMT soldier, he told me he had fought all over China before he and many in the KMT army made the retreat into Thailand and Burma. He had a very modest business selling opium. Like many long time smokers he was thin. He spoke Thai with a decidedly Mandarin accent. Once in a while he would lapse back into Chinese and make his point by jabbing the end of his pipe in my chest. He was a splendid host, and pretty hilarious having a lifetime of stories to relate. Two of his daughters were working in Chang Mai as were seemingly all the girls in the village. When I think of him I think of how life takes it’s twists and turns. How does one end up living in a hill tribe village up on the side of a mountain in Thailand. I hope he is well.

Back to Laos.

I assume they must have ways of counting hectares using satellite imagery and they extrapolate tonnage based on those images. Of course this all is a drop in the bucket of the estimated 6,610 illicit tonnes produced worldwide, a fraction of a percent. Taipei Times All figures are for 2006. This also isn’t counting the legal opium produced by Australia, France, Turkey and India, for pain relief.

The respected Senilis Council goes on to estimate that only 25% of the worlds pain relief needs are being met. The short story is that people, especially in poor countries, are dying in pain and at the same time we are encouraging countries like Laos to impose the death penalty for crimes like opium sales.

Even more ironic is that in Laos a common cause of death is liver cancer. The worm found in fish of the Mekong watershed, imbibed raw in the fermented fish of padek, over time, while residing in the liver of it’s victims, causes enough liver damage and irritation to cause liver cancer, a very common form of death for people in their forties and fifties. I’ve heard liver cancer is very painful.

So here is a county that until the mid 1990s had no laws banning anything to do with drugs, who then under pressure from the USA and the UN, has now criminalized opium to the extent of making it a capital crime, and there are many people dying in pain from a lack of those self same drugs.

The issue of abuse and addiction must also be considered and opium addiction does occur. From the viewpoint of this observer, and bear in mind I seem to do no drugs these days of any sort, that when compared to the violence and poisoning caused by alcohol or the very real life shortening affects of cigarette addiction, it doesn’t seem very threatening.

Above is a photo taken by a young Canadian adventurer called Rudecam who traveled through Laos in 2006 looking for excitement. First he tried to hike up Phou Bia the highest point in Laos. Unfortunately Phou Bia is also at the centre of the Xaysombone Special Zone, and was still heavily contested between the Lao Army and Hmong insurgents. Complicating things further it is probably mined pretty heavily by the government forces and the approach begins at the old not so secret CIA airport at Long Chen. He didn’t get far.

His other objective was to hike up to Lima Site 85 on Phou Pati. He didn’t have much luck with the government tour guides on that one either. He did take the photo though. Oh to be 20 yrs old and on the loose in Laos.

Bringing the whole thing back to a personal level the Vientiane times, which is the official English language mouth piece for the Lao government, blames the ruination of Laos’ opium free status on Luang Namtha province which produced 40 of the 25,000 nationwide hectares. They claim plantations in inaccessible valleys are difficult to control. Plantations sounds much different than a subsistence farmer trying to grow a cash crop.

Well, my immediate thought is good for them. I of course think of the villages of Nambo, Mongla, Jakune, and any other villages left in the Nam Fa watershed. The ones that haven’t been relocated down to the lowlands. I can’t think of any area that would be less accessible in Luang Namtha Province. Access is relative. I think what is meant is that areas under cultivation can’t be reached by way of Toyota Landcruiser. I can’t imagine any place in Luang Namtha province being more than a days walk from the road, no more than 25 km, hardly remote from my perspective. Probably that is why Luang Namtha became the early target of eradication efforts.

I hope the people of those villages have made some money.


Charles said...

Been meaning for a couple of days to respond. Quite a post. Restrained, I guess. Thanks,

Jim said...

Interesting and kind of sad. Must be very weird for the villagers - they've been growing and smoking the stuff for centuries and are now being told by people from far-off alcohol soaked countries that what they're doing is wrong.

kenliss said...

I had my day smoking in Vientiane in '75. read about it here.


Robb Cadwell said...

Great blog post Ken. I'd recomend all to got take a look.

You might be interested in knowing that when I first went to Laos in 95 or so all drugs were legal. You could buy pot at the market.

Things changed as Laos started to get a rep as a place to go get high in the later 90s and with pesure from the the UN and USA.