Nov 25, 2010

Opium and Laos, a hard habit to kick

I was back on my old computer but this time using Chrome as a browser which worked and I found this older article from The Economist which I'll link to here. No photos are mine.

Golden Days The Hills Are Alive With Opium Once More

It's a good article and worth the read. The setting is in not just Laos but Luang Namtha Province, not so much because Luang Namtha is in the Golden Triangle tri border region of Thailand, Burma, and Laos but because of all the opium producing areas Luang Namtha is probably the easiest for a reporter to get to, there's even an airport.

The dateline of the article closely matches the time I was in the area going walkabout in the area of upland villages. Of course I smoked no opium nor did I see anyone smoking opium nor did I see any opium fields. I can be very decidedly oblivious if need be.

What the article is saying in a nutshell is that many farmers after being poor for a couple of growing seasons are switching back to growing opium. It helps that the market price has shot up to $1400 a kilo, Seems like it was only a couple years ago when $600 was considered pretty good.

Besides newfound prosperity are the other clues.

The fields on the distant hillsides away from all the others and not looking like rice or corn. The tiny paper wrappers from the double packs of aspirin used to mash into the old ashes and mix with a nice new heated ball so to be smoked and allay the headache. The place on the ground next to the wrapper at the trail junction where you can see someone stopped to lay on their side to smoke, and the leaves are matted down just like when a deer lays up.

Update 12|16|10 Radio Free Asia has a new piece on the 2010 harvest which they must have solid numbers on by now. Laos has the sharpest increase in cultivation as a percent of thier 09 figures. They now produce about a twelfth the amount of Burma, quite a bit for little old Laos.

One time a few years ago when I mentioned my reservations about the US suppression efforts to a friend at the embassy he said, "well you know it's not as if the Lao Seung are rich people or anything". And it's true, they aren't rich, but most aren't poor either, mostly they are doing ok, and some are even doing better than that. If the Lao Seung (uplanders) are forced to live without their cash crop it does make a difference. It's not as if their lives were abject misery and could get no worse. With opium yes they are poor, but they can buy hard goods and maybe rice when the grainery is empty.

Pretty flowers all the way up to the Mekong and China.

Update UNDOC yearly report.

1 comment:

Jim said...

It must really anger the locals and the government. I mean they've been growing and smoking the stuff for centuries and suddenly these people from far-off alcohol soaked countries are telling them what they're doing is wrong. The sad thing is, the Lao government probably can't say no, as America may well just push the UN to place sanctions on them.
The same thing happened throughout South East Asia in the past. Thailand reluctantly closed its last legally taxed opium dens in 1959 due to US pressure. In Hong Kong the British ignored the US up until 1949 arguing that every country America had forced to ban opium, subsequently saw a rapid increase in heroin addiction afterwards. (because heroin is odorless it's easier to smuggle and the cops don't smell it off users, unlike opium)
If you read Peter Lee's book 'Opium Culture' he argues that pharmaceutical companies agressively lobbied for opium prohibition just after the 1st world war, which is when the global prohibition on drugs started. Because opium is basically a plant, pharmaceutical companies can't make any money off it when any local farmer (or gardener) can grow and sell it dirt cheap.
This is the same reason farmers in SE Asia and Afghanistan can't sell their opium to the medicinal opiate market as it would undercut and bankrupt the pharm companies who have a monopoly on opium growing at extortionate prices.