The UN has reported that poppy cultivation in Burma has risen for the sixth straight year, with the opium trade now stronger than ever. This is despite, the report claims, a sustained effort to eradicate poppy fields across the Shan and Kachin provinces where the crop is predominantly grown.
Eradication efforts are historically troublesome. In Afghanistan, the occupying US and British forces thought it prudent to smash the opium trade in a bid to cut off a key economic lifeline to the Taliban, which often hoarded much of the profits from the peasant cultivators. However, whilst these eradication efforts were an operational success, no follow-up plan was devised. Hence, the peasants grew infuriated that their only stable cash crop was withdrawn from them without any viable alternative. Whether suggested replacement crops were not ideally suited to the climate, or Afghan farmers were without the expertise to successfully grow them, is irrelevant. The Taliban could claim a major propaganda coup by suggesting the Western forces were uninterested in the livelihood of the common Afghan and were, rather, only concerned with reducing the production of narcotics which continue to blight their streets at home. Such was the shortsightedness of the opium eradication programme in Afghanistan, that many peasants who had previously shunned the Taliban turned to them as potential saviours. Humiliatingly, many local commanders now implicitly accept the resurrection of poppy growing amongst the peasantry as a means of stabilising their particular district.
Another case in point is Colombia, the home of the cocaine trade. Successive governments – often at the coercing of the United States – have tried to destroy coca crops in the Colombian highlands and thereby prevent Farc rebels from manipulating a possible wealth stream. Unfortunately, whereas in the past there was a greater share amongst participators in the coca business, Farc has long since decided to crush any competitors with brutal military force and the rebel group is now effectively the biggest drug trafficking organisation in South America. As with the Afghans, local Colombians have also become disillusioned with their government, and that of the US, for failing to compensate them for the destruction of a crop that they have always grown. The peasants themselves aren’t the ones snorting cocaine off broken mirrors, so why should they be made to suffer?
The Burma example is particularly worrying, for the main areas of cultivation are in provinces with ethnic minorities that have long been at war with the government. If eradication efforts are increased in light of the UN report, it may be seen by the rebels as a convenient excuse for the Burmese government to send military forces into their territory and weaken their economic system. This threatens the precarious period of reform that Burma is undertaking, reform that many were hoping would deliver ethnic inclusiveness.
Rather than penalising the common man, governments in narcotic-producing states, and those in developed countries where narcotic consumption is a serious problem, ought to first destroy the sophisticated trafficking, supply and money laundering networks that power the global drug trade. Furthermore, steps must be taken to remove and imprison corrupt and nefarious officials who support the drug lords. Targeting the peasantry only serves to inflame tensions which may have been brewing for decades. Eradication is not a sustainable solution.