March 9, 2006

War on opium gives Golden Triangle a different hue

By Ed Cropley

PHONGSALI, Laos (Reuters) - The mountains of northern Laos
have changed color.

In the past five years, the opium poppy fields that for the
last two centuries lent splashes of color to the pervading
green of the jungle have become a thing of the past.

In their stead, small plantations of tea, peach trees and
even asparagus are springing up in the heart of the "Golden
Triangle," the lawless opium-producing region at the junction
of Laos, Thailand and Myanmar.

"In 2001 at this time of year, those hills would have been
a sea of pink and white," said Clifford Heinzer, a U.S.
anti-drugs official, with a sweep of his hand across a lush --
and entirely green -- valley in the northernmost Lao province
of Phongsali.

"I'm not going to kid you that if you walk into the jungle,
you won't find a single poppy," said Heinzer, who works in the
U.S. Embassy in the capital, Vientiane. "But it would only be
one of a few plants grown by an addict for personal
consumption. Commercial cultivation is over."

In concert with donors and the United Nations Office on
Drugs and Crime (UNODC), Laos has gone from being the world's
third-biggest producer of heroin, which comes from opium resin,
in 1998 to declaring itself free of poppy cultivation in
February 2006.

The announcement leaves military-ruled Myanmar as the only
member of the Golden Triangle trio with a heroin habit.


Although the landlocked southeast Asian nation has never
rivaled the likes of Afghanistan, which had an estimated
324,000 acres under cultivation in 2004, or neighboring
Myanmar, opium has nevertheless been a part of life for

As it spread from China in the early 19th century, Laos'
laid-back population took to the drug with such relish -- both
for medicinal and recreational purposes -- that French
colonialists dubbed the country the "Land of the Lotus Eaters."

More recently, during the Vietnam War, the CIA's infamous
"Air America" airline teamed up with anti-communist Hmong hill
tribesmen to smuggle opium out of the jungle to help fund
America's "secret war" in Laos.

However in 1999 its communist rulers declared war on a drug
that was exacting a heavy toll on many of the country's 5.7
million people, with thousands of families enslaved to the drug
habits of opium-addled husbands and fathers.

"Many women and children are happy that they no longer need
to endure daily hardships to earn money to buy opium for the
head of the family," the government's top drug-buster, Soubanh
Srithirath, told a recent drug eradication conference.

"Many ethnic children now have the opportunity to attend
school, many families that used to grow opium poppy and had
become addicted are living healthy lives," he said.


With a multi-pronged approach ranging from slashing poppy
fields to hunting down known traffickers, the government has
managed to cut opium cultivation from 67,000 acres eight years
ago to effectively nil today.

Over the same period, education campaigns among the remote
hill tribes where opium had its deepest roots, as well as
treatment programs claiming only 20 percent relapse rates, have
seen the number of addicts drop from 63,000 to just 12,000.

To make the change lasting, the government, UNODC and
donors such as the United States, have followed up with "crop
substitution projects" to give ex-opium farmers -- many of whom
made less than $1 a day -- a livelihood in a mountainous region
unsuitable for rice.

"Weaning people off the opium here was not that difficult,
because it only yields about 8 kg (18 pounds) per hectare,"
said Heinzer on a recent helicopter trip into the mountains to
visit villages now growing fruit and vegetables instead of

By comparison, the UNODC estimates that yields in
Afghanistan are over 88 pounds per hectare, making it a far
more lucrative cash crop and making the Lao route to kicking
the habit unworkable in the harsher climate and terrain of
central Asia.

Despite the success, some aid groups have privately accused
Vientiane of using opium as an excuse to force ethnic
minorities, many of whom fought the communists in the Vietnam
War, to move from the hills and closer to roads -- and
government control.

Spokesman Yong Chanhthalansy admitted infrastructure had in
some cases struggled to keep pace with the eradication campaign
but said the government was often playing catch-up with remote
communities desperate to get closer to new communication links.

"Outsiders accuse us of forcing people to relocate but it
is not true. It was a spontaneous relocation and they moved to
get closer to roads. Sometimes the government was having to run
after them," Yong said.

The criticism might also be driven by fiercely
anti-communist Hmong refugees now living in the United States,
he suggested.

"People were telling us to crack down on opium, and we did.
And now we are being told we did it too fast," he said with a
shrug. "We just can't win."