Opium farmers in Myanmar: The lives of producers of prohibited plants

Tom Kramer / Transnational Institute


Opium farmers in Myanmar: The lives of producers of prohibited plants

4 January 2019

The problem of opium should not be perceived only as a simple, black-and-white, law enforcement problem. To address problems related to opium cultivation, substantial socio-economic development is required to provide meaningful alternatives for farmers, and to ensure that a humanitarian crisis will not occur as the consequence of repressive drug control policies.

Why do farmers grow opium?

This simple question requires a comprehensive and long explanation. First, we need to understand all those factors that push farmers in remote, mountainous villages to rely on income derived from opium-growing to support their families’ basic needs, health care and education for their kids. The cultivation of opium as a cash crop seems to have entered what is present-day Myanmar from the north. Although there is no written record of how and when opium was introduced into the country, it is generally accepted that cultivation spread from the neighboring Chinese provinces. The “Opium Wars” in China (1839 – 1842) not only increased the opium demand in Chinese coastal towns, but also escalated its production in highland territories, such as Yunnan and Sichuan Provinces in China, and the adjacent Shan and Kachin States of Myanmar. By 1898, opium had become “almost the standard medium of exchange in trade” in southern Yunnan and Upper Myanmar. Opium cash-cropping was thus introduced to Myanmar more than a century ago. Since then, the cultivation of opium has become the major livelihood of the peoples who live in the highland areas of eastern and northern Myanmar: i.e. Shan and Kachin States. The inaccessibility of these mountainous regions, combined with extreme weather, make it difficult to grow other cash crops in these areas. However, the scattered fertile spots of limestone soil in these areas are an ideal terrain for poppy cultivation.