Yangon (AsiaNews) - In 2013, opium production in Myanmar rose "significantly" because of the lack of alternatives for farmers. For many of them, the crop was the only source of livelihood, this according to a report released today by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC).
The UN body estimates that this year, Myanmar will end up producing 870 tonnes of opium. And for the seventh consecutive year, opium production rose in the Asian nation, placing it second only to Afghanistan in the world.
For UN experts, one of the factors for this increase is rising demand in Asia for illegal drugs and the lack of "alternatives" for farmers have fuelled Myanmar's increase with production jumping 26 per cent in 2013.
According to the UNODC report's authors, "Villagers threatened with food insecurity and poverty need sustainable alternatives, or they will continue out of desperation to turn to growing this cash crop."
In addition, the report found that 92 per cent of opium poppy cultivation in Myanmar takes place in Shan state, with the rest mainly in Kachin state, both of which are home to ethnic minorities fighting the central government.
Released on Wednesday, the survey also noted that the surface under opium cultivation rose from an estimated 51,000 hectares in 2012 to 57,800 hectares this year, mostly in the Golden Triangle area.
This area encompasses the mountainous border regions of Laos, Burma and Thailand and represents 18 per cent of global opium production, second only to Golden Crescent, which is centred on Afghanistan.
What is more, large-scale infrastructural development and trade liberalisation in the region have ultimately benefited drug traffickers.
For UN experts, "political and economic solutions" are needed because drugs, ranging from heroin to amphetamines, are a growing problem among young people in Myanmar and Thailand.
Catholic sources told AsiaNews that the issue is getting worse in the Golden Triangle. Here, opium cultivation was legal under British colonial rule, a factor that has created major disparities.
As "people got used to opium, rice became scarce". And, over time, the source explained, drugs "became big business, as well as an economic support for ethnic minorities fighting Myanmar's central government."
Today, the net result is that "there is no village in northern Thailand that is not involved in consuming or moving drugs." For some families, the Catholic source said, drugs "have become a way out of poverty."
However, the impact has been devastating: arrests, broken families, abandoned children, and in the villages, addicts are like the walking dead."
What concerns many people is the "impact on young people whose future seems bleak."
In Thailand, drug addiction has also become a political weapon in the fight between the government and the opposition, with the complicity of the police and military.
In the past few years, the Catholic Church and its missions responded to the crisis by setting up rehab centres that also offer educational programmes to children and adults.
Pastoral directives have been issued to raise awareness about the seriousness of the problem, informing addicts about rehab programmes and centres.
"We are doing our best to cope with the problem whilst giving some hope," the source said, "this despite the fact that the problem is huge and that it is difficult to reach everyone."