BANGKOK - Myanmar's farmers are flocking back to opium poppy cultivation amid rising prices for the contraband crop and an economic nosedive that's wiping out jobs, reversing nearly a decade of declines, according to the latest data from the United Nations.
The U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime says in a report issued Thursday that yields are also the highest they've been since it started tracking Myanmar's poppy crops in 2002, owing to new investment from the armed groups buying up the harvests and trafficking the end product - heroin - out of the country.
Besides supplying most of the region's methamphetamine, Myanmar is the world's second-largest producer of opium, after Afghanistan, and the main source for most of East and Southeast Asia.
According to the UNODC's Thursday report, Myanmar Opium Survey 2022, the country's farmers grew an estimated 40,100 hectares of poppy last year, up 33% from 2021. The agency also reported the most area under poppy cultivation in Myanmar since 2013, when poppy farming last peaked, at 57,800 hectares. Cultivation had dipped to under 30,000 hectares in 2020.
The UNODC's representative for Southeast Asia and the Pacific, Jeremy Douglas, ascribed much of the uptick to the economy's tumble since the country's February 2021 coup. The military's bloody crackdown on opponents has triggered multiple rounds of Western sanctions and driven many foreign investors away.
"Opium's been an employer of last resort for decades in Myanmar," Douglas told VOA.
"Many people have had no choice but to go back to opium because they have had no other way to make a living. Jobs have dried up in places like Yangon or Mandalay or other parts of the country, and people have left and returned back to rural areas, returned to farming," he said.
The World Bank says Myanmar's economy contracted 18% in 2021 and that poverty has doubled since 2020, leaving 40% of the population below the national poverty line. Its own surveys have found many people coping with a wave of job losses by ditching the cities for farms.
In some parts of Myanmar, that is increasingly likely to mean farming poppy. It is especially true in eastern Myanmar's Shan state, which grows the bulk of the country's poppy crop.
The state is also home to some of Myanmar's most powerful rebel armies, with long histories in the drug trade. While the UNODC found poppy farming expanded last year in other states as well, it saw the largest jumps, by far, in Shan.
Douglas said that is because of the added incentives farmers there are getting from local rebel groups, some of which run their own "special regions" inside the state, largely independent of the central government.
"Fundamentally, people are growing [poppy] because they need to make money to support their families. It's about poverty and economics," he said.
FILE - A villager walks in a flourishing poppy field at Nampatka village, Northern Shan state, Myanmar on Jan. 27, 2014.
"However, there's been an encouragement by representatives from north Shan special regions coming ... outside the special regions providing seeds, fertilizer and in some cases irrigation equipment," he added. "They're making an investment in the farmers, and Shan is the place [where] they have done it."
He said much of the help seems to be coming from Special Region 2, run by the powerful United Wa State Army, which claims to be fighting for autonomy for Myanmar's ethnic minority Wa. Most of the country's rebel armies align with one of its many ethnic minorities.
While the U.N.'s satellite data picked up little sign of poppy farming inside Special Region 2 itself, satellites and field visits found plenty of it just next door. Conveniently, Special Region 2 also runs along Myanmar's border with China, the main market for the country's opium and heroin.
John Whalen, who ran the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration's Myanmar office for many years, said most of the country's myriad rebel groups have played a role in the country's opium trade over the years, whether aligned with or against the military.
"And I think they continue to be involved in various levels," Whalen, who now runs a private risk consultancy in Myanmar, told VOA.
"In some cases, you have a group that's involved in everything from the cultivation and production to the ultimate transportation and distribution out of the country. Other times you'll have an ethnic [armed] group's involvement maybe in providing security for a [drug] lab or refinery, or their involvement may be simply in the transportation aspect of it. It would vary depending on the group."
Myanmar still comes a distant second in opium poppy farming to Afghanistan, which grew some 233,000 hectares of it last year, according to UNODC data.
But Douglas says Myanmar's heroin is still considered the best in the world, and that the recent surge may portend the return of the country's product to markets beyond Asia, including Europe and the United States. His team's ongoing field work in Myanmar suggests the country's next poppy harvest will be even bigger than the last.
The stem the tide, the UNODC is urging countries in the region to crack down on the trafficking of the controlled chemicals needed to refine opium into heroin, mainly acetic anhydride, into Shan. China and India, which both border Myanmar, make most of the world's supplies.
"Heroin can't be made without acetic anhydride, and it still gets into production areas," Douglas said. "The region, and particularly neighboring states, have to deal with it."
Myanmar's state-run Central Committee for Drug Abuse Control claims thousands of hectares of poppy fields are eradicated each year. But two decades of data show little if any effect on how much poppy is actually grown each year, and the UNODC believes it just doesn't work.
Whalen also questioned the accuracy of the official figures. He said the government would often count poppy fields it cleared after the plants had already been harvested for the season, "which kind of defeats the purpose."
Even so, the central committee, now run by a military junta stretched thin fighting a nationwide armed resistance, reported a sharp drop in eradication to the UNODC last year, from 4,633 hectares in 2021 to 1,403.
Douglas and Whalen say a real solution to the problem will include a strong economy and viable alternatives to growing poppies for farmers and the under- or unemployed.
"If you look at it at the grassroots level and the farmers, they see it as a cash crop and they're simply trying to provide for their family," Whalen said. "So, that's where you've got to start addressing it."