“I started growing opium nearby my village, because we were all very poor,” says a man in his 40s, who wants to remain anonymous. He lives in Tonzang, a small town of around 6,000 inhabitants high above the clouds in the mountains of northern Chin state, in Myanmar.
It’s one of the country’s poorest and most underdeveloped regions.
“There are no jobs there that can give you a sustainable income. Many families around us were already growing it and making money from it, so I decided to start too,” he says.
Just a few years ago, he was one of an increasing number of opium farmers in Chin state who grow opium for a living. But today, he works as a carpenter.
”The harvesting was very labor intensive. But above all I was afraid that I, or people in my family, would start using the opium we grew and get addicted,” he says.
But, he adds, even if he now is doing okay as a carpenter, he still misses the cash flow he got from the opium.
”I often get nostalgic about those golden days, when we had all that money coming in,” he says. “Especially when someone in the family gets sick, or when the kids want new toys, I long for those days when we could get a lot of money from selling the opium.”
Myanmar is the world’s second largest producer of opium, next to Afghanistan, producing about a quarter of the total global production of this drug. The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNDOC) estimates about $340 million in sales last year.
”I think the main reason for the increase in opium cultivation is the poverty of opium-growing communities,” says Tom Kramer from the Transnational Institute — an organization that has published several reports on drug cultivation in Southeast Asia’s so-called Golden Triangle.
”They grow opium as a cash crop, to deal with rice shortages. They also grow it as a medicine — you can use it for diarrhea or as a painkiller. It also has traditional and religious purposes,” he says.
Kramer says there’s also a great demand for the opiate in neighboring China.
Local politicians and officials in Chin state are frustrated and say the government isn’t doing enough to combat the problem. Cin Tung Mang, a member of the town council in Tonzang, says the anti-drug task forces that are sent to Chin state lack both the willpower and the resources to be efficient in their work.
“[In 2013,] there were people here from government who were supposed to eradicate the opium around Tonzang. But they only destroyed a few of the nearby fields that are easy to get to. They said they eradicated 60 percent of all the fields, but that’s not true. It was a lot less.” Cin Tung Mang says it was closer to 20 percent.
Politicians at the municipal level believe that corruption is a big part of the problem. With such a valuable crop, they say, authorities are very susceptible to bribes.
Hen Thang, chairman of the ruling Union Solidarity Development Party (USDP) in Tonzang, says villagers who grow opium are usually taxed by a local official, who in turn offers them protection.
”The police are paid off to keep away from the opium. You could walk past them right here in Tonzang with a big lump of opium in your arms and nothing would happen. Last time the police went out to eradicate the poppy fields, they took bribes from the farmers for ignoring their fields," he says.
Thang is also worried about problematic drug use spreading in the opium-growing communities in Chin state. He says he regularly visits the smaller villages around Tonzang and says there are some where all grown men are addicted.
"On a recent visit to a village I saw how a woman of a household was working away, grounding maize, while her husband lay on the ground, high on opium,” he says. “I got tears in my eyes. I honestly have no idea how these communities will survive like this.”
Myanmar's government has set the year 2019 as a deadline for when the country will be drug-free. Very few people believe that’s a realistic goal. Especially since cultivating opium is seen by many poor farmers, not only in northern Chin state but all over Myanmar, as the only way to get out of poverty and create a better life for themselves and their children.