Monday, July 14, 2008

Return of the poppy

Contrary to the popular belief that the illegal growing of opium has dwindled in Thailand, the Office of the Narcotics Control Board (ONCB) reports the opposite is true for this source of heroin.

Authorities are having a tough time suppressing narcotics in the North, with illegal opium poppy fields increasing but being better hidden and a new breed of high-yield poppy being grown.

Pitaya Jinawat, the deputy secretary-general of the ONCB, told a recent workshop on opium control in Chiang Mai that in the past two years the poppy growing areas in Southeast Asia had decreased, except in Burma and Thailand, where more is being grown.

Although Burma has 100 times more land planted with poppy, the problem in Thailand is no less serious, he said, citing statistics from other Southeast Asian nations and the European Union.

Mr Pitaya said the area planted with poppies in Thailand jumped from 700 rai in 2004 to 1,200 rai this year. Opium poppies are grown in 125 villages in 35 districts of 11 provinces, mostly in the North. Chiang Mai's Omkoi district is the largest poppy growing area.

Between 1984 and 1985, opium poppies were planted on more than 54,000 rai of land in the country. But the area shrank to less than 7,000 rai by 2000 due to persistent crackdowns by the military and the promotion of substitution crops.

With limited poppy output, most of the production was consumed by the growers, who were hilltribe people. There was a shortage of opium inside the country and for export.

Poppy growing continued declining in Thailand until last year, when the cultivated area rose to 1,200 rai from 700 rai nationwide in 2004.

The first poppy crops are harvested between October and December. Poppies grow to a height of about 100cm and their flowers are mostly violet.

Highlanders grow this species of poppy not too far from their houses and collect the opium for household consumption.

The second crop, which is for sale, is planted and harvested between November and February. This crop produces large amounts of opium.

Experts agree that people are growing more opium poppy because of the slowing economy.

In parts of Shan state in Burma, drug barons support the poppy growers and even promise to buy the opium at guaranteed prices.

In the North of Thailand, some highlanders evade crackdowns by planting their poppies in small patches instead of over large areas of land, as was the tradition.

Poppy growers in 11 northern provinces are preparing to secretly plant their crops on the mountains and opium cultivation is expected to start in October.

Highlanders in some border areas in Thailand have received seeds for a new breed of opium poppy which delivers higher yields and is more weather resistant.

Burmese businessmen and drug barons supplied the seeds.

The ONCB relies on aerial photos to find poppy crops in the mountains and the army is then set in on foot to destroy the plants.

Third Army chief Samroeng Siwadamrong said soldiers were asked to trek into remote mountains to search for poppy crops.

He admits the crops are hard to detect in these areas because the growers keep moving to new locations.

The Third Army will start destroying next season's crops in November.

The ONCB assists the military by pinpointing the spots which are hidden in difficult terrain and valleys.

"Sometimes the ONCB informs us of five crops of five rai each. But when we get there, we find many more crops," Lt-Gen Samroeng said.

Officials said growers used sprinklers and fertiliser to improve productivity, reflecting a greater sophistication in their growing methods.

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