The study by the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), using helicopter, satellite and village surveys, saw a 16 per cent increase in the amount of Southeast Asian land sown with poppies in 2011 since just last year.
The estimated value of opium production in Myanmar, Laos and Thailand – the countries where most of the region’s cultivation takes place – rose 48 per cent in 2011 from last year to $319 million (B9.6 billion), the UNODC said.
While cultivation was up 37 per cent in Laos since 2010, the vast majority of it takes place in military-dominated Myanmar, the second largest opium poppy grower in the world after Afghanistan.
Some 256,000 households in Myanmar – significantly more than in Afghanistan – are involved in the crop’s cultivation, which mostly takes place in northeastern Shan state, the UNODC said.
“What is driving the poppy increase is food insecurity, poverty, conflict that’s raging in that part of Myanmar and the high prices that are available for people who wish to cultivate,” said the UNODC’s regional representative Gary Lewis.
He spoke of “a swirling and often toxic mix of guns, of money and of drugs” in the area, although the UNODC’s research found the main reason for the increases in opium cultivation was the need for food.
“It’s very rare that I have seen poverty... in a rural setting to the extent that one sees in Shan,” Lewis told reporters in Bangkok last month.
Opium cultivation was also up 27 per cent from last year in northern Kachin state, on the China border, where tens of thousands have fled ongoing conflict between the government and armed ethnic groups.
Regional cultivation has doubled since 2006, and the report warned that the picture “grows dimmer” when combined with the fact that amphetamine-type stimulants are also a growing problem in Southeast Asia.