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Where poppy doesn’t go in poppy seed rolls – Myanmar is the world’s leading opium producer

According to a recent UN report, Myanmar is now the world’s number one opium producer, overtaking Afghanistan. The development comes after the Taliban in Afghanistan banned the cultivation of poppy, the raw material for opium, in 2022, leading to a drastic drop in the country’s opium production. In this analysis, we briefly review the role of the two countries in global opium production, the reasons for the boom in Myanmar’s production, and the importance of opium production in Southeast Asia.

Afghanistan and Myanmar are traditional ‘superpowers’ in opium production: according to data from 2020, more than three quarters (224,000 hectares) of the 294,000 hectares of land used globally to grow poppy for opium production was in Afghanistan, followed by Myanmar with around 29,500 hectares. In all other countries combined, nearly 41 thousand hectares were used for this purpose, meaning that Afghanistan and Myanmar together accounted for about 86 percent of the world’s land used for opium production.

Myanmar

Myanmar, however, has overtaken Afghanistan this year, after the Taliban banned poppy cultivation and drug production in Afghanistan in April 2022, resulting in an estimated 95 percent drop in opium production in the country in 2023. In Myanmar, poppy cultivation and opium production have also been steadily increasing for three years as the country’s economic situation and overall stability deteriorates due to the civil war since the military coup in February 2021, which has increased the value of opium cultivation as a source of revenue.

Myanmar has been producing opium for decades, traditionally a source of income for groups rebelling against the government. The area where Myanmar, Thailand and Laos meet, known as the Golden Triangle, is also traditionally a major source of opium and heroin. Myanmar’s opium-producing centre is Shan state, where fierce clashes have been raging for months between an alliance of ethnic minorities and the military junta. The UN reports that Shan, along with Chin and Kachin states, also home to rebels, has seen the largest increase in the amount of land used for poppy cultivation. It is likely that if the fighting intensifies, opium production will also increase. The ban in Afghanistan, if sustained, could lead to a reduction in global opiate production, which could further stimulate opium production in Myanmar.

The amount of land used for opium cultivation in Myanmar has fluctuated over the past quarter of a century or so. In 2013, a downward trend started, with the area used decreasing from nearly 58,000 hectares in 2013 to about 29,500 hectares in 2020. In 2021, the area used increased again slightly, with an increase of about 33 percent in 2022 and an estimated 18 percent in 2023. The total area of land used for poppy production is now around 47 100 hectares. Production is also becoming increasingly efficient, resulting in the highest estimated opium production in the country since 2001. In 2021, the yield was 14 kilograms of opium per hectare, in 2022 it was close to 20 kilograms, and in 2023 it was around 23 kilograms. It is estimated that in 2023, the national crop was 1080 tonnes of opium, a 36 percent increase over the previous year and the largest crop since 1100 tonnes in 2001. This reflects the evolution of production methods: illicit poppy cultivation in Myanmar and Southeast Asia has traditionally been carried out on small plots of land by rural farmers with low efficiency, as part of the annual farming cycle and partly for subsistence use. However, this is changing, with an increasing role for more sophisticated production methods and technologies, such as denser and more efficient planting of poppies, and the use of fertilisers and irrigation systems.

The gross value of the total opiate economy in Myanmar in 2023, which includes both domestic consumption and exports of opium and heroin, is estimated to be between $1-2.5 billion, equivalent to around 2-4 percent of the country’s GDP in 2022. In addition to opium production, the production of synthetic drugs (in particular methamphetamine and ketamine, which can also be used as a drug) is also increasing in the country. As the head of Myanmar’s Central Committee on Drug Abuse Control recently acknowledged, the organisation’s efforts to eradicate drug trafficking are proving ineffective.

The figure can be referenced here: https://public.flourish.studio/visualisation/16669755/

Southeast Asia and Afghanistan

However, opium production increased across all of Southeast Asia in 2022 and 2023. The region has long been a source of opium and heroin supply for the Asia and Oceania region and, to a lesser extent, other parts of the world. The region’s growing drug production is part of the expanding black economy, alongside drug trafficking, money laundering, casino operations and various forms of fraud. Poppy cultivation in Southeast Asia is closely linked to poverty, the lack of government services, a poor economic environment and instability. Laos is also a major source of opium and heroin, but unlike in Myanmar, the area under poppy cultivation decreased slightly in 2023 (from 5,700 to nearly 5,000 hectares) compared to the previous survey in 2015, and yields have not changed significantly. Like Myanmar, Laos is also facing serious economic problems: the country has by far the highest inflation in the region, and in 2022 the national currency, the kip, weakened by 50% against the dollar. Not surprisingly, Laos is playing an increasing role as a transit country for synthetic drugs.

In Afghanistan, the cultivation of poppy for opium was an important source of income for rural populations for decades, accounting for 29 percent of the value of the country’s total agricultural sector in 2022. Following the Taliban’s ban on poppy cultivation and drug production in April 2022, the area under cultivation for opium production decreased by 95 percent, from 233,000 hectares in 2022 to 11,000 hectares in 2023. In parallel, the amount of opium produced decreased by 95 percent, from 6,200 tonnes in 2022 to 333 tonnes in 2023. Much of the land previously used to grow poppy has been converted to wheat production, which is of course much less profitable: in 2023, the income per hectare from wheat was $770, compared with around $10,000 for opium. However, the increasing number of methamphetamine seizures suggests that, unlike in the case of opiates, the Taliban’s ban is not working in this respect.

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