Opium poppy cultivation and sustainable development in Shan State, Myanmar 2019

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Executive summary

Poppy‐growing villages face serious challenges to meet Sustainable Development Goals

About one in nine households in Shan State were directly involved in opium poppy cultivation in 2018, a similar situation to 2016. This means opium poppy continues to be an integral part of the state’s economy.

The result is one of the findings from UNODC’s expanded data‐gathering operation in Myanmar. For the first time, this report can draw on more than 1,500 households interviewed, as well as interviews with the headmen in 599 villages. The extra information has enabled a socio‐economic analysis of opium cultivation in the context of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
The research reveals that villages where opium poppy is cultivated have lower levels of development than other villages. Disparities are most noticeable with regards to security, environment, job opportunities and infrastructure. And there is a broad link between levels of development and poppy cultivation – East Shan is the least developed area and has the highest levels of engagement in poppy cultivation. However, a closer look shows that there are important variations within the region that are key to understanding drug control and development challenges.

Non‐state groups control many poppy villages, suggesting a link between governance and opium poppy cultivation

Poppy villages were in general more likely than non‐poppy villages to be under the control of militias and other non‐state groups, according to surveys of village headmen. Some 18 per cent of poppy‐growing villages were beyond government control, compared with 9 per cent of non‐poppy villages. This link was strongest in North Shan, where reported conflicts between government and anti‐government forces were most frequent. In North Shan, more than half of poppy villages were controlled by militias or other forces, compared with 12 per cent of non‐poppy villages.
There was no significant difference in the level of perceived safety between poppy and non‐poppy villages – less than half of village headmen said their village was ‘safe’ or ‘very safe’ regardless of the presence of opium poppy.

Challenges of isolation

Poppy villages tend to be more cut off from main road network, restricting opportunities for farmers

Villages where opium poppy is cultivated tend to be more remote than non‐poppy villages. The analysis builds a picture of remoteness using indicators including access to paved roads and distance to the main road network. There were signs of improvement between 2016 and 2018, most notably the proportion of villages with access to paved roads increased from 29 per cent to 34 per cent for non‐poppy villages, and from 16 per cent to 22 per cent for poppy villages. However, this means that poppy villages are still far less likely to have access to paved roads.
As a result, farmers in poppy villages face longer travel times to the nearest market and less access. Longer travel times result in higher transaction costs and potentially higher crop losses, which restricts the opportunities for income‐generation from agriculture.

Formal institutions are more difficult to access in poppy villages

Access to money, schools and medical facilities are all more difficult in poppy villages. For example, most farmers who grow poppy said they needed money to fund a large expense, suggesting that they had no access to financial institutions or other lines of credit.
While neither type of village was well served by medical facilities – just 19 per cent of poppy villages and 21 per cent of non‐poppy villages had a local clinic – residents of poppy villages with no clinic of their own faced longer walks to the closest practice. In another indication of a serious development challenge, sanitary facilities were found less frequently in poppy villages. One quarter of poppy village headmen reporting that locals practised open defecation, compared with just 1 in 20 in non‐poppy villages. Although the situation has improved, with more households having access to flushing toilets in 2018 than 2016, past studies suggest that rural households without access to sanitation will still lose more working days to ill health and spend more on health.
A similar picture emerges with schools. More than 30 per cent of villages had no local school, but average walking times were longer for children from poppy villages. A more detailed analysis suggests an ingrained disparity in education levels – more than half of the heads of poppy growing households had no education at all, compared with 31 per cent in non‐poppy growing households.

Reliable sources of electricity are rarer in poppy villages

Farmers in non‐poppy villages are far more likely to have access to the main power grid – and this gap is widening. Just 5 per cent of poppy villages had access to the public grid in 2018, a similar proportion to two years earlier. By contrast, 31 per cent of non‐poppy villages had access to the public grid in 2018, jumping from 22 per cent two years earlier. Although alternative sources of electricity such as solar panels are becoming more widely available, one in six poppy villages still relies on candles for lighting.

New Insights

Greater environmental strains

Most villages in Shan State depended on wood from local forests for cooking, particularly in poppy villages.
This pressure on local resources is reflected in the reported deterioration of forests. More village headmen from poppy villages reported declining local forest quality in the last two years than their peers from non‐ poppy villages.
In addition, poppy growing households reported significantly worse soil quality. In North Shan 22 per cent of non‐poppy growing households reported good quality of soil, compared with only 2 per cent among poppy growing households. In South Shan, 8 per cent of non‐poppy growing households reported good soil quality, compared with 2 per cent among poppy growing households This is even more vital in the context of a rising rate of climate‐related shocks in the region. Some 40 per cent of village headmen reported that the most severe shock faced by villagers was lower crop yield due to adverse climate conditions – more than double the 2016 figure.
The increased pressure on local resources between 2016 and 2018 suggests a lack of environmental sustainability, especially in poppy growing villages.