by Amelie Bottollier-Depois
HATHYAO, Laos (AFP) – The poppies that once dotted the fields around the village of Hathyao in mountainous northern Laos have disappeared, replaced by rows of trees prized for their milky white sap.
In the 1990s, opium was the local cash crop. Today it is rubber.
But some other villages in the impoverished Southeast Asian nation are finding it harder to kick the habit, returning to poppy cultivation in a setback to the country's efforts to stamp out opium production.
"The poppy was a culture adapted to the area, and there was an important market," said Dominique Van der Borght, a local representative with the charity Oxfam Belgium.
"Laos should have defended its right to opium production" at least for the pharmaceutical industry, he said.
Eradication of the poppy fields has had a significant impact on local communities.
"The rich families which made a living from opium left and the social fabric has disappeared," Van der Borght said.
He believes foreign donors, notably the United States, pushed the Communist government in this direction, but says the majority of the programmes to encourage people to switch from opium to other crops "have been a failure".
The opium poppy eradication campaign launched in 2002 is trumpeted by the Laotian authorities and the United Nations as a success.
Areas set aside for poppies fell from 27,000 hectares at the peak in 1998 to 1,500 in 2007, according to an estimate from the UN Office on Drugs and Crime.
"The challenge was for a long time that eradication was achieved quicker than the income replacement," said Adrian Schuhbeck, a development expert with a German-backed agency in northeastern Louang Namtha province.
While production has certainly plunged, it has been a high price to pay for many villagers who have struggled to adapt.
"There has been a lack of alternative development assistance reaching all farmers in the former opium growing areas," said Leik Boonwaat, country representative for the UN drug agency.
"That has probably helped persuade farmers to go back to growing opium," he said.
But "the argument that they are poorer now does not really hold true. They always were poor. But in areas where we have been able to provide alternative assistance, we can see the improvement," he added.
Despite everything, the UN recognises that poverty and a lack of alternative income, coupled with the high value of the drug and relaxation of controls, have led some communities to return to opium production.
Poppy cultivation areas doubled in size between 2007 and 2010, reaching 3,000 hectares, which is still well below the figure for the 1990s.
Laos accounts for just two percent of global production, while Afghanistan has a share of more than 70 percent and Myanmar over 20 percent.
For some villagers, like the 1,500 ethic minority Hmong of Hathyao, rubber has provided a new way of life.
In the mid-1990s, anticipating the eradication policy, the residents went to China to learn how to plant the trees.
In 2002, after the first trees matured, they started to tap them for latex, used to make natural rubber that is in strong demand by Chinese industry.
"Before 1994, a lot of families grew opium, but a lot of people were addicted. It was not healthy," said Wasiu, the deputy head of the village, which harvested five tonnes of latex in 2010.
"After we started sending rubber to China, our life was better. We could save money in the bank, have big trucks and motorbikes, send our children to school and build new brick houses," he added.
Other villagers followed in their footsteps with mass planting of rubber trees, but many have struggled to achieve the same level of success.
Farmers must wait seven years after planting a rubber tree before they can start tapping the precious white sap, during which time the village grows poorer.
Some farmers therefore have been forced to relinquish their land to foreign companies and work as ordinary rubber tappers instead.
There are also "considerable environmental risks" posed by rubber plantations, said Schuhbeck, citing water shortages, soil erosion and the use of pesticides and other chemical products.
In the nearby village of Nam Dy, the effect is already visible.
"Now we have money, but we also have problems with water. The river is very low. It is the impact of growing rubber trees," said the 60-year-old village chief Tongsi Tangchaosan.
But, unlike some, he added that he has no plan to return to poppy cultivation.
"It is necessary to grow rubber trees because we cannot do anything else," he said.