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Thailand’s anti-opium drive a model for Afghanistan

Thailand’s successful battle against opium production over the past 30 years is a model for war-ravaged Afghanistan, which accounted for nearly 75 percent of the world’s opium production during the 1990s, U.N. officials and Thai officials say.

“The Thai model is being considered to deal with the opium problem in Afghanistan,” Sandro Calvani, representative of the East Asia and Pacific wing of the United Nations Drug Control Programme (UNDCP), said here Monday. “It offers good lessons, particularly to have people at the centre in what we do.”

This approach emerged during last week’s international donors meeting in Tokyo to help rebuild Afghanistan, adds Calvani.

The 61 countries and 21 aid agencies at that meeting, which was co-hosted by Japan, the United States, the European Union and Saudi Arabia, pledged to give Afghanistan more than $ 1.8 billion in aid in the first year, and $ 4.5 billion over the next few years.

The Thai government, which was among the participants, made a number of pledges — including aid in reducing opium cultivation — to help Kabul’s interim government, says Laxanachantorn Laohaphan, deputy permanent secretary at the ministry of foreign affairs.

“We are prepared to train those who will be involved in Afghanistan’s opium control effort,” added Laxanachantorn, who was a member of the Thai government’s delegation to Tokyo. “Assistance at the policy-making level has also been considered for the start, since we have expertise in this area.”

These moves come in the wake of reports from Afghanistan that farmers in the country’s east have begun growing opium poppies after the defeat of the Taliban regime in November.

In July 2000, the Taliban leadership issued an order banning poppy cultivation in the country in an effort to win international recognition of its government, which was run on extremist Muslim lines.

In fact, its crackdown on opium cultivation was just about the only area that got the Taliban praises from foreign governments, including the United States that later led the bombing of the country after the Sept. 11 terror attacks.

In the post-Taliban era, there is concern that Afghanistan’s cultivation of opium, which is processed into heroin, may return to match the production levels during the late 1990s. This reached a high of 4,500 tonnes of raw opium produced in 1999.

“The ban (by the Taliban) was very effective. But we need an alternative programme like Thailand’s,” Calvani said here during the launch of a 199-page book on this country’s success story, “Opium Reduction in Thailand 1970-2000: A Thirty-Year Journey.”

Key to Thailand’s success was the “alternative development concept”, Ronald Renard, the book’s author, said during the launch. This meant rural development programmes for the communities in the opium trade, offering profitable crops as an alternative and ensuring that the “affected communities were central in this effort, participating in the work”.

Thailand’s King Bhumibol Adulyadej and the royal family took a lead role, too, in plans drawn up to reduce cultivating the poppy crop in the country’s north and north-eastern areas, home to indigenous hilltribe communities, Renard adds.

The king, for instance, had insisted that no poppy plants be destroyed until alternative plants were available for the hilltribe communities to live off, says Renard. “The king identified peach trees as one alternative.”

Over the years, some 150 crops, including kidney beans and coffee, were considered viable alternatives to poppy cultivation. Those working with the tribal communities also helped them market their new produce.

Renard also identifies the programme’s sensitivity to the life and culture of the tribal people as another major factor in its success. When the programme got underway in the early 1970s, there was little official knowledge of the tribal people, who engaged in the opium trade openly.

“Government officials met the hill tribe people to assess what they wanted during the three phases of this project,” Renard pointed out.

The UNDCP also says that the Thai government backed its anti-opium policies with a steady stream of funds. “Between 1971 and 2000, about 100 (alternative development) projects have been completed and approximately $ 600 million (U.S.) have been invested in alternatives,” according to UNDCP data.

The available figures bear out the country’s achievement: its opium output has dropped from an annual 150 metric tonnes in 1972 to about six metric tonnes a year currently.

At present, Burma tops the list of opium-producing countries in South-east Asia’s Golden Triangle region, which also comprises parts of Laos and Thailand and which accounts for more than half the world’s heroin. In 2001, Burma supplied 68 percent of the world’s opium, which was more than 850 tonnes.

“The Thai experience has shown us that we need commitment and resources,” said Jean-Luc Lemahieu, UNDCP representative in Burma. “Political will and political leadership are equally important.”

Afghanistan needs these same elements to combat opium production and wean communities away from them, he explains. “The lead taken by the Thai king is good example. There was political will from the beginning.”

Those working on a blueprint for Afghanistan must also factor in the poverty of the poppy cultivators, Lemahieu adds. “Opium production is related to poverty. It serves as a cash crop to buy food.”

These issues have not been lost on U.N. officials like Calvani or the Thai official Laxanachantorn. They both concede that Afghanistan lacks the political stability and will that Thailand had through its king when the crackdown on opium began 30 years ago.

“The challenge in Afghanistan is 10 times bigger,” said Calvani. “The country has been destroyed and the political leaders are new. We have still to gauge how the tribal people there will react to attempts by the political leaders to stop opium production.”

Laxanachantorn expects law enforcement and crop substitution to emerge as hurdles in efforts to curb opium production in Afghanistan: “The communities will have to be provided with profitable alternative crops. It will be different from Thailand’s.”

Reuters, 28 Jan 2002

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