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Myanmar Surpasses Afghanistan as World’s Largest Opium Producer

The Southeast Asian nation of Myanmar is now the world’s largest producer of opium, according to a recent report from the United Nations. Myanmar’s new dominance in the international opium market follows the decline of production of the drug in Afghanistan, which had previously been the largest producer of the crop worldwide.

Afghanistan’s drop in production follows a ban on opium farming issued by the ruling Taliban in 2022, although that year’s harvest was exempt from the ban. Since then, the South-Central Asian nation has seen a 95% decline in opium cultivation. The Taliban retook control of Afghanistan in 2021 as the United States military largely evacuated the country following two decades of American occupation and war. 

Before the ban, Afghanistan was the world’s largest producer of opium. According to a 2022 survey by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), Afghanistan’s opium cultivation increased by 32% over the previous year to 233,000 hectares (about 575,755 acres). The southwestern parts of the country accounted for 73% of the total area under cultivation and saw the largest crop increases. In Helmand province, one-fifth of the arable land was dedicated to growing opium poppies.

The report also states that the 2022 harvest was the most profitable in years, with prices soaring, even as a political and economic crisis engulfed the country. The income made by farmers from opium sales more than tripled from $425 million in 2021 to $1.4 billion in 2022. The primary markets for Afghan opium are Iran, Pakistan, and Central Asia. 

Decline of Opium Production in Afghanistan Leads to Surge in Myanmar

Earlier this month, a new report from UNODC showed that the drop in production in Afghanistan has led to a surge in poppy farming in Myanmar. The increase in poppy cultivation in Myanmar is also fueled by the social, political and economic distress following a 2021 military coup that drove many to poppy farming, according to the report.

“The economic, security and governance disruption that followed the military takeover of February 2021 continue to drive farmers in remote areas towards opium to make a living,” UNODC Regional Representative Jeremy Douglas said in a statement earlier this month.

Because of the decline in the opium supply brought about by the Taliban prohibition in Afghanistan, farmers in Myanmar can now earn about 75% more by farming opium than they could previously. The average price of a kilogram of opium flower has reached $355 per kilogram, according to the report.

The amount of land in Myanmar has increased from an estimated 40,100 hectares (about 99,000 acres) to 47,000 hectares (about 116,000 acres). The most growth in opium cultivation occurred in border regions in northern Shan State, followed by Chin and Kachin states. The UNODC report also noted that more sophisticated farming practices adopted by Myanmar’s opium growers have led to an increase in efficiency, with the average yield of the crop climbing 16% to 22.99 kilograms per hectare.

Myanmar, previously known as Burma, is an independent country in Southeast Asia. It shares borders with China, India, Thailand, Bangladesh, and Laos. Covering an area of 261,228 square miles, Myanmar is one of the largest countries in Southeast Asia. As of 2014, its population stood at about 51 million inhabitants, with estimates reaching 54 million people by 2017.

From 1962 until 2011, the country was ruled by the armed forces, enduring almost 50 years of oppressive military regimes. In 1989, the ruling military changed the country’s name from Burma to Myanmar.

In 2011, Myanmar transitioned away from full military rule, sparking hopes of democratic reforms. However, the military retained significant control over the government and, following the military’s proxy party’s defeat in the 2020 elections, a coup in 2021 returned power to military leaders. 

Douglas of UNODC said that an increase in armed conflict between ruling military forces and armed ethnic minority groups would likely further accelerate the growth of opium cultivation in Myanmar. The country’s ruling military junta did not respond to a Reuters request for comment on the report.

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