TED Case Studies

Opium Trade and Environment

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I. Identification

1. The Issue

Opium and heroin production in Burma has significant negative effects both on regional and global environment. Environmental problems include deforestation, soil erosion, water pollution resulting from chemical dumping. Ethnic wars in Burma are also highly related to heroin trade. In order to maintain its military rule, the Burmese government try to get arms by trading heroin. In 1988, the Burmese government bloodily suppressed the pro-democracy activities. This raised the issue of human rights. The most critical problem is the increasing number of people using heroin, especially teenagers. According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, heroin use dramatically increasing. In just a 6-year period, the number of young people admitted to hospital emergency rooms after smoking or snorting (inhaling heroin through the nose) has increased by more than 2000% in the United States. This case study will observe the effects of opium trade on the environment.

2. Description

The opium trade in Indochina had a long history back to the early eighth century when Arab and Turkish merchants first introduced opium to China in early eighth century. It is believed that Chinese people mixed opium with tobacco for pleasure in the early seventeenth century. With the huge demand for opium in China, domestic cultivation of poppies in Sichuan, Yunnan, Fujien, Zhejiang, and Guangdong provinces boomed, the imports rose along with it. By 1927, concern about the extent of opium use led the imperial government to prohibit the sale and smoking of the drug. In the early nineteenth century, opium smuggling was such a lucrative business that large private firms, especially British firms, conducted cash-only, under-the-table trade with the Chinese. Drug use in China expanded even father into mainstream society including government officials, merchants, literati, women, servants, soldiers, and even Buddhist monks, nuns, and priests. Chinese society's dependency on opium eventually created such a high demand that giving the Golden Triangle area a great impulsion to grow opium poppies. From that time, raw cotton and opium from India and Burma had become the staple British imports into China, in spite of the fact that opium was prohibited entry by imperial decree. The opium traffic was made possible through the connivance of profit-seeking merchants and a corrupt bureaucracy.

A steam-driven British warship, right background, destroyed a Chinese junk in a naval battle during the Opium War in Qing Dynasty.
In 1839 the Qing government, after a decade of unsuccessful anti-opium campaigns, adopted drastic prohibitory laws against the opium trade. The emperor dispatched a commissioner, Lin Zexu , to the province of Guangzhou to suppress illicit opium traffic. Lin seized illegal stocks of opium owned by Chinese dealers and then detained the entire foreign community and confiscated and destroyed some 20,000 chests of illicit British opium. The British retaliated with a punitive expedition, thus initiating the first Anglo-Chinese war, better known as the Opium War (1839-42). The Chinese government was totally defeated by the British government and ceded Hong Kong to the British under the Treaty of Nanjing (1842). In 1858, China was defeated by the Union Force of the British and France and signed the Treaty of Tianjin. Under this treaty, opium even became a legal trade item in China.

However, the largest expansion of opium trade occurred when many members of Chinese Nationalist Party were defeated by the Communist Party and fled to Indochina in 1949. Chinese from Yunnan Province settled in the China-Burma border, especially the Shan State in Burma, became active in the opium trade. In fact, in sixteenth century, Burmese in the Shan State began cultivating opium poppies. However, the poppies were produced in limited quantities and used purely for medicinal purposes. As time went by, people who lived in this area became heavily rely on opium trade to make their living and support themselves to against the central government. With Chinese influence, opium trade brought a lot of business benefits for the Shan State. With the increasing demand of heroin (which is made by opium) in the West, another high demand gave Burmese a greater impulsion to grow opium. Opium-heroin trade in Burma therefore become a serious problem today.

According to the report of U.S. State Department in 1997, Burma is the world's largest illicit opium supply and is the source for almost 50 percent of the heroin reaching the U.S. and Western Europe. It is estimated that there were 163,000 hectares under opium poppy cultivation which could produce 2,560 mt of opium gum. This amount is also enough to produce 250 mt of heroin to satisfy the U.S. heroin market many times over.

In order to cope with this situation, the U.S. government had planned several programs to reduce heroin supply in the world. For example, the U.S. had a program in Mexico to spray poppies there that was quite effective. With regard to the largest supplier of heroin, Burma, the U.S. government also had promoted crop substitution programs in the Golden Triangle with support of the government's efforts to eradicate cultivation.

However, because of bureaucratic corruption in the central government, counter narcotics activities in Burma seem to be a less concern for government policy. The Burmese government also involves with money laundries, which is highly correlated with drug trade in Burma. A study by the International Monetary Fund cites large expenditures unaccounted for by the Burmese government. Despite the fact that Burma's foreign exchange reserves for 1991 through 1993 were only approximately $300 million, the Burmese government spent $1.2 billion purchasing arms during this period. According to the Australian Parliament Committee of Foreign Affairs' report in 1995, Burma's narcotics trade was protected at the highest level of the government and the government covered areas of responsibility for transport, protection and patronage; and as a matter of policy, either explicit or covert, in order to raise government revenue. A new economic report from the U.S. Embassy in Rangoon indicated that probably at least 50 percent of Burma's economy is dependent on illicit drug trade. Under this condition, it would be difficult for Burmese to give up opium-heroin trade. Even if Burmese shifted to grow other crops, they would be unable to get their production to market promptly because of the inadequate transportation system and underdeveloped market infrastructure.

It is believed that the process of making opium into heroin had a negative impact on the environment. First, in order to cultivate opium poppies, forests have been cut in Burma. The increased deforestation has resulted in soil erosion and flooding in southwest China. Moreover, the deforestation in Southeast Asia has contributed to the global warming. Thirdly, processing opium into heroin has more damaging effects than growing poppies. Numerous drug laboratories have been established in the Burma-border in order to mix chemicals. The dumping of chemicals in rivers has contributed to environmental pollution problems spread from Burma to China and other Indochina countries. These continuing pollution problems probably will cause a serious ecological destruction in the following years.

Opium trade is also contributing the rapid spread of AIDS whether in regional or global. In Burma, high infection rates of AIDS are noted in Burma's border towns, especially among heroin users who share needles. Even in Rangoon, the rate went from 17% testing positive (54 out of 313 persons) in 1989 to over 76% testing positive (260 out of 340 persons) in 1991 [1]. The spread of AIDS indeed threatens the whole of the country in recent years.

Being the largest consumers of heroin from Burma, the U.S. and West European countries have to get involved in counter narcotics activities in the Southeast Asia to prevent the AIDS spread. Recently drug manufactures have refined the way they produce heroin. As a result, the purity has reached a point that it can be smoked or snorted, and this has made it a more attractive drug to young people. Teenagers who would normally shy away from this drug out of fear of catching the AIDS virus from a contaminated needle. For this reason, heroin use certainly reach to a new peak during the last 6 years. Between 1974 and 1988, the U.S. gave Burma more than $80 million in counter narcotics assistance. Although this aid has remained suspended since 1988 when the Burmese military suppressed the popular pro-democracy movement, initiatives are set to prevent the expansion of Burmese opium cultivation in recent years.

Burmese government has began to destroy some poppy fields since 1989. According to the report of U.S. National Narcotics Intelligence Consumers Committee (NNICC) in 1991, 607 hectares of poppies have been eradicated by the Burmese government. In addition, the government also has a law enforcement to reduce opium production. The drug enforcement effort is led by the Office of the Central Committee for Drug Abuse Control (CCDAC) which is comprised of personnel from various security services, including the police, customs, military intelligence, and the army. CCDAC now has 18 drug enforcement task forces around the country, most located in major cities and along key transit routes near Burma's border with China, India, and Thailand.

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Keyword Clusters
(1):Trade Product =Opium
(2):Bio-geography =Tropical
(3):Environmental Problem =Health

4. Draft Author:

Cheng-Chia Huang (June, 1997)

II. Legal Clusters

5. Discourse and Status: DISagreement and Inprogress

The Burmese government has increased the penalties for drug abuse since 1974. However, the number of drug and heroin users in Burma are still on the increase. In fact, government corruption has been an obstacle to carry out their laws to stop people trading heroin. Additionally, as mentioned above, the government also made business by heroin trade in order to get arms. As the U.S. Department of State noted in 1992, although eight death sentences have been handed down in Burma for drug trafficking since 1986, "none have been carried out to date....All [the sentenced] are low-level traffickers and major traffickers continue to operate unhindered. For this reason, we cannot say that drug law enforcement has presented a successful deterrent to drug use in Burma.

6. Forum and Scope: Burma and Multi-national

International concern about Burmese heroin trade focuses on the United Nations International Drug Control Program (UNDCP). For instance, the Government of Burma and UNDCP initiated a 12-month pilot integrated rural development project in 1994 in the Wa region. This pilot project was designed to test the feasibility of a planned five-year, $15 million rural development project aimed at crop substitution [2]. In addition, under United Nations' promotion, Chia, Burma and Thailand also discussed narcotics issues and reached several agreements to reduce domestic demand for heroin use. For the agreement with China, the UNDCP input was to be $7,765,125; while for the agreement with Thailand, the UNDCP was to provide $4,540,000.

The priorities of both agreements were to:

1. reduce trafficking in narcotic drugs and chemicals used in the refining of heroin;
2. eliminate opium poppy cultivation in border areas through economic and social development programs linked to phased eradication;
3. reduce the demand for, and local consumption of, narcotic drugs in the border areas.

China and Burma also agree to conduct an epidemiological survey of drug abuse on both sides of the border. Detoxification and rehabilitation services were to be adopted and implemented vigorously. Facilities for treating drug users were to be improved, and information about HIV infection was also provided. However, it still remains to be seen whether these efforts will be successful.

7. Decision Breadth: Burma and Many

8. Legal Standing: Law

III. Geographic Clusters

9. Geographic Locations

a. Geographic Domain: Asia

b. Geographic Site: East Asia

c. Geographic Impact: Burma

10. Sub-National Factors: Yes

11. Type of Habitat: Tropical

Myanmar is indeed very rich in forest resources as the forests cover about 50.87 per cent of the total land area. There are over 8570 different plant species, including 2300 tree species, 850 kinds of orchid, 97 varieties of bamboo and 32 different types of cane. In 1992/93 reserved forest area totaled 101425 sq. km . (39160 sq. miles).

When the SLORC took control of Burma, the country was estimated to have had 80 percent of the world's remaining teak forests. During the last three years, however, the SLORC has sold expansive concessions of teak and other hardwoods to Thai timber companies for clear-cutting. In 1990, the United Nations estimated that 1,235,000 acres of tree cover were disappearing every year in Burma due to clear-cutting practices. The World Watch Institute estimates forest-cutting in Burma at over 2 million acres per year.

IV. Trade Clusters

12. Type of Measure: Enforcement

As mentioned above, the U.S. provided huge amount of aids in order to reduce Burma's opium supply. The UNDCP also planned several programs to help Burma to deal with their problems. These programs include helping them to shift opium to other crop cultivation and detoxification and rehabilitation plans.

13. Direct v. Indirect Impacts: Direct

14. Relation of Trade Measure to Environmental Impact

a. Directly Related to Product: Yes Opium

b. Indirectly Related to Product: Yes Heroin

c. Not Related to Product: No

d. Related to Process: Yes Health

15. Trade Product Identification: Opium

16. Economic Data

It is estimated that there were 163,000 hectares under opium poppy cultivation which could produce 2,560 mt of opium gum. This amount is also enough to produce 250 mt of heroin to satisfy the U.S. heroin market many times over. Several data which are all from the U.S. Department of State 1996 represented below:

Opium cultivation
and production
  1992 1993 1994 1995 1996 %

Net cultivation
181,360 194,720 167,230 175,470 190,520 100%

Burma 153,700 165,800 146,600 154,070 163,100 85.6%

Loas 25,610 26,040 18,520 19,650 25,250 13.2%

Thailand 2,050 2,880 2,110 1,750 2,170 1.2%

Potential production
Metric tons
2,534 2,797 2,132 2,545 2,790 100%

Burma 2,280 2,575 2,030 2,340 2,560 91.8%

Laos 230 180 85 180 200 7.2%

Thailand 24 42 17 25 30 1%
Potential heroin
Metric tons
211 234 177 212 232 100%

Burma 190 215 169 195 213 91.8%

Laos 19 15 7 15 17 7.3%

Thailand 2 4 1 2 2 0.9%

This table represents the total amount of opium and heroin produced in the Golden Triangle in the past 5 years. It is clear that Burma is indeed the leading supplier of opium and heroin in the three categories. Let's just look at the year of 1996.

In terms of net cultivation, the percentage of opium cultivation in Burma is 85.6 percent (163,100 divides 190,520). In terms of potential production, Burma accounts to 91.8 per cent (2,560 divides 2,790). Burma's heroin production is also 91.8 per cent (213 divides 232) of total amount in the Golden Triangle.

17. Impact of Trade Restriction: Medium

18. Industry Sector: Pharmaceutical

19. Exporters and Importers: Burma and Many

The largest consumers of heroin are the U.S. and West European countries. The U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) has noted an incredible rise in Southeast Asian heroin's share of the US market since 1986 growing from less than 20 percent to 88 percent in the early 1990s. At the same time, drug treatment experts began noting a rise in heroin abuse treatment admissions and related deaths. By the end of 1993, heroin had overtaken cocaine as the main non-alcohol drug of abuse in three major metropolitan areas. Over 60 percent of heroin in the U.S. comes from Burma.

V. Environment Clusters

20. Environmental Problem Type: Health

Other environmental problems include deforestation and pollution. In order to satisfy the huge demand for heroin in the world, Burma has increasingly cut its forests year by year. The deforestation has resulted in soil erosion, wildlife loss, and will also increase global temperature. Moreover, the process of opium into heroin did a serious ecological destruction in the Burma border. For example, it has been found that rivers across the Burma border carried many chemical elements and soil resulting from dumping of chemicals and deforestation.

It is estimated that there were 870 bird species and 263 mammals, including 94 species of bats in the Burma border, particularly the Shan State. Recently, the number of species are decreasing because of deforestation. For example, the tiger population is estimated to be fewer than 500. Species closer to extinction include the Thai crocodile, the mouse deer and the Kouprey, a large herbivore similar to the elk, of which fewer than 200 remain. [3] The Sarus crane, another native in this area, has not been sighted for 20 years. [4] Therefore, forest destruction has by no means been the sole cause of wildlife loss in the Shan State.

It is believed that the spread of AIDS is more serious problem to deal with in Burma. Political isolation, ethnic conflict, and censorship in Burma has led to a health crisis and increased the spread of HIV, the London-based International Center Against Censorship reports. The group said accurate statistics concerning public health in the country are rare or non-existent. It also noted that HIV has spread rapidly over the past decade due to drug abuse and prostitution. Burma's military government has been criticized for its authoritarian policies and alleged human rights abuses. The World Health Organization estimates that half a million people in the country of 46 million were infected with HIV in 1995, although official statistics say only 9,885 people carry the virus.[5]

Dr. Chamnarn Harnsutwechakul, provincial health chief, said that lack of knowledge among hill tribes and Burmese people is allowing the spread of AIDS. Many Karen and Shan illegal immigrants carried the virus, he said, and Burmese workers were transmitting the virus in Mae Hong Son. Dr. Chamnarn also said that the Burmese government was not promoting AIDS awareness around the border. [6]. The AIDS spread not only occurred in Indochina, heroin consumption countries like the U.S., will also have to face this problem.

21. Name, Type, and Diversity of Species

Name: Human Beings

Type: Animal/Vertebrate/Mammal/Primate

Diversity: Burma's population is about 45 million

22. Resource Impact and Effect: High and Product

23. Urgency of Problem: High and about 60 years

24. Substitutes: Treatment

Detoxification and rehabilitation could be treatments for the drug problem in Burma. However, being a low developed country, the Burmese government actually has few capital and technology to establish the drug treatment system. The only thing that Burma can do is dependent on other countries' aids, such as United Nations' drug control program. The U.S. government stopped its aids to Burma after the Burmese government suppressed the pro-democracy movement in 1988. However, if most countries embargo or stop aids to Burma because of such issues as human rights in the future, it might be helpless to solve the human rights issues, and the drug trade issue would be more serious due to the lack of necessary aids for establishing drug treatment system in Burma.

VI. Other Factors

25. Culture: No

26. Trans-Boundary Issues: Yes

The negative effects of making heroin in Burma spread across China, Laos, and Thailand. The spread of AIDS in Burma could across to the border countries.

27. Rights: Yes

In Burma, the drug trade actually is controlled by several regional military leaders. In Shan State, the opium-heroin trade has been attributed to insurgency. Ethnic conflicts in Burma can be related to opium trade. Because of unfair sharing of drug market, ethnic groups fight each other sometimes. In order to prepare for fighting, they produce heroin in exchange for arms. Ironically, the military government also do the same thing in order to maintain political stability. In January 1997, the military government attacked the ethnic Karens near Thailand, driving some 18,000 refugees across the border. Even the Karens crossed the border to Thailand, the military government still attacked them when Thai government may withdraw soldiers in the border area at night. Thus, human rights issue in Burma has been raised since the military government suppressed pro-democracy activities in 1988.

28. Relevant Literature

Bo Yang. 1987. Golden Triangle: Frontier and Wilderness, translated by Clive Gulliver from articles in China Times, ca. 1982. Hong Kong: Joint Publishing.

Cady F. John. A History of Modern Burma. Cornell University Press, 1958.

Davis, Anthony. "Law and Disorder: A Growing Torrent of Guns and Narcotics Overwhelms China." Asia Week, 25 August 1995.

"Khun Sa Wants His Deputies to Take Over." Bangkok Post, 23 December 1991, p.7.

Liang A. Debra. "The Golden Triangle: Burma, Laos, and Thailand" in International Handbook on Drug control, edited by Scott B. MacDonald and Bruce Zagaris. P.363-86. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1992.

Lintner Bertil. Burma in Revolt, Opium and Insurgency Since 1948. Westview Press Lotus, 1994.

McCoy, Alfred W. The Politics of Heroin in Southeast Asia. New York: Harper & Row,1972.

McCoy, Alfred W. The Politics of Heroin: CIA Complicity in the Global Drug Trade. New York: Lawrence Hill, 1991.

Mirante, Edith. 1986. Burma Frontier Insurgency. Cranford, NJ: Project Maje.

Myanmar. Ministry of Health. 1990. Medium Term Plan for the Prevention and Control of AIDS in the Union of Myanmar, 1990-1993. Yangon: Ministry of Health; prepared in cooperation with the World Health Organization.

Pan, Lynn "Fraternal is as Fraternal Does," Far Eastern Economic Review (April 25, 1991):34

Renard D. Ronald. The Burmese Connection: Illegal Drugs and the Making of the Golden Triangle. Published by Lynne Rienner Publishers, Inc, 1996.

Rettie, Jackie Yang. 1992. "The Opium Trade: A Kokang Perspective." Thai-Yunan Project Newsletter 15 (December): 17-19

Solomon, Robert. "The Burma Opiate Trade and the Struggle for Political Power in the Golden Triangle." Journal of Psychedelic Drugs 10:2(April-June): 89-98.

Smith, Martin. 1991. Burma: Insurgency and the Politics of Ethnicity. London: Zed Books Ltd.

U.S. Department of State. Bureau of International Narcotics Matters. 1992. 1991 International Narcotics Control Strategy Report. Washington D.C.: GPO.

U.S. Department of State. Bureau of International Narcotics Matters. 1997. 1996 International Narcotics Control Strategy Report. Washington D.C.: GPO.

Yawnghwe Chao-Tzang. "The Political Economy of the Opium Trade: Implications For Shan State" Journal of Contemporary Asia, Vol.23, No.3, 1993, pp.306-26.

29. Notes:

1. Working People's Daily, 23 June 1991[back]

2. 1997 U.S. State Dept. International Narcotics Control[back]

3. Gabhir, R. 1986.[back]

4. Bangkok Post, 1986, 21 July.[back]

5. article by Reuters, August 13, 1996[back]

6. Bangkok Post, December 30, 1995 Strategy Report[back]

Any question, comment? Please E-mail to Cheng-China Huang:


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