It's happy hour for the heroin traffickers of the Golden Triangle
With demand from China's heroin addicts outstripping supply, the trafficking business is booming, but little changes for the poor farmers
David Eimer in Muang Long, Laos
These are boom times in the Golden Triangle, long notorious as Southeast Asia's drug production capital. For the farmers in the remote hills around the town of Muang Long in northwestern Laos that means only one thing: increased demand for opium, their most profitable crop.
"Prices are going up. At the moment, it's 10 to 12 million kip (HK$10,000 to HK$12,000) for a kilo. Last year, it was eight to nine million kip," said Ber Ko, a local man who describes himself as a "transporter of goods".
A soaring appetite for heroin in mainland China, as well as in Hong Kong and Macau, is fuelling what Thailand's deputy chief of police has called "happy hour" for the region's drug traffickers. Almost 90 per cent of heroin from the Golden Triangle is exported to China.
The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) believes China - including Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan - now consumes 70 per cent of all the heroin used in the East Asia and Pacific region. Such is the desire for the drug in China that the Golden Triangle can no longer produce enough to satisfy the unknown millions of addicts.
"We estimate that China uses around 65 tonnes of heroin annually and there's not enough heroin in the Golden Triangle to meet that demand, so heroin from Afghanistan is coming in as well to supplement it," said Tun Nay Soe, who monitors narcotics production in East Asia for the UNODC. That is despite opium production in the Golden Triangle doubling since 2006, according to the UNODC.
Almost all of it is refined into heroin and the region now supplies 10 per cent of the world's heroin annually. At the same time, the Golden Triangle is home to hundreds of jungle labs churning out 1.4 billion methamphetamine pills each year, as well as unknown quantities of Ice, an even more potent stimulant, to supply the increasing demand for those drugs across Asia.
It is a massive, hugely profitable and ever-expanding industry which the UNODC estimates to be worth about HK$250 billion a year.
Encompassing eastern Myanmar's Shan state, northern Laos, the deep south of China's Yunnan province and the north of Thailand, the Golden Triangle remains one of the most lawless regions on the planet.
Shan state alone is the second-largest opium producer on the planet, after Afghanistan.
Yet little Laos is profiting too. The amount of land given over to growing opium poppies surged by a staggering 66 per cent in 2011, the last year figures were available for, making the country the world's fourth-biggest producer of the drug. "We're expecting the percentage of land given over to opium cultivation to rise again this year," Tun said.
Virtually inaccessible, thanks to the dirt tracks that pass for roads in this part of little-developed Laos, the hill villages around Muang Long are the perfect place to grow opium. They are also conveniently close to both the Mekong River, which marks the border between Myanmar and Laos and runs south from the mainland to Thailand, and the frontier with Yunnan province.
October is the beginning of the poppy-growing season. "They plant it after the maize has been cut down and use the same fields. It takes three to four months to grow a crop and then it is transported either to the Mekong or the Chinese border," Ber Ko said. Like the farmers who grow the poppy, Ber Ko is a member of the Akha ethnic minority. A hill tribe that is scattered across the Golden Triangle, the Akha are amongst the poorest people in every country they inhabit.
For the Akha of northwestern Laos, growing opium is a means of survival and hundreds of small fields are scattered across the area. "It's all they can do," said Ber Ko. "Where they live is so isolated that they can't grow rubber or bananas because they can't get to town to buy the stuff they need to grow those crops. Even if they could, they wouldn't be able to sell it because they can't reach town. They can grow enough rice and maize to feed themselves and that's it."
Travelling to any Akha settlement where opium is grown means hours of bouncing down rutted and pot-holed tracks and then walking. When the South China Morning Post arrived at a village it agreed not to name, it found a collection of wooden shacks, bare-chested women of all ages and no running water or electricity.
The tight-lipped residents denied cultivating opium in any quantity. "The old people still smoke it, so they grow a little crop for themselves but that's it," said a farmer named La Te.
The withered frame and sunken cheeks of 77-year-old villager Bi Wo are a graphic illustration of the physical effects of regular opium abuse. "I smoke every day, mainly to help me sleep or if I am sick," he said.
Despite the rising price and demand for opium, the Akha remain confined to their miserable villages. They sit at the bottom of a long chain that leads to the giant cities of mainland China, via a vast network of Burmese and Chinese dealers.
Once their crop has been transported by speed boat across the Mekong to Shan state, or sent north across the land border to Yunnan, it is refined into heroin and then distributed across China via Kunming , Yunnan's capital.
But it takes 10 tonnes of raw opium to make one tonne of heroin and with the Golden Triangle producing about 730 tonnes of opium in 2011, and also having to supply Southeast Asia, that's no longer enough to feed China's addicts. Now, heroin from Afghanistan is also being imported via Guangzhou and the far western region of Xinjiang , which borders both Afghanistan and eastern Tajikistan, a major transit point for Afghan heroin.
Mainland China admits having 1.2 million registered heroin users, but they are only the people who have been arrested and sent to forced rehab centres.
"There are far more users than that," Tun said. "We think there are 2.4 million users in China now, including Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan. But those figures are estimates. It's such a huge country that coming up with accurate figures is a real problem.
"The Chinese government has never done the sort of household surveys about drug use and drug culture that have taken place in Thailand, Indonesia and the Philippines," Tun said.
Nor can any agency estimate the extent of methamphetamine use in China. "We can only go by seizures and arrests and they are rising," Tun said.
In Hong Kong alone, police and customs seized 80kg of Ice in the first half of this year, up from 16kg in the same period last year. All of it, as well as the methamphetamine pills known as yaba that have become an epidemic across Asia, is sourced from the Golden Triangle.
With much of Shan state under the control of rebel ethnic-minority armies, Myanmese authorities have only shut down one ice lab in the last five years. Just 40 yaba labs have been discovered over the previous 20 years. Nor does Laos have the resources to stop the Akha growing opium. And with 1.3 billion people in mainland China, there is no shortage of potential customers.
"Poppy is the only crop where you don't have to worry about selling it. People will come to you to buy it," Tun said. "As long as there is demand, there will be supply."