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Myanmar's farmers shift from growing poppies to raising silkworms

Farmers in the hills of eastern Myanmar have grown poppies for generations, much of which ends up as heroin. A Chinese company is working with locals to help them raise silkworms to export to China in hopes that opium loses its foothold in the nation.

Ann Wang/ Reuters
Ethnic Palaung women and their children collect silkworm cocoons in Wanpaolong village in Lashio District, northern Shan State, Myanmar on April 22, 2018. A Chinese company Is working with farmers to help them grow silkworms instead of poppies, in hopes that they can help the farmers, and their country, shake their dependence on opium.

Zhou Xing Ci’s family have farmed poppies for as long as anyone remembers, scraping the flowers' sticky brown sap to produce opium.

Along with many other farmers in the hills of eastern Myanmar, the crop – much of which ends up as heroin sold on foreign streets – has in recent years put Myanmar behind only Afghanistan as the world’s leading source of opium.

“That tradition stops with me,” Mr. Zhou told Reuters at his sturdy new timber house in Tangyan township, in the north of Shan State.

Zhou is now in his third year raising silkworms rather than poppies, and says quicker profits have enabled his family – with six children – to upgrade from a bamboo hut.

A Chinese company working with farmers like Zhou hopes the silk-producing larva can help the farmers, and their country, quit the drug.

“Growing opium is too tough. It’s only one harvest every year and a rain can easily destroy a whole year’s work,” said Zhou.

The price for opium has fallen, he said, and growing poppies risked running afoul of heavy-handed eradication efforts by Myanmar authorities.

The price drop, alongside the rise of synthetic drugs like methamphetamine, has contributed to a 25 percent fall in the total area of Myanmar under poppy cultivation since 2015, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC).

The UN agency has assisted more than 1,000 farmers to switch from opium to another cash crop, coffee, since 2014, said Troels Vester, UNODC country manager for Myanmar.

Still, 41,000 hectares (101,313 acres) of poppy was planted in Myanmar last year, the agency said. Farmers in conflict areas were less likely to have moved to licit crops, it added.

In the corner of Myanmar where Zhou lives, bordering China's Yunnan province, various armed groups operate and the law is barely enforced, providing a haven for opium traders, as well as heroin producers and meth-lab operators.

“It was nothing but poppy farms when we first arrived in this area in 2014,” said Wang Bing, vice general manager of DH Silco Enterprise, the Chinese company working with farmers, navigating a winding dirt road in a four-wheel drive.

The company is working with more than 1,800 families, who grow mulberry bushes to feed the silkworms on 2,000 hectares (5,000 acres) of land, producing at least 288,000 kg of cocoons to be exported to China each year, Mr. Wang said.

About 50 sericulturalists from China help farmers to harvest as often as every two weeks between April and November, said Wang, a Zhejiang province native who's spent more than 40 years in China’s silk trade.

Some villagers have moved to lower lying areas to take part. Others are now farming silkworms alongside other crops like watermelons.

But old habits are hard to break.

During Reuters’ last visit in April, Zhou’s children played with poppy-farming tools, and a small plot of poppy stalks grew next to his mulberry bushes. His neighbor was growing a small amount to feed his grandfather’s opium addiction, Zhou said.

This story was reported by Reuters.

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