Myanmar is extremely vulnerable to climate change. In South Shan, opium poppy plantations dotting the mountain slopes are being replaced with coffee plants and shade-giving trees. Finland promotes the sustainable use of natural resources in the area as well as the creation of legal livelihoods as part of a project of the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC).
Myanmar is the world’s second largest producer of opium after Afghanistan. Some 90 per cent of Myanmar’s poppy fields are in Shan State, and most of them in South Shan. Although it is illegal to grow opium poppies, they are cultivated openly in areas controlled by armed insurgent groups.
Poppy cultivation causes substantial harm to environment. Mountain slopes have been deforested for illicit crops, exposing them for erosion and landslides. Soil becomes barren because of intensive cultivation, and drought becomes more common when there are no longer trees drawing in moisture from the soil.
While opium poppy cultivation is an important source of income for the poor in rural areas, it does not make the farmers rich. Jobs are scarce even in local towns, and there are still only a few job-creating industries and services in Myanmar.
Opium poppy cultivation is profitable in remote areas which are difficult to reach. Opium harvested from poppy is compressed into blocks of raw opium which are easy to transport for example on motorcycle. Moreover, raw opium does not go bad easily like many other crops, such as tomatoes.
“We want to replace opium poppies with legal crops. We want our village to be famous for its coffee, and not for opium,” says U Sai San Lu, the Ninn Moo village head.
U Sai San Lu explains how the farmers expect to get higher income from coffee than from poppy crops. The price farmers get for opium poppy varies greatly, making it an unstable source of income.
“We are making important choices for future generations,” says U Sai San Lu.
The UNODC project also aims to create forests managed by villages or communities. This re-forestation process has only just started, but tree saplings are already being grown in several nurseries of the project.
The goal is that village members together plant the trees and make sure that trees are eventually felled according to a joint forestry plan. It takes about ten years before the trees are ready for logging, and then the village can get income from selling timber.
In the village of Pan Li, 95 households have joined the project. People in the village say that monsoon rainfall has decreased significantly in recent years. Shortage of water is a possibility during dry season if the springs run dry.
“It is good to have coffee plants and trees on the mountain slopes to give shade; we need more water,” people in the village are saying.
Even small, low-grown forests can slow down the water cycle, ensuring that water is available even after monsoon. Large, multi-layered forests increase water quantities locally as they draw in water from the soil and evaporate it from their leaves. This evaporated water then becomes condensed in the tropical climate to recreate rain.
Myanmar has the third fastest deforestation rate in the world after Indonesia and Brazil. Illegal logging is common, and the surveying of the country’s forests has only just started. Smuggling of commercially valuable trees continues in border areas controlled by armed insurgent groups despite an official ban on logging.
The UNODC project was launched in Shan State in 2014 when the first coffee plants and shade-giving trees were planted. The objective is to improve the local climate resilience and to give to the farmers a real and licit economic possibility to sustain their families.
Since 2014 more than 1,000 farmers from 60 villages have joined the effort. Coffee plants, and to some extent avocado trees, cover now nearly 800 hectares of land.
Farmers joining the project gradually get coffee plant seedlings for 1.5 hectares each. An important part of the project is the cooperative the farmers have established for selling coffee and taking care of contacts with the authorities and other operators.
Samples of the first batch of coffee are ready. Shan State has excellent conditions for coffee cultivation, and now many international buyers are showing interest in the product.
“The coffee is of excellent quality, and this coffee has something that others do not: it has a story,” says Jaime Perez, a Columbian consultant for the UNODC
Finland supports the project with EUR 3 million in 2016–2018.
A remarkable issue is that UNODC Project promoted the creation of a ceasefire agreement between the Government and the ethnic groups controlling the area to allow the development of the project activities.
The author works as Communications Officer in the Department of Communications of the Ministry for Foreign Affairs. She visited Myanmar in March–April 2017.