Across the world, the state of environmental stress is unprecedented. This includes major threats to the lands, soils, waters, forests, and oceans that make up our ecosystems and bio diverse nature. Cutting across this are the unfolding effects of climate change and global heating. All of these developments will continue to have dramatic impacts on both people and the planet. These impacts are however not evenly distributed. As scholarship and activism on ‘environmental justice’ points out, poorer and marginalised communities, often differentiated along class, gender and racial lines, face particular exposure to environmental harms. This holds especially true for populations in the Global South, including Myanmar.
The role of opium cultivation in relation to these environmental stresses is an underexplored terrain. Drugs like cannabis, cocaine, opium and ecstasy have catastrophic environmental impacts that range from deforestation to land sinking. Yet, as this new TNI report argues, drugs, as well as the policy responses to them, are an environmental crisis in Myanmar as well as other countries where opium poppy, coca bush and cannabis plants are cultivated.
Greater concentrations of carbon dioxide in a warming world may have a drastic effect on the potency of opium poppies, according to a new study. While this increase might mean more morphine available for legal pharmaceutical uses, the painkiller is also the main ingredient in heroin. The current crop of poppies is twice as potent as those grown at carbon dioxide levels seen in 1950, says Lewis Ziska of the US Department of Agriculture’s Crop Systems and Global Change Laboratory. If projections hold, the rise in atmospheric carbon dioxide will increase morphine levels three-fold by 2050 and by 4.5 times by 2090.
Morphine is part of a class of chemicals called alkaloids, which plants produce to ward off bugs, birds and other natural dangers. While toxic to some animals, humans use hundreds of plant alkaloids in various ways. Cocaine, Caffeine, Capsaicin (which makes chili papers hot), lysergic acid and anti-malarial drug quinine are examples. The speed of the biological changes affecting plants’ alkaloid levels suggests that the climate may have a greater impact on plant life than computer models had generally predicted, Ziska says. Earlier studies by Ziska had shown that certain alkaloids decrease in some plants as carbon dioxide increases, including lower concentrations of nicotine in tobacco. The net result, according to Ziska, is that climate change’s impacts on plants are likely to be chaotic and difficult to predict. For example, he says, “wheat may make more seeds, but we may have stronger poison ivy and poppies.” Changes in alkaloid levels may pose a challenge to public health as carbon dioxide continues to build up in the atmosphere. The World Health Organization estimates that over 3.5 billion people rely on plants for part of their primary healthcare. This includes the US population, where 25 per cent of prescribed drugs contain an ingredient derived from plants.
Around 337,000 football fields, or 23 times the size of Paris — that's the amount of land that was used to cultivate opium worldwide in 2019, according to the UN. The main producers are Myanmar, Mexico and Afghanistan — which accounts for 84 per cent of global cultivation. Poppy fields spread mainly across the country's southwest in areas where, until the 1990s, there was nothing but arid desert. Today, some 1.4 million people live there, making a living from cultivating opium and agriculture. That's all possible, thanks to more than 50,000 solar-powered water pumps that have greened the desert. But that is not as green as it sounds.
A report found that the region's groundwater is sinking by 3 meters (9.8 feet) per year. Wells as deep as 130 meters are now being drilled to find water. “Each year, more people are arriving in the desert and installing solar deep wells. There are local fears that there will fast become a time when agricultural production will no longer be viable. “The poppy farmers also use chemical fertilizers and strong pesticides to control weeds. Groundwater tests have shown that nitrate levels are significantly higher than what is deemed safe. This can increase the risk of blue-baby syndrome, which leads to heart defects and death in newborns. Mansfield warns that if water in the region does eventually run out, it will likely force large numbers of people from their homes, sparking a rural exodus.
The production of coca and poppy as well as the processing and production of cocaine and heroin involve significant environmental impacts. Both coca and poppy are grown intensively in a process that involves the clearing of land in remote areas, the planting of the crop, and protection against pests such as weeds, insects, and pathogens. Poppy cultivation was found in small pockets of the hills bordering Myanmar about two decades ago by journalists. Word then was that, the poppy cultivators of the state sell their opium produce to small-time drug smugglers who operate mobile drug manufacturing units across the border.
Manipur, which borders the Golden Triangle in Southeast Asia—infamous for drug trafficking, has been facing the drug menace for decades. And now, “thousands of hectares of land are used for poppy cultivation in areas near the international border with Myanmar.” State data shows that in five years, the extent of land used to grow the plant from which opium is derived has increased more than three times from 1,853 to 6,742.8 acres. Of this, only 3,200 acres of poppy crop were destroyed this year. The absence of clear land ownership records compounds the problem. The progressive and rapid expansion of poppy cultivation in all hill districts of Manipur have become a serious concern over the threat it poses to environment apart from other issues such as health problems, family issues etc.
Although the poppy cultivated hill ranges look majestically attractive from far, a closer look and better understanding will tell a different story. No insects can be seen buzzing, not a single burrowing animal are visible with no sound of animals or birds while taking a trek through the poppy cultivated hill ranges. Some of the poppy farmers revealed that they use chemical fertilizers mostly Di-Ammonium Phosphate and pesticides regularly on the hill ranges to grow poppy plants. Pesticides are also used extensively to ward off the attacking insects and animals. The ceaseless exploitation of forest land, which in turn has impacted on the biodiversity, merely for making money. Uncontrolled deforestation for poppy cultivation coupled with massive spraying of chemical fertilizers at the upland slope directly or indirectly impact on the environment as well as posing health hazards to those living in the surrounding villages.
The hill ranges were all catchment areas that provide perennial water source for the down flowing rivers but with forest cut down to make way for poppy cultivation this is no longer so. This is a major factor in climate change as well as causing water shortage in the hill areas. Chemical fertilizers & pesticides dissolve in the water and become toxic which makes it unfit for human consumption. It is also reported by people of poppy cultivated area that the problem of miscarriage among pregnant women has become more common after the villagers started to engage in massive poppy cultivation.
Conventionally pregnant women were forbidden to visit the area during poppy flowering season. There is however no scientific reason to substantiate this. Excessive use of fertilizers affect humans in different ways, adding that it reduces natural soil fertility, increases soil erosion, which directly impacts on the flow of water, drying up of river beds, increase in siltation etc. The continuous forest destruction has impacted the natural cycle and this has led to change in the natural vegetation in some regions.
Manipur government’s “War on Drugs” including a drive against illegal poppy cultivation should not only be confined to destruction of poppy plants but educate the villagers about the alarming facts and its detrimental impact on the whole ecosystem. Wanton deforestation for timber extraction, jhum cultivation, poppy cultivation, forest fire etc. are the main factors for rapid forest depletion in all hill districts of Manipur. Now, poppy cultivation is widespread in the hills of Manipur.
According to rough survey reports, poppy cultivation has now expanded to over 5,000 acres in Ukhrul district alone in a short span of time. It was never in the minds of the state political leaders to look deep for causes which had led to the present scenario as they looked as always for the easy explanation. The state government should intervene and come out with policies to replace poppy plants with alternative cash crop for better management and to sustain livelihood. The recent adoption of coffee plantation in the golden triangle of Myanmar replacing Poppy plantation is one good step closer to a secured future. However, the talk of alternative crops or means of livelihood will always be foreign to the ears of the hill people like the message of alternating jhum cultivation which had fallen on deaf ears. Therefore the support and involvement of village headmen, women leaders, youth leaders and village authority members as stakeholders are needed in the fight against poppy cultivation.