Since 2005, the number of companies investing labor and techniques into alternative crops has risen from 42 to 180, with total financial investment up to 1 billion yuan ($157 million) during that time, according to Yang Jun, deputy director of overseas poppy substitution development for Yunnan province’s commerce department.
These enterprises have conducted more than 200 poppy alternative planting programs and developed their work mainly in the northern part of Laos and Myanmar, he said.
The Golden Triangle, which includes parts of Thailand, Myanmar and Laos, is about 200,000 square kilometers and has been the major source of drugs in China since the 1990s, making it the main target of the poppy substitution work, Yang said.
In the past five years, more than 200,000 hectares in that area have been covered with new crops, such as sugar cane, corn, tea and tropical fruit.
“These programs attracted many farmers who used to live on poppy planting in that region and workers of the companies also taught them how to plant rubber in line with local geographical conditions,” Yang said, adding that the poppy has almost become extinct in the crop substitution area.
Previously, poppies were the main crop in that area.
He Yuanshu, chairman of Jinxin Trading in Tengchong county, Yunnan, launched a 20,000-hectare project in December 2009 in Myanmar.
“We have planted cassava over 6,666 hectares and developed a 1,000-hectare economic forest,” he said. “We also developed rubber, coffee and banana over 3,333 hectares.”
Bi Angmai, a farmer from Myanmar who gave only his Chinese name, arrived in Yunnan with his wife last year to start work on a farm.
His family used to make a living from growing poppies until 1995, when the Myanmar government banned the flower. Now that same land is used to grow sugar cane and cassava.
“In the past, the money we earned from planting poppies was not enough to support my family,” said the father of five.”Now, with the farm work in China and our land back home, the yearly family income can go up to 40,000 yuan.”
However, some police officers and experts said it is too early to say the crop substitution has succeeded and the program is still needed.
“The alternative planting is still hard work for our country’s drug enforcement target, because the opium planting in the northern part of Myanmar has been increasing again since 2007,” said Rao Jie, a senior officer at Baoshan city’s frontier defense corps, a special police unit directly under the Ministry of Public Security.
“We cannot let down our guard to get rid of the drug planting,” he added.
Chen Shuaifeng, an expert specializing in the prohibition of opium in the criminal investigation department at the Chinese People’s Public Security University, echoed Rao and said it is very hard to change the traditional production method in that region.
“The political situation has been unstable recently, which is also a big difficulty for our country to develop crop substitution in that area,” he said. “Meanwhile, various types of precursor chemicals, used as raw materials to make synthetic drugs, have also presented a new challenge to the anti-drug campaign,” he added.