By Tom Fawthrop
The opium poppy that has long bloomed across the mountains of northern Laos has almost been wiped out by the government's drastic eradication campaign.
The sight of villagers weighing out opium is becoming increasingly rare
But what is being hailed as a victory by the international anti-narcotics agencies has also spawned a humanitarian crisis, due to the massive displacement of hill tribes and their loss of economic livelihood.
The campaign was spearheaded by the US government, with support from the European Union.
Such was its success that the authorities in Laos claim the country has achieved its 2005 deadline to become an opium-free country. The UNODC (the UN Office for Drugs and Crime) has confirmed that Laos had achieved a poppy reduction of 73% since 2000.
But unlike the major opium producers such as Afghanistan and Burma, Laos was only ever a marginal player in the international drugs trade.
And in order to eradicate production, an estimated 65,000 hill tribe people have been displaced from the mountains of northern Laos where the opium poppy thrives.
A survey by UN development consultant Charles Alton found that "hill tribe people moving to new villages not only lack sufficient rice, but they face fresh diseases - malaria, gastro-intestinal problems and parasites''.
Many are said to be dying of malaria and dysentery, and mortality rates as high as 4% have been recorded - rates normally found only in war zones and areas of refugee resettlement.
Change in approach
In the past, the Lao authorities tolerated opium poppy cultivation among the hill tribes, which make up more than 45% of the population.
Vientiane's liberal policy was spelt out in a 1999 memorandum entitled "A Balanced Approach to Opium Elimination in Laos."
Back then the government argued that poppy cultivation could not be eradicated until alternative crops and economic development were already in place.
However the US government and narcotics agencies escalated the pressure in 2000.
In the words of one NGO leader, who prefers to remain anonymous, "they pushed for opium elimination before economic development was in place, so they put the cart before the horse".
The dangling of a $80m carrot in aid, promised by the UN drugs control agency, led to a capitulation. In 2001 the Lao authorities plunged headlong into a hardline Western agenda of all-out war on the opium poppy.
Western embassies concede that their anti-drug policy may have been over-zealously implemented.
Sandro Serrato, the EU's chief of mission in Vientiane, admitted that "the implementation of opium eradication has probably been too rapid and [has] lacked resources".
But he also sympathised with the government's resettlement strategy, arguing: "There is such a scattered population, the government feels that only by bringing people down from the remote areas can they provide social services and development."
The EU is in favour of offering financial aid for future resettlement, as long as the government respects three points: there should be consultation, economic alternatives and the relocation must be voluntary.
But the monitoring of government compliance with any of these criteria is regarded as highly problematic, given the authoritarian nature of this one-party state.
Critics question both the sustainability and objectives of a policy that appears to have inflicted more harm than good.
Smoking opium is part of some hill tribes' traditions
"Resettlement has caused the disruption of the hill tribes' way of life," one highly respected Lao academic, who wished to remain anonymous, explained. "Opium has many uses - as a major cash crop, for medicine and in traditional ceremonies and festive events."
Now, he warned, "it is the lack of opium that is far more dangerous".
Lack of alternatives
The inhabitants of Laos - both lowland and hill tribe people - have recently become victims of "ya ba" (amphetamines) and heroin flowing across the country from laboratories in neighbouring Burma.
The apparent success in wiping out opium has only contributed to far worse drug, social and economic problems, according to anthropologist David Feingold.
He warned that "likely long-term consequences will be increasing heroin and amphetamine use, [and] greater vulnerability of highland girls and women to trafficking and unsafe migration. Both of these outcomes will contribute to exacerbating HIV/Aids".
Lao specialist Bruce Shoemaker also pointed out that opium produced a high value crop using a very small amount of land.
The average opium farmer could earn about $200 a year, and Mr Shoemaker said that "no one alternative crop can come even close to matching this - it is just not sustainable".
A growing number of development specialists support an entirely different approach. Instead of destroying the poppies, the anonymous Lao academic advocated "a legal opium quota under strict international supervision, to be sold to pharmaceutical companies".
"If the farmers of Tasmania get benefit from opium, why not our poor farmers too?" he argued.
Although no feasibility study has ever been done, the UNODC chief in Vientiane, Klaus Nyholm, instantly rejected any prospect of Laos joining the club of legal opium producers - which includes Australia, India, and Turkey.
Whether opium is grown under legal control or illegally, many aid workers are convinced that only by ignoring human rights can they stop poor farmers from growing such a lucrative crop.