“IT LOOKS like a fairly standard development project photo op: United States ambassador Mr. Scot Marciel, pushing a coffee seedling into the ground. The May 2018 image shows the diplomat, dressed in leather shoes and a white shirt, kneeling on the distinctive pinkish-red soil of Shan State, surrounded by curious-looking farmers, one of whom is capturing the moment with a smartphone camera.
Myanmar is the second-largest producer of opium globally, after Afghanistan. Although Myanmar produces significantly less than at its 1990s peak, when the Golden Triangle region was the global center of illicit drug production, the UN still estimates that 520 tonnes of opium were produced in 2018. The production and sale of opium generate billions of dollars in profits each year.
Little of it though ends up with the estimated 70,000 smallholder farmers in remote and inaccessible areas of the country who make their living from the latex obtained from the plant. The average income of a household in a poppy-growing village in southern Shan is less than US$3,000 a year, which is just enough to make ends meet. At the same time, there is a high degree of risk involved: police officers conduct regular campaigns to destroy poppy fields and farmers are occasionally prosecuted.
Many opium farmers have few alternatives, due to conflict and insecurity, lack of infrastructure, and the terrain and climactic conditions. But on the slopes of mountainous Shan State, you can cultivate surprisingly high-quality coffee. Such is the quality that its sale could generate income similar to that of opium cultivation, exciting development agencies that see it as a viable alternative crop.
This is what brought Marciel to Shan: the planting was staged in aid of a US Agency for International Development-financed project that is supporting coffee production in the region. It sounds like a positive development, but not everyone is happy.
“Like a conquistador ramming the Spanish flag into the soil of South America.” That’s how Mr. Jaime Eduardo Perez Mayorga describes the photo of the kneeling ambassador. The Colombian sits with rolled up sleeves at his desk, the sweat on his forehead making his short, black hair shine. Mayorga works for UNODC, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. What bothers him is that the place where the ambassador planted the coffee tree, in Hopong Township within the Pa-O Self-Administered Zone, is in the middle of his project area. With support from German and Finnish taxpayers, UNODC has been working there for 10 years.
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