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Opium replacement

Opium replacement simply means the process of replacing the opium poppy, the source of morphine and heroin, with non-drug crops. This kind of project was probably first discussed in the mid-sixties, and was first implemented in northern Thailand, by Thailand's king, Bhumibol Adulyadej, in 1969.


Evolution of concept

When this kind of project was first conceived and developed, it was conceived along narrow agricultural lines. Basically, agriculturists tried to identify crops that generated more income than the opium poppy. In the late seventies and early eighties, it was recognized that this focus was too narrow and did not recognize the social and cultural roles of opium cultivation and consumption played in the lives of the opium farmers of northern Thailand. Development projects started to address many or even all aspects of rural life, including health, education and social issues. The term 'integrated rural development' became more popular than 'opium replacement' and 'opium substitution'. In the nineties, this phrase also passed out of use, and was replaced by 'Alternative Development'. The term (and minor variants) is still used in Latin America (where the approach is used as a strategy for reducing the supply of coca as well as opium). The United Nations refers to these kinds of projects as 'Sustainable Alternative Livelihoods' and in Afghanistan most of the agencies refer to them as just 'Sustainable Livelihoods'. Although practitioners often say that there are differences between these terms, in essence they all mean the same thing.

Practice of opium replacement around the world

Opium has been grown in every country running along a huge East-West strip of Asia, starting with Turkey, moving to Iran and Pakistan, on to Afghanistan, India, Nepal, Burma (or Myanmar), Thailand, Laos, China and Vietnam. It is believed to have spread into the Central Independent States (the former Soviet states such as Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan). It has also been transferred to Mexico (reportedly by immigrant Chinese opium addicts) and to Colombia (reportedly as part of a collaboration between drug traffickers from South-East Asia and Colombia). At the present time (mid-2006) it is only being produced in significant amounts in Burma, Afghanistan and Colombia. Laos, Mexico and Pakistan produce small intermediate amounts and Thailand and Vietnam produce so little that the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime lumps them together as 'other south-east Asia'. Of these many countries, opium replacement (or alternative development, or whatever) has been tried in Thailand, Laos, Burma, Vietnam, Pakistan, Mexico and Afghanistan.

Of these countries, there have been significant opium replacement programmes in Thailand, Laos, Burma, Vietnam, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Mexico and Colombia.

The case of Thailand

Thailand is widely considered to be the most successful example of opium replacement. Although peak production in Thailand was never especially high (perhaps 150 tonnes - 200 tonnes, compared to 3,500 tonnes last year in Afghanistan), Thailand's approach is widely admired because of the strength and depth of the licit agricultural economy that has been introduced to replace opium. More than 150 crops have been successfully introduced to farmers, usually from temperate climates (as the opium growing regions are much cooler than the tropical lowlands), including cabbage, lettuce, kidney beans, tea, coffee, peaches, apples, various kinds of herbs and decorative flowers. In general, the crops were cash crops of medium to high value. It is notable that many of these crops have entered permanently into Thai cooking and therefore Thai culture, even though most are not native to Thailand. Thailand is also noted for having two particularly successful projects that are still operative. These are the Royal Project (established in 1969) and the Doi Tung project (established in 1988). Both have completely removed opium from their project areas and have helped farmers to improve living conditions a great deal, and so are studied and visited by practitioners of opium replacement from other countries.

It is arguable that no other country has been able to achieve a similar level of success to Thailand. In Colombia, much of the opium cutivation takes place under the protection of armed groups opposed to the government, and so the process has not had much of an effect on total production. Mexico has never received the resources and attention that other countries have. Laos has experienced very steep declines in cultivation, but former opium farmers are in many cases shockingly poor- the country does not have the vibrant licit economy that Thailand has. The same observation goes for Laos and Pakistan, and the latter is now experiencing an increase in cultivation due to overspill from Afghanistan. It is hard to comment on the process in Burma, as saying anything at all about Burma founders on the incredibly Byzantine politics of that country. The United Nations has one project in the Wa region (in the north-east), the Japanese development agency had a project for some time (that failed) and the Doi Tung project of Thailand also initiated some activities. These projects cover areas too small to have much of an effect on national production. In fact, production does seem to have been falling, but it is believed that this is simply because of a decision by warlords in Burma to concentrate on methamphetamine. At any rate, Burma is not the poster child of opium replacement. Lastly, there is Afghanistan, whose production and hectare dwarf even Burma at its peak. The opium replacement project there is a few years old now, but it is slow going, because of the scale of the cultivation, the size of the country, terrible security, destruction of infrastructure and weakness of government institutions.


Despite the obvious success of Thailand and to a lesser extent Pakistan and Vietnam, many people deny that opium replacement is actually effective. The first argument is that Thailand is the only really resounding success, but that its success is due to lots of unique and non-replicable factors. The second is that development activities simply cause production to relocate to other areas (what is often called "The Balloon Effect"). These are highly complicated arguments that cannot be resolved quickly. On the one hand it is true that there are many farmers who don't grow drug crops as a result of agricultural and social development. On the other hand, the world's supply of illicit drugs is continutally rising and prices are falling, despite the expenditure of hundreds of millions of dollars by development agencies and national governments on these kinds of projects. Despite this controversy, the programmes go on.

Organization of modern opium replacement projects

Opium replacement projects are nowadays usually implemented by national government agencies, with the support of an international donor. Usually, the donor gives the funding and a contractor implements the project in partnership with the national agency. At the moment, the largest providers of funding are the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and the European Union. Major contractors include the German Technical Cooperation Agency and several for-profit firms from the United States, such as Chemonics, that are generally used to implement USAID projects. The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime helps to coordinate the many different efforts, and also funds a few projects. In Colombia, and Mexico, a few additional players are present, although opium replacement is a minor focus (the cultivation of coca being the major one).

Rightly or wrongly, opium replacement projects are no longer planned and executed with very long time frames, as was the case with Thailand's Royal Project, and the Doi Tung project. Nowadays, projects are more likely to take place over just two or three years.


  • Mansfield, David (1991) Alternative Development: the modern thrust of supply-side policy
  • Renard, Ron (2001) Opium Reduction in Thailand 1970-2000: A 30 Year Journey (Chiang Mai: Silkworm)
  • United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (2005) A global thematic review of alternative development
  • United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (2003) Global illicit drug trends 2003
  • Jelmsa, Martin (2002) Alternative Development and Drug Control- A Critical Assessment
This article is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License. It uses material from the Wikipedia article "Opium_replacement". A list of authors is available in Wikipedia.
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