Laos' goal of eradicating poppy cultivation by the year 2005 has had grave social consequences. Vientiane announced its intention last year and has since stepped up the relocation of tens of thousands of people from ethnic-minority hill tribes such as the Hmong and Akha, who grow the plant from which opium is extracted.
International non-governmental organizations working in northern provinces claim that the relocated tribespeople have been left with few alternative crops to grow and little government support in their new lowland homes. "There is mounting evidence . . . large numbers of hill tribespeople have died as a result of being moved down to the valleys. There has been a lack ofpreparation," says a Western diplomat.
Another senior envoy in Vientiane says that if the government insists on total opium elimination by 2005, "such a deadline can only be met by more and more draconian measures," which could trigger a humanitarian catastrophe.
But Parisak Pravongviengkham, an official at the Lao Ministry of Agriculture, insists " we don't displace people, we develop opportunities and it is up to the people to choose." The Lao government has long been urged by Western nations and international agencies to crack down on poppy cultivation, but some of them are now quietly urging the government to slow down until basic sanitation and health services are in place.
(Sources: UNDP, FEER, AFP)