Three Gorges Probe

China wages war on opium in the Three Gorges area

(July 30, 2004) As police try to crack down an opium-poppy growing in the heart of the Three Gorges reservoir area, local officials draw links between the illicit cash crop and the economic turmoil in the region caused by dam-related resettlement

Chinese police have busted an opium growing operation in the heart of the Three Gorges reservoir area and arrested 13 people, the New Beijing Daily (Xin jing bao) reported July 23.

Satellite images had raised suspicions before the May 26 raid on the poppy fields in Fengjie county’s Daba mountain region, the newspaper said. Police found a “boss,” 12 workers and 160 mu (almost 11 hectares) of land planted to opium poppies, the raw material of heroin.

Local officials quoted by the newspaper drew links between the illicit cash crop and the economic turmoil in the region caused by the construction of the Three Gorges dam. The resettlement of an estimated two million people got under way soon after China decided to go ahead with the dam in April 1992.

A Fengjie government investigation concluded that opium poppies have been grown since the early 1990s in at least three counties affected by the Three Gorges dam – Fengjie, Wushan and Wuxi. Slopes in the three counties offer ideal growing conditions, and remote locations.

In Fengjie alone, opium poppies were being cultivated on an estimated 1,000 mu (67 hectares) of farmland, with the harvest worth about 100 million yuan (US$12 million) a year, the newspaper said.

“Growing drug crops can bring in more than 10 times the income of other crops, so people take the risks,” Liu Qixue, head of Fengjie’s Bancang village, was quoted as saying.

A farmer in Bancang told the New Beijing Daily that attempts had been made on six occasions to coerce him to grow opium poppies. “Even a blind man would open his eyes on seeing such money,” the man said. “I agreed to rent out my land to others to grow poppies, but I didn’t dare grow them myself.”

Local people told the reporter that opium poppies are now grown in as many as 80 villages in Fengjie, with some of the illicit cultivation even occurring quite close to the new county seat.

One police officer said that about 400 mu (27 hectares) of poppy fields had been found, but local police did not dare to report the discovery to higher authorities.

Poppy production has also been discovered in Kaixian, another county affected by the Three Gorges dam. In 2002, a woman was jailed for 11 years after 33,400 opium poppies were found growing on her land.

Fengjie finance and resettlement officials complained to the New Beijing Daily of problems in restructuring the local economy after most enterprises in the region were closed down because they were too polluting, were slated to be moved to higher ground or had simply failed.

The officials expressed grave concerns about the future, as financial flows related to the Three Gorges resettlement gradually dry up.

Fengjie party boss Liu Benrong recently told the same newspaper that the number of factories in his county had declined rapidly from 243 to 35, throwing thousands of people out of work. The dearth of industry also meant there were no factory jobs to help absorb any of the surplus farm labour in the resettlement zones.

Local people said they found it hard to survive by growing only food crops, and that there were two ways to make money in the Three Gorges area: join the “floating population” of itinerant labourers in south China, or grow poppies.

Yang Dacai, an official with the Fengjie party committee, said links have been forged between local growers and outside networks, with the poppies sent to laboratories abroad for processing before being smuggled back into China as heroin.

China borders the world’s top heroin-producing countries, Afghanistan and Myanmar (formerly Burma). An established heroin-smuggling route crosses from Myanmar into Yunnan province in southwest China, then proceeds on to eastern China and Hong Kong, from where the drug is sent to other markets in Asia, as well as to Australia and North America.

Some of the heroin remains in China, which faces a growing drug-use problem. The country now has more than one million registered drug users and many others who do not register for treatment. Drug use has become an increasingly serious public health concern, with needle-sharing officially listed as the main cause of the rapid spread of HIV/AIDS in China.

Executions and violence have accompanied China’s crackdown on drugs. In Chongqing, the huge municipality at the end of the Three Gorges reservoir, 16 drug traffickers were sentenced to death on the eve of the United Nations’ International Day against Drug Abuse (June 26).

The head of the Fengjie forestry bureau was seriously injured in an attack on July 12 that many local people believe was in retaliation for his role in a series of raids on opium growing operations. The official, Luo Qihui, was hospitalized in a coma after being set upon by three people.

Kelly Haggart, July 30, 2004

Categories: Three Gorges Probe

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