Photographers' Blog

Amid the opium fields

Loimgmain, Shan state, Myanmar

By Soe Zeya Tun

Ethnic Palaung and Lisu make their homes atop mountains that rise more than 5,000 feet above sea level in Myanmar’s northern Shan state. Temperatures here can be far lower than in much of the country, with lows hovering around 41 degrees Fahrenheit (5°C) and sometimes dropping to as little as 37 (3°C) during the winter months. Tea and opium poppy plantations cover many of the surrounding hillsides.

I was one of eight Myanmar journalists who recently traveled to this remote region. Leaving Mantong township, we first took motorcycles along a dirt road only about 2 feet wide. After a day’s drive we reached a village where we spent the night. We hiked the entire next day to get to Loimgmain, a village surrounded by opium poppy fields.

Ngokhu, a 30-year-old man from the northern Shan capital of Lashio, traveled to Loimgmain to work in the poppy fields. He makes only 4,000 kyat (about $4) per day to plant and harvest. He huddles next to a fire to keep warm, wearing the same clothes he put on four months ago at the start of the cold season.


Gallery: Amid the opium fields

Ngokhu says he’s been working here for the past four years, because there are no other jobs, and he is able to send 600,000 kyat (about $600) to his mother each year. Ngokhu says he does not use opium. But a TNLA soldier and former drug user said Ngokhu’s watery eyes and dry skin show that he is still taking opium.

This TNLA soldier said the ethnic army group decided to destroy poppy fields because local people were becoming addicted to opium. He said Chinese traders were making money while locals remain poor.

Through opium fields

By Damir Sagolj

She killed her husband by giving him six daughters. In the land of warriors, drug lords and brutal highlanders – he wanted a son. And then he just died disappointed, Moe Mohm said, leaving her to grow opium and raise girls.

By the fireplace, obviously the central point of a household high in the mountains of the Shan state, Moe sits and talks to us in a frantic combination of laughter and tears. She is an ethnic Pa-O and wears a towel above her pretty face with teeth ruined by betel nut. Only a glance at her hands reveals real age and hard work in fields. The house seems to be okay – humble but well kept and clean.

I take a few pictures just to get her accustomed to the camera. There will be a turn in her story as she talks through her life to the first journalists she has ever met and I want to capture the moment when it comes. It might take a while, but I know how to wait.

Poppy politics

It’s not hard to find a field of poppies in the village of Jelawar, north of Kandahar. Some are hidden discreetly behind mud walls but others have been brazenly planted within sight of the main road. During a recent patrol, I accompanied Afghan National Army Captain Imran (he uses one name) and a group of U.S. civil affairs soldiers on a tour of Jelawar’s back roads as they tried to assess the extent of this year’s opium production.

A large field of poppies grows on the north side of Jelawar village in Afghanistan's Arghandab Valley.   REUTERS/Bob Strong

The first field we came to was a couple of hundred meters across, filled with pink poppy flowers in full bloom. There were several men working the field and Imran asked them what they were doing. A farmer looked up from pulling weeds and said they were working on their onions. Indeed, in a poppy field the size of a football stadium there were a handful of green onion shoots pushing out of the soil. Not exactly the perfect cover, especially after the farmer admitted to planting the poppies in the first place.

A farmer who said he was tending to his onions works in the middle of a large field of poppies in Jelawar village in Afghanistan's Arghandab Valley.  REUTERS/Bob Strong

As we walked from one poppy field to the next, Imran was not amused. Finally, he gathered a group of farmers together to give them some bad news. “President Karzai has said it is illegal to grow opium poppies and that they must be destroyed. I give you 48 hours to cut down your plants or I will return with Afghan police and Afghan soldiers and we will force you to destroy these fields.”

from Russell Boyce:

Asia – A Week in Pictures February 13, 2011

First, congratulations to Pakistan Chief photographer Adrees Latif and Bangladesh based photographer Andrew Biraj for their competition awards this week.  Adrees is the winner of the photojournalism category of the ICP Infinity Awards 2011 for his pictures shoot during the floods in Pakistan last year.  Andrew won third prize in the singles category of daily life in the World Press Photo Awards for his picture of an overcrowded train in Bangladesh.

PAKISTAN-FLOODS/

Marooned flood victims looking to escape grab the side bars of a hovering Army helicopter which arrived to distribute food supplies in the Muzaffargarh district of Pakistan's Punjab province August 7, 2010. Pakistanis desperate to get out of flooded villages threw themselves at helicopters on Saturday as more heavy rain was expected to intensify both suffering and anger with the government. The disaster killed more than 1,600 people and disrupted the lives of 12 million.  REUTERS/Adrees Latif

PHOTOGRAPHY-PRIZE/

An overcrowded train approaches as other passengers wait to board at a railway station in Dhaka, November 16, 2010. Millions of residents in Dhaka are travelling home from the capital city to celebrate the Eid al-Adha holiday on Wednesday. Muslims around the world celebrate Eid al-Adha to mark the end of the haj by slaughtering sheep, goats, cows and camels to commemorate Prophet Abraham's willingness to sacrifice his son Ismail on God's command. REUTERS/Andrew Biraj