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War on Drug Trade Tackles Poverty

On September 7, 2004, the Lincang police uncovered a group of armed people trafficking drugs near Xiaoletong Town, Yongde County. Over 10 kilograms of heroin, a handgun, six bullets and a grenade were seized. All the suspects involved in the ring were arrested within two days, and all of them were from Banlao Village, a place that has been dubbed Drug-trafficking Village because of the number of people there involved in the illegal trade.

Banlao Village is located in southwest part of Yunnan Province. It takes six hours by bus and then another four hours on foot to get there from the Yongde County seat. But it is only 40 kilometers from Burma's Kokang Special Region, an area populated by an ethnic group long involved in the opium trade.

Banlao lies on what was once part of the historic Silk Road to Burma, but the route fell into disuse many long years ago and the village became a forsaken corner. Before the founding of the People's Republic of China, drug trafficking was the primary source of income for the villagers. Although most of the illegal trade was stopped after 1949, in recent years there has been a resurgence.

According to Li Yunlong, commissar of the Public Security Bureau in Yongde County, 85 percent of the recent drug cases involved farmers who transport goods for overseas drug lords. About 90 people have been arrested for drug trafficking in this village with a population of 3,000. Many were working for only a few thousand -- sometimes only a few hundred -- yuan. Nearly all the families in Banlao, says Li Yunlong, are connected in some way with the drug trade.

Li Deren, the Communist Party branch secretary of Banlao Village, says that the village actually comprises 14 small settlements scattered throughout the mountainous area. Before 2002, annual per capita net income was only 380 yuan (US$46), and the average consumption of grain for each person was only 129.5 kilograms.

"At that time, 60 percent of the villagers didn't have enough food to eat. Nobody knew what a car was. It is a typical impoverished village in China," says Li Deren.

But a single drug run could bring in a few thousand yuan, a fortune to the villagers. Desperate poverty made the risks involved appear small.

The Ministry of Public Security reports that 10 percent of the narcotics trafficked in China travel through Lincang City, in Yunnan Province, and half of the drugs in Lincang come from Yongde County. Some 85 percent of the drug traffickers apprehended in the region in the past five years are farmers from Yongde County's Banlao Village.

The local government realized that punishment was never going to be an effective deterrent to people facing hunger. It began to take steps to develop the local economy and help the villagers to escape poverty.

Sha Kaixiang lives in Benglong, one of the under Banlao Village settlements. There are four people in his family. Planting corn on their 12 mu (0.8 hectare) of hilly land only earned them 400 yuan (US$48) a year. With help from the local government, they planted sugarcane on their land last year.

"I earned over 5,000 yuan (US$604) last year planting sugarcane. This year I believe I can earn 700 yuan for each mu," Sha Kaixiang says. "We had a good sugarcane harvest this year. I want to buy a TV set."

More than 70 percent of the farmers in Benglong are growing sugarcane now, and the change has made a huge difference in everyone's lives, says Sha. "Now, our living conditions have improved. We have money to buy what we need, so nobody has run drugs in the past two years."

The local government also helps the farmers to engage in side occupations, such as raising pigs and cattle.

The Lincang city government is also actively organizing surplus laborers to work in cities. Not long ago, 200 underemployed farmers were sent to jobs in the south China boomtown of Shenzhen.

The recent finished Report on Drug Crimes in Western China points out that poverty is the main cause of drug crimes in western China. Developing the local economies is the best way to end the illegal trade.

In 1999, the Ministry of Public Security and China National Narcotics Control Commission listed 13 cities and counties as target areas in the war on drugs. They include Kunming and Dali in Yunnan Province; Guangzhou and Shenzhen in Guangdong Province; Zhaojue in Sichuan Province; Tongxin in Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region; Panxian County in Guizhou Province; and Dongxiang in Gansu Province.

From 1999 through April 2004, there were 19,034 drug cases filed in the hotlisted areas. Police have apprehended 5,866 suspects and seized over 272 kilograms heroin and 1,113 kilograms of methamphetamine hydrochloride, or "ice," as it is commonly known.

(China.org.cn by Wu Nanlan, October 8, 2004)

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