Nagano’s ‘Buckwheat Commander’ Myanmar’s foil to opium poppies

by Hiroaki Matsuki

Kyodo

Myanmar has long been notorious for its production of opium poppies, the key ingredient for heroin.

But Nagano Prefecture native Akio Ujihara has set out to help the Myanmarese junta in its fight against drugs by teaching farmers to plant buckwheat instead of poppies to decrease their dependence on the flower for income.

In August, roughly 10 years of effort culminated in his founding of the nonprofit organization Association for Drug and Poverty Eradication, which aims to boost consumption of Myanmar-produced buckwheat and reduce poverty in the country.

“We’re still at the half-way point before drugs are fully eradicated from Myanmar,” said Ujihara, 71. “Poppy growing is linked directly to poverty in remote regions, and support from flexible private groups is indispensable (for the movement).”

Ujihara, a former agriculture professor at Shinshu University, is an expert in improving buckwheat strains. In 1996, he was asked by the Foreign Ministry to try cultivating the grain on a trial basis in Myanmar, in the hope that it might replace poppies.

He stayed in Myanmar for four years from 1999 as a staff member of the Japan International Cooperation Agency, which gives technical guidance for growing buckwheat.

As a result of such efforts, the number of buckwheat-growing households has increased to more than 2,000, and their products are exported to Japan, where it can be used to make “soba” noodles.

The Myanmar regime has also promoted poppy eradication measures, and according to the U.N. Office for Drug Control and Crime Prevention, the area under poppy cultivation has decreased about 80 percent from 1996, when it was at its highest level.

Poppy growing is time and labor intensive, and the income of poppy-raising households is less than that of other farming households.

“It is necessary to launch businesses that produce goods with high marketability that can be exported,” Ujihara pointed out.

To expand buckwheat consumption, “shochu” (clear distilled liquor) and sweets made from buckwheat are already being sold in Myanmar, but Ujihara’s NPO is planning market surveys to see whether medicinal herbs and “ume” (pickled plum) might also serve as substitute crops.

At the same time, it will also begin to train local people so they can also work for poverty eradication.

In Myanmar, Ujihara has earned the nickname “Buckwheat Commander.” At home, he plays the Burmese harp.