Australian photographer Raphael Korman's first encounter with northeast India's Konyac people was through rumors. He heard mention of a dangerous, ex-headhunting village called Longwa on the border between India and Burma in the state of Nagaland, an area in the middle of a continuous civil war. That's when he decided to take a three-day train ride to meet the group, in hope of dispelling or confirming the stories he'd heard.
What he found was more complex and sad than he'd expected. The town was managing an opium addiction epidemic that had been raging for three-quarters of a century, eroding most social and political structures. He spent three weeks in the community, speaking to residents, the priest, and the chief about the source and impact of the widespread drug abuse.
VICE: Longwa has a reputation for being dangerous, can you tell me about the unrest in the area?
Raphael Korman: There's fighting in the region between the Indian government and various guerrilla groups. When I was there, we had a 6 PM curfew every day, but it wasn't as dangerous as it seemed. I had a few intelligence people ask me why I was there and what I thought about the political situation. They wanted to make sure I wasn't an agitator for the Naga people.
This series ended up being more about the community's relationship with opium than the violence in the area. How did Nagaland get to this point?
There are around 12 different tribes in Nagaland, the Konyac tribe has been particularly aggressive and well developed for years. They had independence in 1947 but before then, in the 1940s, British colonialists were in the region. The British wanted to develop relationships with the Konyac tribe, as they felt threatened, so they introduced opium to the community as a way to establish that relationship and to pacify them.
How has almost a century of opium consumption shaped the village?
There's disruption in the family structure and how it operates. That's probably the most prolific effect of endemic drug addiction. The model was that men would do a lot of the hard work of hunting and cutting down the forests. Nowadays, women wake up very early and go to the fields and they come back around 6 PM to look after their kids and make dinner. The pastor of Longwa told me one in three men consume opium.
So only men smoke it?
From what I gathered, the women's role has always been to hold the family together. If it wasn't for them, the whole community wouldn't exist.
Speaking of families, did you see many kids in the village? What's their experience like?
A lot of young kids live in the cities now, so I didn't see that many, the consumers are a bit older. When they are younger, they just help their mothers, they don't go to school. Up until a few years ago there wasn't even a road to the village, so there wasn't, and there still isn't, structure to bring about change. The whole problem just stays on.
If the village is that remote, and people's ability to work is impacted, how do people afford the opium?
They try to get money everywhere they can. The chief filters a lot of money, so they have a tourist area where they sell trinkets. The money that's supposed to go for community projects goes to opium.
You spent time with the chief, what did he say about it all?
His name is Tonyei Phawang and he is 38 years old, which is pretty young for a chief. From what I see, being a chief is just about smoking from 10 in the morning until late at night with your caretakers. The relevance of the chief position is eroded.
So, what do you think the future of the village is?
In Longwa, the main chief's house is in the border with Burma. There's a path you can walk down to Burma. The production of opium in Burma is huge and as long as this continues the drugs are going to keep coming through the border. When I interviewed the pastor, he said change couldn't come from above, the village needs to make the change.
Is there any external push to intervene though?
The government has strong campaigns of eradication, and the local church and other organizations are encouraging farmers to shift to cardamom crops, but obviously it's not as lucrative as opium. The real problem exists in Burma—it is the second largest producer of opium in the world. Five years ago, I had the chance to visit an opium field in Burma and what happens is the farmers grow it as a way of subsistence farming and then sell it to the militia groups that control their region. They take it to Thailand to produce heroin. It is a complex structure in which everyone is getting their back scratched.
Interviewed by Laura Rodriguez Castro, follow her on Twitter.