The infamous ‘golden triangle’, once the capital of Southeast Asia’s illegal opium trade, is in the middle of a transition. Hundreds of farmers in Myanmar and Laos are, with the help of the UN, switching from growing opium to growing coffee beans. It is hoped the new crop will be a route out of poverty for local farmers, as well as provide more stable livelihoods in the face of new, synthetic opiates.
The two countries are following the example of the triangle’s third member, Thailand, which began the change in the 1980s. Long-term government investment in schools, hospitals and roads has weaned farmers in poor regions off the crop, which has (officially) been almost entirely eradicated. Much of northern Thailand is now given over to coffee bean plantations instead of poppy fields, making use of the tropical climate and fertile soils.
To compete with the high value of opium, the coffee being grown in Myanmar and Laos will need to be of a high grade – a challenge for individual farmers. ‘What is important to note is that the opium farming communities are very poor, with very limited access to markets,’ says Erlend Falch, an alternative development coordinator in Laos for the UN Office on Drugs and Crime. Falch helps to establish coffee cooperatives in the region, which will enable growers to club together to create a larger overall product. ‘That way, farmers can reach both national and international markets in a way that they couldn’t do individually,’ says Falch.
To date, the UN has enlisted 300 farmers in Laos, and 1,000 in Myanmar to grow the beans, many of them current or former opium growers. Each receives technical assistance to establish one hectare of coffee on their land. ‘If we succeed in building a strong organisation, this can serve as an example for other farming communities in the area,’ Falch explains. The Myanmar cooperatives began selling this year, while Laos’ first commercial harvest is expected in 2019.
The change has become more pressing with the arrival of a new breed of drugs – synthetics. Opioid newcomers such as fentanyl and carfentanil don’t need to be grown from poppies and their rising popularity has disrupted the traditional opium market. Last year, an explosion of synthetic production in Southeast Asia was concurrent with a dramatic drop in Myanmar poppy cultivation. ‘For opium farmers, this means they are in even more urgent need of finding alternatives,’ says Falch.
This was published in the October 2018 edition of Geographical magazine
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