The remote mountains of the Golden Triangle; where Burma, Thailand, and Laos meet, were once filled with red and white poppies grown for opium. Up till the end of the 20th century, it was known as the world’s second-largest opium producing region after Afghanistan. During that time, opium had funded war and fueled countless conflicts. Today, we look at how opium cultivation in the Golden Triangle region has evolved into coffee over recent decades.
Raw opium is a brownish gummy sap, harvested by scoring unripe poppy bulbs. Originally, Hmong people and other minority ethnic tribes grew opium poppy for personal and medicinal use. It was sometimes sold at market for cash to supplement subsistence farming. The arrival of the French empire in Burma, Laos, and Vietnam led to increase demand for this raw material that could be turned into heroin, morphine, and codeine. To fund wars like the First Indochina War, opium cultivation became monopolized. Recently declassified information in 2008 also revealed that the CIA was involved in the opium trade to fund the secret war fought in Laos between 1965-72. 4
As the war ended, many farmers continued growing opium. If we were to look with a capitalist lens, more production should mean more money. But it wasn't the case. Many famers were consumed by addiction that took a physical toll on the body. Unable to work, they spiraled into even greater poverty and eventual death. Initiatives were launched by each country’s government and UN’s Office on Drugs and Crime to help solve these problems. It was important to get dope farmers out of the vicious loop and to shift the cultivation to coffee. Increasing global demand and a growing coffee culture in Southeast Asia made coffee a sustainable cash crop in recent times. Today, Thailand is opium-free, Laos is almost clean, while Burma is still very much in the business. With a farm-gate price of $500 per kilo for opium and no other better alternative, many Burmese farmers continue to cultivate these flowers to feed their families.5
I’m starting to wonder if my own reliance on coffee is healthy as my tolerance builds over time. After all, it is a kind of drug too. Plus, it’s so common and ingrained in our culture that I find it hard to keep my dosage in moderation. I’ve become so reliant on it to keep me awake to work unnatural hours. Too much of it affect bedtime while too little, results in an unproductive day. Is that really very good for our minds and our society? 6
The poppy seed on our bagel comes from the same flower that produces Opium. Although the seeds do not contain opiates, they are frequently contaminated with morphine residue during harvesting. Studies have shown that a single poppy seed bagel can cause a urine drug test to register positive for opiates. Well...this just justifies my love for coffee & everything bagel! 4
Words by Buranee Soh, cover photo by Adam Dean