On a misty, cold day in Laos’ highlands, former opium farmer Bounsee Lorleuxai sips a three-in-one instant coffee. For years, that was the best he could do if he wanted the drink. Now he’s planning to switch to growing coffee himself, and the days of the three-in-one are numbered. “One day I hope to test coffee that I’ve grown myself,” he says.
Coffee has long served as a benign crutch to help fight darker addictions — think endless pots of caffeine at 12-step meetings. Now, farmers in Southeast Asia’s opium-growing Golden Triangle region are trying to kick their drug habit and looking to coffee for help. In the 1980s, Thailand led the region’s fight against opium by helping farmers change crops and investing in schools, hospitals and roads to ensure that the fruits of the country’s development reached poor farmers dependent on poppy cultivation. Laos and Myanmar, the two other countries whose borders with Thailand constitute the Golden Triangle, are finally joining in.
Bounsee is one of around 300 farmers, most current or former opium cultivators, enlisted by a United Nations program to grow high-value roasts — the sort that can compete with opium prices — and hopefully leave the drug trade behind. More than 800 other Laos highland farmers are working with a private roaster in Luang Prubang to stoke interest in the more expensive and flavorful Arabica beans. And in Myanmar, another U.N. program that started three years ago has already enrolled 1,100 farmers, who have sold their first crop to the French company Malongo.
These guys that grow opium, they’re not bad people.
Erlend Falch, alternative development coordinator, U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime
The shift has broader social and health implications for these countries. Erlend Falch, an alternative development coordinator in Laos for the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime, says that decades after the country’s government cracked down on narcotics, he and his team have identified more than 300 people with problematic drug use in the area where they work. That’s roughly 10 people per village, and with only a couple dozen families living in each village, the impact is significant. The transition from opium to coffee also promises a more sustainable future — for families and the environment. Bounsee says that for 10 years, to help support the eight members of his family, he grew opium, moving among the lush hills and using a traditional slash-and-burn practice. He says he’s switched to only rice and coffee — “permanent” crops that don’t require the burning of forests.
“These guys that grow opium, they’re not bad people,” says Falch. “They’re poor farmers trying to provide for their families.”
Even with opium cultivation, the region’s farmers never escaped subsistence farming. But in the case of opium, buyers come to the farmer, explains Falch. So Falch’s program, which works with around a dozen villages, provides farmers not only with training and material support but also important access to markets. The plan is for the area’s farmers to run a collective that will target premium coffee markets in the U.S., Europe and Japan. That way, they’ll have more say in prices.
To understand that getting farmers off opium cultivation is possible, Laos and Myanmar don’t have to look far. In the 1960s, Thailand ranked among the world’s top producers of opium. The tribal mountains of Doi Tung were brown and scarred from slash-and-burn cultivation. When the current king’s mother, Princess Srinagarindra, visited the area in the late 1980s looking for a new home, she was taken aback by the poverty and deforestation. The royal family, with help from international organizations, worked to get the area clean. “We’ve always believed that the root cause for opium cultivation is poverty,” says Ramrada Ninnad of the Doi Tung Development Project. The drug problem wasn’t really a drug problem — it was a poverty problem, she explains. Farmers were given access to new crops, including high-value coffee, and to development. Now Chiang Mai, the largest city in northern Thailand, is filled with hip cafés offering locally sourced coffee.
Those who would come to buy opium “aren’t exactly very nice guys,” says Jeremy Douglas, head of the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime in Southeast Asia and the Pacific. Farmers are “glad they don’t come around the village anymore,” he says, and those who have stopped growing opium also don’t need to pay off police.
Douglas expects Burmese farmers to sell an estimated 400 tons of green coffee beans every year by 2022. They are a long way from the success of Thailand. “The challenges we face in Myanmar and Laos are that we don’t have those kinds of resources behind it,” says Douglas, referring to royal support and economic growth. Despite the small scale for now, he’s hopeful. “We’re really optimistic that we will actually be able to scale it up,” he says. “You can’t say that about a lot of development assistance programs.”
An original intent of Saffron Coffee, located in the northern Laos city of Luang Prabung, was to provide a legal substitute for opium cultivation, says Derek Smith, who works at the roaster and social development project. But, he says, the vast majority of the 800-plus farmers Saffron Coffee works with have simply added coffee to other low-value crops like corn. By moving at the farmers’ pace and with constant guidance, Smith says they’ve been able to grow around 12 tons of high-value Arabica in the past year. And it always sells out. “It can be a hard sell with farmers who’ve been burned in the past,” he says, referring to giant firms from Vietnam or China that throw money around but don’t stick it out. Such firms “end up hurting the farmers in the long haul,” he says.
Still, the enrollment by hundreds of farmers in these multiple programs lends weight to Douglas’ optimism. Falch thinks that someday the north of Laos could resemble the coffee hub seen across the Thai border. “The conditions are there for it, but that requires work, technology, time,” he says. Bounsee and his fellow farmers won’t need to wait, though. Coffee, for them, has already dethroned opium.