Cultivation Conditions

A number of factors have contributed to the thriving opium economy of the Golden Triangle— and the complex politics surrounding and sustaining it. First, the topographical and climatic conditions are ideal for opium cultivation. The demographic conditions also provide a division of labor conducive to an economic system rooted in drug cultivation, processing, and trafficking. The area under cultivation is largely mountainous, ranging from about 5,000 feet (1,500 m) to more than 9,850 feet (3,000 m), with four major river systems supporting the transportation networks and any ongoing economic-development efforts. The remote harsh terrain has fostered great efforts to topple the central governments and to capitalize on the economic opportunities offered by the opium trade.

Second, the ethnography of the region is complex. The region is inhabited by a multitude of ethnic groups, possessing a diversity that defies simple classification. Burman, Shan, Kachin, Thai, and Yunnanese are broad categories that contain widely varied ethnic subgroups. At least twenty-five mutually unintelligible dialects are spoken among the Kachin people. Moreover, there are numerous other groups who do not belong to the larger ethnic division—such as Ahka, Hmong (Miao), Lisu, Lahu, Karenni, and Wa, to name a few. Most of these groups are nomadic—not geographically localized; therefore, little basis exists for territorial political organization. Yet, national boundaries have paid little heed to this fact and have often cut apart ethnic groups, fueling insurgency as the dominant form of politics in the region.

Cultivating opium in the Golden Triangle has been a way of life since the mid-1800s and has represented an important source of income for impoverished, nomadic hill tribes.

(SEE ALSO: Crop Control Policies; Foreign Policy and Drugs; International Drug Supply Systems; Source Countries for Illicit Drugs; Transit Countries for Illicit Drugs)


Bureau of International Narcotics Matters, U.S. Department OF STATE. (1990). International narcotics control strategy report (INCSR). Washington, DC: Author.

Lintner, B. (1990). Land of jade: A journey through insurgent Burma. Edinburgh: Kiscadale White Lotus.

Lintner, B. (1983). Alliances of convenience. Far Eastern Economic Review (April).

Mccoy, A. W. ET AL. (1990). The politics of heroin. New York: Harper & Row.

Walker, W. O., III. (1991). Opium and foreign policy. Chapel Hill and London: The University of North Carolina Press.

WlANT, J. A. (1985). Narcotics in the Golden Triangle. The Washington Quarterly (Fall) 125-140.

White House Office of National Drug Control Policy. (2000). National Drug Control Strategy: 2000 Annual Report. Washington, D.C.

U.S. Department of State. (1999). International narcotics control strategy report, March 1999. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office.

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