TED Case Studies
Number 125, 2003
by Ivan Obetzanov, Chris Rutherford, and Steve Sommer
Opium for Heroin in Laos and Myanmar

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I. Identification

1. The Issue

Opium production and refinement into heroin in Laos and Myanmar causes both direct and indirect impacts on the environments of these countries. Much of the opium produced in Southeast Asia is refined into heroin for addicts in the United States. While the history of opium production in the region dates as far back as the 7th century, the current trade for the U.S. black markets began in the early 1970s (McCoy). Resolving the issue of poppy cultivation in the region involves not only the governments of the countries in which the plants are grown, but also international drug enforcement agencies working to bring down the narcotics syndicates financing production. A resolution is unclear, but a solution will require attacking the problem at multiple fronts.

2. Description

The Origins of the Poppy in Southeast Asia

The poppy plant initially found its way to India and southwestern China in the 7th century by way of Arab traders. Its use was sparse, primarily for medicinal purposes. It wasn’t until the 15th century with the arrival of European traders, that poppy cultivation became more prevalent (McCoy). Early on, trading with the easterners proved difficult for European merchants. They had little to offer in exchange for the desired spices and Chinese silks. The only commodity of value they had was their countries’ gold and silver. They were, however, unwilling to trade in these precious metals, as they constituted the basis of their national economies. They resorted instead to plundering the Asian shipping lanes, selling the loot back to the Asian peoples and then using the profits to buy up the desired silks and spices. Opium had remained sparse in its use by the Chinese because they found it unpalatable. When the Portuguese began importing tobacco from South America in the late 16th century, opium use increased as it was mixed with the tobacco to provide a more pleasant flavor. By the early 17th century smoking of this tobacco and opium mixture began to spread throughout China. Thus began a trade in opium which would make Europeans rich. In the late 18th century, opium production in British colonial India supplied smoker’s opium to China, fueling what would become a problematic addiction by the Chinese people. By 1838, over 2,400 tons of Indian opium was finding its way to China annually (Cady). By 1870, the British were supplying the wants of nearly 15 million opium addicts in China (McCoy). Poppy cultivation spread throughout Southeast Asia including present day Myanmar and Laos. The native population of these countries also began heavily using the product, thus enslaving more people to opium. While the people of Southeast Asia were suffering from this problem, colonial Europeans were profiting immensely, obtaining as much as 40% of their colonial revenues from the sale of opium (McCoy). Until the 1970s, Asian opium was consumed primarily by Asian peoples in the form of smoker's opium. The arrival of western narcotics syndicates in the early 70s shifted the market to refinement of opium into heroin for sale in the west, particularly, the United States.

The Mafia’s Arrival

Until the 70s, the illicit trafficking of heroin derived from opium originated in Europe. The syndicate responsible for its propagation was the Sicilian Mafia. Opium, legally produced in Turkey, was exported to Marseille, France where it was refined into heroin and then trafficked to the United States and Western Europe (McCoy). While heroin laboratories in Marseille began to decline in the 60s, the largest blow to the Mafia came when in 1967 Turkey, with support from the United States, announced plans to slow and eventually eradicate opium production within its borders. Choking off the source of raw opium for refinement into heroin presented the Mafia and the Corsican syndicates of Marseille with a major problem. A new supply of opium needed to be found, so in 1968, American Mafia boss Santo Trafficante, Jr. flew to southeast Asia to set up an eastern heroin trade with the United States (McCoy). Soon, the entire trade shifted from Europe to Southeast Asia, including the process of refining raw opium into heroin.

The Poppy In Myanmar and Laos

Today, much of the opium refined into heroin for exportation to the United States comes from northern Laos and Myanmar (Lintner). The unstable economies of these countries can lead people to engage in illegal activities such as poppy cultivation to earn a living. While their governments prohibit its production, they indirectly profit from it, and thus often turn a blind eye to these activities. Those involved in trafficking tend to barter with gold rather than official currencies which may fluctuate with the economy. Gold can then be taxed by the government as it moves across their borders. Cultivation of poppy plants in Laos and Myanmar primarily occurs in the mountainous regions of the north (Cady), due to two reasons.  First, the poppy thrives in alkaline soil which is easily found in the limestone-rich areas of the mountains. Secondly, the remoteness of the region protects illegal cultivation from the limited enforcement of their governments and international agencies.  Tribes involved in opium cultivation include the Akha, the Meo, the Yao, the Lahu, and the Lisu (Anderson).  Their villages are mostly found in high, inhospitable pockets of the rugged mountain terrain.  Villagers often use slash-and-burn methods in their farming.  Poppy cultivation in these countries causes ecological damage both directly from cultivation and indirectly from the activities of refinement and trafficking. Curbing the effects of this trade requires agencies to address the issue on multiple fronts. Addiction here in the United States and Western Europe needs to be addressed as it is the source of the demand (Walker). The syndicates funding the production, refinement, and transport of opium also need to be confronted. Lastly, the cultivators need to be addressed and provided with feasible alternatives to poppy cultivation to earn a living. Focusing on one aspect alone will not alleviate the problem.

3. Related Cases

TED Cases
Opium Trade and Environment
Coca Case
Colombia Coca Trade
Myanmar Sex Trade Case
Qat Case
Peru Coca Case
Hemp Case
ICE Amphetamine Case

Keyword Clusters

(1) : Trade Product = Opium

(2) : Bio-geography = Tropical

(3) : Environmental Problem = Deforestation

4. Author and Date:

Ivan Obetzanov

Christopher M. Rutherford

Steve Sommer

November 2003

II. Legal Clusters

5. Discourse and Status: AGRee and INPROGress

While the degree to which involved nations attempt to control production, export, and import of opium and opium derivatives varies, all of the nations involved are in agreement on such bans.  The United States provides the greatest effort to control such activities, but its jurisdiction is limited to regulating the import of opium products into the country.  The governments of Laos and Myanmar are responsible for controlling production and export but do not have the financial means to meet the United States' efforts (Cowell).  A resolution to the problem is in progress, and while a solution may be found to control the export of opium from Laos and Myanmar, eliminating the import of opium into the U.S. may prove to be an ongoing struggle.

6. Forum and Scope: Laos,Myanmar and MULTI-lateral

The forum includes not only the governments of Laos and Myanmar, but also international drug enforcement agencies of the United Nations and the United States.

7. Decision Breadth: 3 + (Laos, Myanmar, United States, Others*)

Laos and Myanmar are two of the leading exporters of opium and opium derivatives in the world.  The United States is the primary importer of opium products from the region, but many countries in Western Europe* and Eastern Asia* also have moderate amounts of opium and heroin imported from Southeast Asia.

8. Legal Standing: NGO (non-governmental)

While bans exist on production, export, and import of opium and heroin, problem is non-governmental because this industry exists outside of the realm of legal commerce.  While governments may seek to control and eliminate such activities, the drug syndicates are not law abiding corporations and are not under the control of any governing body.

III. Geographic Clusters

9. Geographic Locations

a. Geographic Domain: Asia

b. Geographic Site: East Asia

c. Geographic Impact: Laos/Myanmar

10. Sub-National Factors: No

11. Type of Habitat: TROPical

Much of Laos is still covered in natural forests. Of the total land area in Laos, it is estimated that forty-seven percent was thick forest in 1981 as compared with seventy percent in 1940 (Bryant). The forests of Laos, varying from tropical rain forest to scrub, have been harvested on a small scale for centuries. The forests contain such natural riches as teak, rosewood, pine, bamboo, gum benzoin, resin, and sticklac. The forests and jungles are home to many kinds of rare and exotic wildlife, such as bears, cranes, crocodiles, deer, elephants, leopards, lizards, monkeys, pheasants, snakes, squirrels, tigers, wild oxen, and buffalo (National Geographic).

Myanmar has a forest cover of about 50.87 per cent of the total land area. There are over 8570 different plant species, including 2300 tree species, 850 kinds of orchid, 97 varieties of bamboo and 32 different types of cane. In 1992/93 reserved forest area totaled 101425 sq. km. (39160 sq. miles) (National Geographic).

Heroin refining has devastating effects upon the tropical ecosystems. While in earlier decades the production steps of heroin processing were separated geographically, the opium harvesting and morphine extraction being conducted near cultivation while the heroin was processed near chemical sources in Europe and elsewhere, today's entire production chain takes place in the growing area (Chinai). As a result, highly dangerous chemical substances such as acetylating agents as well as dozens of other waste by-products highly toxic to animal and plant life are commonly discarded or seep into nearby waterways. Similarly, heroin refiners at clandestine jungle refineries located near international borders carelessly contaminate regional water resources by their indifferent disposal of poisonous processing chemicals.

IV. Trade Clusters

12. Type of Measure: IMBAN

The United States has exhausted billions of dollars in its ‘War on Drugs’ including actions to control and eliminate opium production and refinement (Walker). Their tactics of prevention and the like have had devastating effects on the opium trade. Actions by the United States government working with international drug enforcement agencies effectively shut down opium production and refinement in Western Europe, causing the drug syndicates to move to Southeast Asia in search of a new source. However, not all opium producing areas have felt the brunt of the U.S.’ actions. The United States government has worked with the government of the Wa region on the eastern border of Myanmar specifically to reduce the amount of opium produced (DEA Resources). Efforts have been made to encourage production of legal crops over the production of poppies. The process has been slow and the money that the locals earn from cultivation of legal crops is far less than what they can earn from opium. In fact, the reduction of the opium plantations in favor of rice and other crops has caused and will cause more damage to the environment such as advanced soil erosion (Anderson). Cultivation of regular crops requires the use of more land to produce enough product for a stable income. The high value of opium allows poppy cultivators to tend to relatively small plots of land to produce profitable amounts of opium.

13. Direct v. Indirect Impacts:DIRect and INDirect

The direct impacts of poppy cultivation are similar to those of legal crops. The direct impact of cultivation is limited primarily to deforestation and soil erosion.  Erosion occurs because plots are typically found on mountainsides and other inclined plots susceptible to soil loss. Indirect impacts occur in the form of pollution from refinement labs that produce heroin from the raw opium (Grove). Other indirect impacts occur because of efforts to eradicate areas of cultivation and refinement. Aggressive attacks on these areas can indirectly damage the environment with pollution and fires.  Examples include bombing of known areas of cultivation and aerial spraying of herbicides to destroy poppy crops.

14. Relation of Trade Measure to Environmental Impact

a. Directly Related to Product: Yes, Opium

b. Indirectly Related to Product: Yes, Heroin

c. Not Related to Product: No

d. Related to Process: Yes, Deforestation, Chemical Pollution

15. Trade Product Identification: Opium/Heroin

16. Economic Data




Major Opium Poppy Growing Provinces in Southeast Asia








            (This map was provided by PBS.org @ http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/heroin/maps/shan.html)


Myanmar is the world's second largest producer of illicit opium with 89,500 hectares of land in 1999, producing as much as 1,090 metric tons of raw opium. In 2001 it produced 865 tons of opium and the cultivation in 2002 encompassed 105,000 hectares (Cowell).

Laos is the world's third-largest producer with nearly 21,800 hectares of land in 2001, producing an estimated 140 metric tons of raw opium. In 2000 Laos produced an estimated 200 tons of opium (Cowell).

Until a poppy ban in 2001, Afghanistan was the world's leading producer of opium.  The ban reduced cultivation by 97% to 1,695 hectares with a potential production of 74 tons of opium placing Afghanistan behind both Laos and Myanmar in annual production.  Recent opium production in Afghanistan has increased to 3,400 tons in 2002 (LoBaido).

17. Impact of Trade Restriction: BAN

18. Industry Sector: PHARMaceuticals

19. Exporters and Importers: Exporters: Laos, Myanmar ; Importers: United States, Western Europe, China

V. Environment Clusters

20. Environmental Problem Type: DEFORestation

Environmental problems include the removal of rain forests, loss of soils and their nutrients, watershed pollution, and loss of species diversity. In South-East Asia, hill tribe farmers and other opium poppy growers cut mountain rain forests to support the shifting nature of their agricultural system. Likewise, heroin processors have carelessly discarded unknown quantities of toxic chemical wastes and by-products into the rivers, streams and reservoirs of the region. Such chemicals include acetic anhydride used for processing heroin, LSD and cocaine (Lintner). The opium poppy cultivation often depletes the thin forest soils and their nutrients so quickly that slash-and-burn growers, after harvesting as few as two or three crop cycles, clear new forest areas. Overall, the removal of the forest resources by these migratory agricultural practices has rapidly compounded the environmental destruction in the Golden Triangle region.

21. Name, Type, and Diversity of Species

Endangered mammals in the region include:

Name: The tiger (Panthera tigris), Asian elephant (Elephas maximus), gaur (Bos gaurus), banteng (Bos javanicus), wild water buffalo (Bubalus arnee), southern serow (Naemorhedus sumatraensis), clouded leopard (Pardofelis nebulosa), Malayan tapir (Tapirus indicus), wild dog (Cuon alpinus), Asiatic black bear (Ursus thibetanus), smooth-coated otter (Lutrogale perspicillata), great Indian civet (Viverra zibetha), and particoloured flying squirrel (Hylopetes alboniger), Tonkin snub-nosed monkey (Rhinopithecus avunculus), red panda (Ailurus fulgens), pygmy loris (Nycticebus pygmaeus), three macaque species (Macaca nemestrina, Macaca assamensis, and Macaca arctoides), back-striped weasel (Mustela strigidorsa), inornate squirrel (Callosciurus inornatus), Lowe's otter civet (Cynogale lowei), Francois's leaf monkey (Semnopithecus francoisi), silvered leaf monkey (S. cristatus), douc langur (Pygathrix nemaeus), Himalayan black bear (Ursus thibetanus), sun bear (Ursus malayanus), common leopard (Panthera pardus), thamin (Cervus eldii) (National Geographic).

Type: Animal/Vertebrate/Mammal/

Diversity: Varies by species

IUCN Status: ENDANGered

All of these species are listed as endangered in the region of the Golden Triangle. Their habitats are being depleted due to deforestation, caused by slash-and-burn land clearing techniques, often used in opium cultivation.

22. Resource Impact and Effect: MEDIUM and PRODuct

23. Urgency and Lifetime: HIGH and Varied

24. Substitutes: Treatment and Synthetics

Substitutes for opium could include synthetic drugs, like ecstasy, LSD, as well as treatment for addicts as an alternative.


VI. Other Factors

25. Culture: No

26. Trans-Boundary Issues: No

27. Rights: No

28. Relevant Literature

Anderson, Edward F. Plants and People of the Golden Triangle. Portland, Oregon: Dioscorides Press, 1993.

Bryant, Raymond L. Political Ecology of Forestry in Burma, 1824-1994. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1997.

Cady, John F. A History of Modern Burma. Cornell University: Cornell UP, 1958.

Chinai, Rupa, and Rahul Goswami. HEALTH-ASIA. Golden Triangle Heroin Trade Fuels HIV/AIDS.  28 Apr. 1997. Interpress Services. 17 Sept. 2003. http://www.aegis.com/news/ips/1997/IP970414.html

Cowell, Adrian. The Opium Kings. 1998. PBS/Frontline. 17 Sept. 2003. http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/heroin/

Damodoran, Vinita, Richard H. Grove, and Satpal Sangwan. Nature and the Orient: The Environmental History of South and Southeast Asia. Chapter 11: East India Company, the Raj and the El Nino. Richard Grove. Delhi; New York: Oxford United Press, 1998.

DEA Resources: Status in International Drug Trafficking. May 2002. Drug Enforcement Administration. 17 Sept. 2003 http://www.usdoj.gov/dea/pubs/intel/02021/02021p.html

Information Sheet. 1999. Myanmar Information Committee, Yangon. 16 Sept. 2003. http://www.myanmar-information.net/infosheet/1999/990224.htm

Karabell, Zachary. Architects of Intervention: The US, the Third World, and the Cold War 1946- 1962. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State United Press, 1999.

Lintner, Bertil. Burma in Revolt, Opium and Insurgency Since 1948. N.P.: Westview P Lotus, 1994.

LoBaido, Anthony C. Afghan War Lifts Burma's Opium Trade. 2002. 17 September 2003. http://worldnetdaily.com/news/article.asp?ARTICLE_ID=26063

McCoy, Alfred W. The Politics of Heroin in Southeast Asia. New York: Harper and Row, 1972.

Mirante, Edith. Burma Frontier Insurgency. Cranford, NJ: Project Maje, 1986.

NationalGeographic.com.  Terrestrial Ecoregions of the World.  http://www.nationalgeographic.com/wildworld/terrestrial.html 2003. 3 December 2003.

Opium Trade and Environment. 17 Sept. 2003. http://www.american.edu/projects/mandala/TED/opium.htm

Poppies.org: the continuing adventures of the world's most controversial flower. 2002. 16 Sept. 2003. http://www.poppies.org/

Pruzin, Daniel. How Heroin Sales in US Help Burma. Christian Science Monitor. 20 November. 1996: p.5.

Smith, Martin. Burma: Insurgency and Politics of Ethnicity. London: Zed Books Ltd, 1991.

United Nations: Office on Drugs and Crime: Alternative Development in the Ky son District. 2002. United Nations. 16 Sept. 2003 http://www.unodc.org/vietnam/en/kysonmore.html

U.S. Department of State. Bureau of International Narcotics Matters. 1997. 1996 International Narcotics Control Strategy Report. Washington D.C.: GPO.

Walker, William O. Opium and Foreign Policy: Anglo-American Search for Order in Asia. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1991.