A significant part of opium and its derivative heroin on the market in China originates from the ‘Golden Triangle’ – roughly the area that spans northern Burma, Thailand and Laos. It supplies a large number of injecting drugs users in China, and is considered a major security concern by the Chinese authorities. To counter this threat, the Chinese government have launched opium substitution programmes in northern Burma and Laos. The schemes, promoting agricultural investments by Chinese companies, have seen a dramatic increase in recent years. They include large-scale rubber plantations and other crops such as sugarcane, tea and corn.
Serious concerns arise regarding the longterm economic benefits and costs of rubber development for poor upland villagers. Although some economic benefits are derived from rubber development, the villagers enjoying these new resource revenue streams are not the poorest. Wealthier farmers with savings and better social networks can more easily tap benefits; hence socio-economic gaps are developing in the communities.
Without access to capital and land to become involved in rubber concessions, upland farmers practicing swidden cultivation (many of whom are (ex-) poppy growers) have few alternatives but to work as wage labourers on agricultural concessions. They are forced to accede to government relocation programmes or to economic factors, as they have no other means of income.