The border region between Thailand, Myanmar and Laos, the so-called “Golden Triangle”, has been known for decades as the largest opium production area in the world behind Afghanistan. About a quarter of the world’s production is grown there by farmers as opium poppies, processed into opium and finally illegally distributed in Western Europe. Although the consumption of opium has reached a peak worldwide, the income earned by the cultivation of opium poppy is hardly enough for the farmers themselves to live on. In addition, illegal cultivation means security risks for farmers and their families.
A possible exit is a programme initiated by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), which has supported the long-standing DGRV projects in Laos and Myanmar since 2018. This United Nations project was launched in 2015 with financial support from Germany, Finland and Switzerland. The aim of the activities is to reduce opium cultivation and to create sustainable alternatives in several poorly developed and often inaccessible regions of both countries by introducing alternative market economy concepts. Above all, especially coffee, a so-called “cash crop”, is regarded as a profitable alternative to the cultivation of opium poppy.
But small farmers alone have hardly any chance of marketing their products profitably. This is where the cooperative project approach of the DGRV comes into its own. Although some people initially did not consider cooperation in the form of a working group practicable, many smallholders volunteered to diversify their production, above all with coffee, as part of the project and to join forces in marketing cooperatives in line with Raiffeisen’s maxim of “helping people to help themselves”. The DGRV supports the farmers with its many years of experience in setting up cooperatives.
Through advice and training measures, the farmers learn to bundle their strengths efficiently and use them profitably, especially in the refinement of coffee cherries. The necessary machines can be acquired together and specialist knowledge can be used together. On-site refinement saves costs and achieves higher prices than the sale of raw coffee cherries. In addition, the cooperative will market the now high-quality coffee beans more simply and efficiently as its own brand.
One challenge in Laos is working with ethnic minorities who live in the difficult to access mountain regions in the north of the country and whose native language is not Lao. However, the DGRV team’s training of local advisory groups enables knowledge and training content to be passed on to farmers in the local language.
In Myanmar, the cultivation areas are spread over a very large area and are partly located in conflict regions. As in Laos, different ethnic minorities are often represented among the members of the cooperative. In addition to the training of the members of the board of directors, the main focus here is on building trust between the members of the cooperative. In both countries, farmers also benefit from study trips to successful cooperatives in the region. Here the farmers not only learn new specialist knowledge in the cultivation of the coffee trees; they themselves can experience a functioning cooperative in practice and learn from the experiences of others.