The 1983 Memorandum of Understanding

One of the biggest regions for the production of opiates such as heroin is the so-called ‘Golden Triangle’ of China, Laos and Myanmar. Poppy cultivation in this region has been part of the socio-economic landscape for hundreds of years, and was actively encouraged in the early 20th Century by controlling forces to promote the export of (then) legitimate opiates. In recent years and as countries realised that the export of illegal narcotics from this region was responsible for much of the world’s heroin trade, attempts have been made to halt the supply from the Golden Triangle. Until recently, co-operation from the countries involved was difficult to obtain due to internal political situations and an inherent mistrust of outside influences.

However, in 1983 China, Laos and Myanmar signed a Memorandum of Understanding that was designed to improve co-operation on drug control. This agreement was signed with the help of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. The aim is to eliminate the cultivation of opium poppies in the region, thus stemming the flow of narcotics out of the Golden Triangle. The plan is to encourage farmers who would normally rely solely on the opium poppy as a cash crop to convert to growing more benign crops, including food. To do this, a dramatic shift in the social and economic structure of predominantly rural economies has to take place.

To date, the Understanding seems to be having a positive effect, and the flow of illegal opiates from the region has declined. However, the ‘gap in the market’ has been filled by opium production and the refinement of raw heroin in the region known as the ‘Golden Crescent’, which includes Afghanistan. Political instability in this region is contributing to the continuation of opium production, and the UN is now looking at the original Memorandum of Understanding signed by China, Laos and Myanmar as a potential blueprint for a similar agreement in Afghanistan and Pakistan.