The Golden Triangle is a region of Southeast Asia which has become famous for its opium production. Since the 1950s, the Golden Triangle and neighboring Golden Crescent have dominated worldwide opium production, with the drug trade in these regions being a serious problem. Along with the trade in opium and heroin comes issues like violence, suspected human trafficking, and conversion of farmland to opium fields.
The history of opium in this region is lengthy and very complex. Opium poppies appear to be native to the Golden Triangle region, although opium's history is so long that it is a bit difficult to pin down the origins of the plant. However, opium was not widely used as a recreational drug in Southeast Asia until the infamous Opium Wars of the 1800s.
In the 1800s, British traders in Southeast Asia had to meet a high demand for Chinese and Asian goods in Europe. People wanted china, silk, and a wide variety of other exports, but the Chinese had little interest in British goods, forcing traders to pay in hard currency, rather than in trade. This arrangement was not satisfactory to many traders, so the British started smuggling opium into India and China, with the goal of getting people addicted to the substance to generate large amounts of cash.
In China, the government was not happy with this state of affairs, and it attempted to enforce its drug laws, sparking the Opium Wars. Ultimately, the British were able to force the Chinese to cede territory and open its borders to trade, and many other colonial nations followed suit, much to the frustration of the Chinese government. The Opium Wars led to increased demand for and production of opium in the region, setting the stage for the growth of the Golden Triangle.
In the 1950s, nations in the Golden Crescent, which includes Afghanistan and Pakistan, started cracking down on opium production. In response, production moved to Thailand, Laos, Myanmar, and Vietnam, a region that came to be known as the “Golden Triangle” in a reference to the massive opium profits which flooded the area. Growth of the opium industry in the region proved explosive, and drug traffickers also started processing the opium to make heroin and other derivatives, with the goal of making drug production even more profitable.
Drug laws in some of the nations within the Golden Triangle are quite draconian, making production and sale of opium a risky business. However, in impoverished areas, farmers may view the risk of opium as worth the benefit, since opium is by far more profitable than rice and other food crops. As a result, drug production in the area continues to climb. Crackdowns on production in Afghanistan after the American invasion in 2001 also led to increased growth in the Golden Triangle.