On a misty, cold day in Laos’ highlands, former opium farmer Bounsee Lorleuxai sips a three-in-one instant coffee. For years, that was the best he could do if he wanted the drink. Now he’s planning to switch to growing coffee himself, and the days of the three-in-one are numbered. “One day I hope to test coffee that I’ve grown myself,” he says.
Coffee has long served as a benign crutch to help fight darker addictions — think endless pots of caffeine at 12-step meetings. Now, farmers in Southeast Asia’s opium-growing Golden Triangle region are trying to kick their drug habit and looking to coffee for help. In the 1980s, Thailand led the region’s fight against opium by helping farmers change crops and investing in schools, hospitals and roads to ensure that the fruits of the country’s development reached poor farmers dependent on poppy cultivation. Laos and Myanmar, the two other countries whose borders with Thailand constitute the Golden Triangle, are finally joining in.