Tapping into rubber: China’s opium replacement program and rubber production in Laos

TitleTapping into rubber: China’s opium replacement program and rubber production in Laos
Annotated RecordNot Annotated
Year of Publication2017
AuthorsLu JN
Secondary TitleThe Journal of Peasant Studies
PublisherTaylor & Francis
Key themesDispossession-grabbing, FDI, MigrationLabour

Despite centuries of state-directed eradication efforts, opium cultivation persists in northern Laos and Myanmar. The most recent of these efforts is China’s Opium Replacement Program (ORP). Like other illicit crop substitution programmes, the ORP seeks to provide opium cultivators with licit livelihood alternatives. Unlike other programmes, it does so by supporting Chinese agribusiness investors in the region – predominantly rubber companies – instead of targeting opium producers directly. Rubber is not, however, economically or ecologically speaking, an optimal replacement for opium. Rubber and opium have contrasting production cycles and market characteristics, and are grown at different altitudes by different types of producers (large corporations and smallholders, respectively). Due to this apparent mismatch, critics have dismissed the ORP’s opium eradication aims, viewing it as a pretext for land grabs. I argue instead that rubber makes sense as an opium replacement crop based on Chinese and Lao state views that opium is a symptom of weak state control and underdevelopment in the borderlands and rubber a tried and true modernising crop. I thus offer that the ORP attempts replacement by displacement – not necessarily by physically replacing opium fields with rubber plantations, but rather by drawing land and labour into rubber, away from opium.


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Document Type

Journal Article