Background

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The Lisu are an ethnolinguistic group living throughout northern Thailand,northern Burma, and in southwest China near Tibet. In the early nineteenthcentury, conflict between local people and the Chinese Empire brought aboutethnic-based unrest that disrupted the regional overland trade routes thatwere the lifeblood of survival for people living in this region. The increasingdominance of Western colonialism in East Asia destabilized the region astrade was refocused to sea ports and to Western goods. Onto this unsettledstage came opium. Opium was an excellent cash crop, well suited to the ecologicalconditions of the region, and easily marketable. This crop enabled anew adaptation to a relatively stable agricultural economy. It transformedthe agricultural strategies of Lisu and many other upland peoples, such asthe Hmong, Mien, Lahu, and Akha. This opium economy is correlated withsignificant migration southward as far as Thailand starting in the late nineteenthcentury. When anthropologists and other observers studied uplandminority peoples of Southeast Asia, they were looking at people who wereopium growers. This particular historically constituted ecosystem had a profound effect on Lisu social structure.

 

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