1Cross-border migration and trafficking are, once again, the focus of intense scrutiny in Southeast Asia. There is a very rapidly increasing number and frequency of informally and illegally migrating persons and the goods they transport and consume. The Greater Mekong Subregion (GMS), whose inter-country borders are almost entirely land or river boundaries, sees the daily crossing of tens or even hundreds of thousands of people and goods, most of them for reasons of economy and employment. These people and their goods were, until recently, part of long-standing upland border communities and upland cultivation. The loss of sustainable agricultural livelihoods has been an important push factor resulting in their informal and illegal movement, and the movement of the goods they transport. Equally important to this mobility are the pull factors of growing low-wage employment in small-scale manufacturing, construction, and transport of goods. Further, this informal movement is no longer in one direction—from “poor” to “rich”—only, but comprises a circulation throughout the Upper GMS border areas of China, Myanmar, Laos, Thailand, and Vietnam.

2The area of the present research is currently known as the Quadrangle (Quadripartite) Economic Cooperation Zone, or the Golden Quadrangle. It has been targeted as a special economic cooperation zone, comprising Yunnan Province of China, Shan State of northern Myanmar, Luang Nam Tha Province of northern Laos, and Chiang Rai Province of northern Thailand. The border territories of these four territories have traditionally been an area in flux. Historically, the area has witnessed changes and movements of people, goods, cultures, and life practises within a geographical and political framework that could flexibly expand and contract, but was clearly defined in distinction from the spheres of Han China and of India. Long before the term “globalisation” was invented, the reciprocal influences, political contests, and economic activities of the region were evident, and were driving forces of the human and political dynamics of the region.

3Further, the period from 2008 to the present has seen a sudden loss of access to markets, and increasing costs of delivering or accessing goods and services, in the labour-intensive sectors of Southeast Asia. The conventional approach to achieving comparative advantage, which relied upon capacity-building within financial capital, human capital, and technological capital, has seen a rapid loss of popularity with the collapse of world financial markets and the ensuing loss of employment and market opportunities. For developing regions of Asia, particularly the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) countries, the freezing of many of their export markets, alluded to by Haruhiko Kuroda at the autumn 2009 Asian Development Bank (ADB) meeting, has meant a sharp dive back into poverty, without social safety nets. For most developing nations, this has meant an increase in the scale of outsourcing and the proliferation of de-centralised production with lower standards. Economic survival has meant the creation of cheaper products at smaller locations for poorer, and fewer, markets.

  • 1 ASEAN Economic Community Blueprint, pp. 6-7.

4The scope of this localisation of small-scale manufacturing and production, and of its logistics—cross-border informal and illegal transport—is vast. The new micro-economy of the region, however, due both to its transnational status and its perceived newness as an exploitable economic base, does not rest on either traditional or modern legal protections, nor on any sort of multilateral agreement.1 The goods surveyed in this research were agriculture products, including herbicides, fertilisers, and pesticides whose contents were unknown or clearly toxic beyond the regionally-agreed standard; there is special reference to illegal logging and timber trafficking from the same regions.

Pesticide with no indication of concentrations of ingredients on the label. Dichlorvos is known for its acute toxicity, especially when stored in warm and sunlit areas.

Herbicide made in Thailand and sold in Laos and elsewhere. Metsulfuron methyl is known to cause developmental disorders.

5The supply chain of employment, production, and transport in the region originates, at the top, with foreign direct investment (FDI) by Asian investors. It proceeds down the chain to local employers, workshop owners, and recruiters. The upper levels of the chain have been well-researched by economists and finance specialists, but the complexity and diversity of de-centralised, informal workplaces and trade on the lower end of the chain have prevented them from being adequately researched. This sort of employment supply chain assumes and relies upon a highly mobile workforce. Development projects such as those funded by the ADB, by the German Development Foundation (GDZ), and other forms of overseas development assistance (ODA) that are contracted out to corporations, normally bring in workers from other places; also, mobile labour is expected to come from neighbouring areas on its own and, significantly, to be clever enough to move back and forth across borders frequently to transport goods. The new phenomenon here is that all of these show a return to extremely labour-intensive and low-technology kinds of production and transport, including human carriers who transport illegal goods by hand-carrying them. Because global markets and investors from both inside and outside the region are more urgently seeking to lower their cost burdens, there has been a corresponding rapid growth in these low-tech, low-skilled, and low-wage jobs as well as low-cost, hazardous goods.

6For these countries, the earlier infrastructure-centred policies, which meant that technology transfer, including the building of the Asian Highway network, was the primary target of development, have not, in the current economic downturn, fulfilled their promise. Nor were they able, in the rural areas of the GMS, to enable greater resilience to shocks such as the current one. With economic choices having been narrowed or removed, legal transactions or trade has become less viable. Concurrently, the engagement of local border dwellers in the region in informal and illegal trade has become a substitute for rural subsistence. Mainly mountain and remote rural dwellers, these are the region’s most vulnerable populations.

7The research undertaken during 2009 shows that the recent financial initiatives and stimulus packages in Asia, lacking a social development perspective, cannot be relied upon by these most vulnerable populations. Nor, perhaps, are such financial measures as effective in the short term as the initiatives that traditional mobility networks for labour migration and border trade make possible for those seeking livelihoods. Thus, in order to understand the socio-economic drivers of the increasing border trafficking, we identified existing systems and patterns of networks within the geographic space of the Golden Quadrangle that houses these vulnerable communities; then identified the new border livelihood potentials that are accessed to replace lost economic opportunities; and finally evaluated these local trade-trafficking activities on the basis of their value, apart from legality, to their members and users within the communities.

Scope of the Project

8The research team consisted of five individuals: the present author, an environmental chemist from Japan, one environmental chemist from Taiwan, a social scientist from Taiwan, and an economist from Myanmar.

9We used the conceptual framework of critiques of current economic growth-oriented development. Though geographically and culturally distant from the rural Upper GMS in origin, both economic globalisation and international development policies are vast and potent forces in the movements of people and goods in this region, particularly at times such as the present when global financial crises affect the border people’s livelihoods, which are directly or indirectly linked to export production.

10In this context, increased labour migration and goods trafficking has become nearly inevitable. There are also impacts on the kinds of human trafficking that have long existed. Human smuggling and brokering, illegal cross-border movement and overstaying for employment, and trafficking for the purposes of bonded labour, domestic labour, and sex work, have long existed but have greatly increased in scope and speed of movement within the last decade. They are paralleled by the vast increases in available and traded goods of both legal and illegal, and safe and harmful, standards. While all the GMS countries have managed to formalise legislation outlawing illegal migration, human trafficking, and the import of illegal goods, there has been a countervailing upsurge in the estimated number and destinations for trafficking victims, for illegal migrants, and most of all, for informal and illegal goods.

  • 2 Wongboonsin, 165, 185.
  • 3 See Winston Set Aung, Illegal Heroes and Victimless Crimes (2009).

11This project, in obtaining both primary and secondary data relating to the enabling factors for such an upswing in the movement of humans and materials across both previously existing and new points of transit, focuses on the goods and trade-trafficking activities that are now the most important component of the movement itself. Patcharawalai Wongboonsin, who has focused on the rapid rise of human movement in the ASEAN region and the related human-rights issues, has pointed out that even within the broadly agreed ASEAN framework there are still few, if any, concrete multi-lateral agreements on standards for the intake and later allocation of migrating human resources.2 Winston Set Aung, in addressing the same legal issues, has focused on migration outward from Myanmar.3 What both scholars point out is the lack of standardised frameworks as well as implementation. Frameworks, if agreed upon, can result in regional policy changes for the better. Implementation, however, does and will lag behind. This issue is also of central concern in the transport and trafficking of goods across GMS borders. It is clear that in terms of sheer numbers, the number of goods transported far exceeds that of people. And like the people who move or are moved, the goods’ variety, diversity, and varying degrees of legality are neither fully grasped nor have they yet formed a practical basis for changes in national and regional policy.

12There are also specific goods that have appeared and grown in conjunction with development policies in all countries of the region. Some of these are harmless or even beneficial, but due to their illegal use of brand names, unsafe contents, or other legal issues constitute trafficked goods. An example would be the cheap mobile phones, clothing, and housewares that dominate the growing “Chinese markets” in rural border areas, and that enable low-income consumers to obtain goods that enable better standards of living. There are other goods, however, that have, in fact, shown their potential to cause harm to the environment and to human health. An important case is provided by the agricultural chemicals whose contents exceed the regional safety standards.

Another problem [...] is the use of agricultural chemicals without any standards or sufficient regulation. Chinese investors hire villagers to grow crops. The state is not very involved in this. The villagers are essentially hired labor. There are concerns about the health and environmental effects (Rattanavong, 264).

13Although cross-border trade in well-established brands and types of fertilisers, pesticides, and herbicides is registered and goes through appropriate channels, it is expensive for local users and producers, especially the smallholders that comprise the bulk of the region’s rural population. Yet despite warnings and some amount of awareness of the dangers of high-toxicity and often false substitutes for these chemicals, their affordability and availability in bulk has made them very attractive to local farmers.

14Further, the fact that those who transport goods can traffic them well beyond the border into the interior of the country means that resource-poor farmers in the interior of the destination country do not need to travel far to obtain them. Such goods, produced semi-legally, and illegal ingredients and materials, can thus be produced and sold at a large volume because of the localisation of such small-scale enterprises that know the background and current situation of their workers and their local, cross-border markets and demands extremely well. Resource-poor areas and populations are larger than country-level statistics usually portray. The recent revision of poverty estimates in line with consumer prices showed over 30% more poverty than had been earlier estimated in developing countries (World Bank 2008).


1 ASEAN Economic Community Blueprint, pp. 6-7.

2 Wongboonsin, 165, 185.

3 See Winston Set Aung, Illegal Heroes and Victimless Crimes (2009).