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Indigenous Thai farmers swap opium for coffee, land

A development project ended opium cultivation in Chiang Rai, and set up a drug rehabilitation center and social enterprises to generate jobs

By Rina Chandran  /  Thomson Reuters Foundation, DOI TUNG, Thailand

Afghan farmers last month harvest opium sap from a poppy field in the Gereshk district of Helmand province. A development program in Thailand’s Chiang Rai ended the mass cultivation of opium and provided indigenous farmers with land to grow coffee and other food stuffs.

Photo: AFP

Somchai Sophonsookpaiboon does not remember much about his younger years, except that they were spent in an opium haze.

It’s how all the men in his mountain village on the Thai-Myanmar border spent their time. Stateless, with little access to education, jobs or healthcare, their only options were trading opium or walking to the nearest town for odd jobs.

Somchai’s life turned around after the late Princess Srinagarindra, grandmother of Thailand’s current king, set up a development project in 1988 in Doi Tung in Chiang Rai, once part of Southeast Asia’s “Golden Triangle” notorious for trafficking of drugs, people and arms.

The Doi Tung Development Project ended opium cultivation in the area and set up a drug rehabilitation center and social enterprises to generate jobs. It trained residents to reforest vast swathes of the hillside and grow coffee and macadamia.

It also gave residents 30-year land-use titles for small plots on which they could live and farm.

“If the project had not started, I would not be alive today,” said Somchai, 62, a member of the Lahu ethnic tribe, who now grows strawberries, cabbage and lettuce on an organic farm as part of the project.

“We had nothing, and no hope. With the project, I got rid of my opium addiction, got citizenship, got land and work, and ensured that my children had better lives than me,” he said.

The Doi Tung Development Project, run by the Mae Fah Luang Foundation under Thai royal patronage, is held up by the UN as a model for ending narcotic drug cultivation and improving the lives of indigenous communities.

Yet in other parts of the country, indigenous people continue to live in poverty and face challenges in accessing land, livelihoods and citizenship, according to tribal rights groups.

Of an estimated 1 million highland indigenous people in Thailand, about a tenth are stateless, according to advocacy group Minority Rights Group International, and thousands have been evicted — or face eviction — from forests that have been declared national parks and protected areas.

“Secure land rights for indigenous people is still the best option to secure their livelihoods, yet there is no law that guarantees that in Thailand,” said Kittisak Rattanakrajangsri, chairman of advocacy group Asia Indigenous Peoples Pact.

“The Doi Tung project has benefited many indigenous people, but a temporary lease on land they have always lived on is not a permanent solution,” he said.


Globally, indigenous and local communities own more than half of all land under customary rights. Yet they only have secure legal rights to 10 percent, according to the Washington-based advocacy group Rights and Resources Initiative.

When the military government took charge in Thailand in 2014, it vowed to “take back the forest” and increase forest cover to 40 percent of the total surface area from about a third.

This has resulted in hundreds of land reclamations from farmers and forest dwellers, according to research organization Mekong Region Land Governance.

The Doi Tung Development Project covers an area of 15,000 acres of reserve forest, where thousands of Akha, Lahu, Karen and other ethnic tribes grow arabica coffee, macadamia nuts and fruit trees.

The land-use titles they received in 1989 do not allow them to sell or transfer the land, but they can pass them on to their children.

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