How Thailand tackled its opium growing problem

Reading Time: 4 minutes

A few decades ago, life in the hill tribes area in northern Thailand was no bed of roses. The region between Chiang Rai and Mae Hong Son bordering Myanmar was one of Southeast Asia’s largest opium growing destinations, with cultivation of poppies in Thailand peaking in the 1970s and 1980s.

With little to no other options or abilities than growing the “forbidden plant,” farmers got entangled in a narco-economy that sometimes was as dangerous as dealing with drug lords can get, particularly for those at the bottom of the profit scale.

“In the past, the farmers really had few choices,” says Weerachit Waranchitkun, a local official in Mae Sai district, right in the heart of the Golden Triangle in the highlands around Doi Tung mountain, also one of the major opium smuggle routes of Thailand’s past.

“They were mostly from the hill tribes and had no Thai identification card which prevented them from receiving government services such as education and healthcare. To make a living, they just cultivated opium and sold it to the intermediaries of the drug cartels active in the region, like their fathers did,” he describes the people’s economic constraints back then.

Lacking farming skills and experiences with other plants, alternatives were not in sight for the farmers from the indigenous hill tribes of the Shan, Akha and Lahu in their villages perched on the mountain sides. And they also could not just walk down to the lowlands and have a try to grow some rice or so as the drug lords prevented any movement.

“To the north, there were the Myanmar border guards, and to the south, the private militia of various drug lords watched that no one illicitly crossed another drug lord’s territory, and when villagers really needed to, they had to pay a toll,” Weerachit says.

When they needed to cross was mostly when they sold weapons to the drug militia, the only second notable source of the hill tribe’s incomes.

Phennee Phommabut, 60, previously an arms dealer for the narco militia

“We sold them what we could get from Thai army soldiers and border guards who channeled the weapons off from their inventories,” says 60-year-old Phennee Phommabut, a woman who looks like a friendly auntie, but was in fact an active arms dealer from a “shop”  in her village which she inherited from her father and where arms ranging from Israeli Uzis, American M16 rifles and even RPG launchers were sold to the drug cartels, she explains with a guiltless smile on her face.

These times are over now. The elderly villagers sitting in an auditorium of the Doi Tung Development Project telling investvine their stories retired from the opium business years ago, including Phennee, as well as Chamnan Aphisuntharakun, 68, and A-pha A-yee, 69, two former opium farmers and opium addicts, who are now growing coffee or macadamia nuts as a “hobby.”

Chamnan Aphisuntharakun, 68, and A-pha A-yee, 69, former opium grower4s and opium addicts

For the locals, things changed in 1988 when the Doi Tung Development Project was initiated by Princess Mother Srinagarindra through her Mae Fah Luang Foundation, a charitable organisation funded by Thailand’s Royal Family. Originally a reforestation project, it quickly developed into a holistic and integrated sustainable alternative livelihood development initiative, tackling the vicious cycle of poverty, drug cultivation and lawlessness in the area.

The project helped many young hill tribe villagers to find jobs outside the poppy business by introducing alternative crops and expanding the local economy into pottery, textile making, forestry, paper production, handicraft making, food processing, horticulture and tourism. What started as a charity, also gave the tribes people access to healthcare and education by equipping them with an official Thai ID card.

This is why 69-year old former opium farmer Chamnan is so relaxed. His children got a relatively good education that allows them to work good office or manufacturing jobs in town, sending him the money he needs to make a comfortable living, without touching opium ever again.

The Doi Tung mountain area in 1988, ravaged by slash-and-burn farming

Today, the projects spans over 150 square kilometers in the northernmost Mae Fah Luang and Mae Sai districts, involving 11,000 people who live in 26 hill tribe villages dispersed in the mountains. They are from six different ethnic groups, apart from the Shan, Akha and Lahu also from Tai Lue and Lawa tribes, and Chinese descendants from the former Kuomintang 93rd Army, also known as China’s Lost Army, who stranded in the area in 1949. All of them a nationalised Thais now.

The success of the Doi Tung Development Project was commended by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crimes (UNODC) in 2003 and has been regarded as one of the world’s most successful drug eradication and alternative livelihood projects to an extent that the concept is being exported to other drug-roubled regions in Afghanistan, Myanmar and Indonesia.

“The most effective thing or the project was that the Princess Mother did not see the opium farmers as criminals,” says Dollaporn Rujiravong, Senior Corporate Communication Manager of the Mae Fah Luang Foundation.

“She thought, no one wants to be bad, they just don’t have the opportunity to be good,” she adds.

Today, the entire former opium growing region in Thailand’s part of the Golden Triangle got more or less rid of the drug, at least to “95 per cent,” says district official Weerachit. There are no more drug lords, no more roaming armed militias, no more slash-and-burn farming methods, no opium dens in the hill tribe villages.

The Doi Tung project site today

Instead, the Doi Tung Development projects features a beautiful mountainside garden with exotic flowers, including orchids and trumpet vine. On the top sits the impressive Royal Villa, used by the late Princess Mother during her site visits, which is partly open for visitors.

In the vicinity, there are several related royal initiatives such as the a center for plant development, a tea oil and plant oil development center, a cottage industry center for handicrafts, ceramics (one designer series is even sold to IKEA) and textiles, Navuti Company, which produces coffee and macadamia nut and related products, as well as Doi Kham Food Products Company, well-known for their natural fruit juices and other healthy products.

Nowadays, there is almost no cultivation of opium poppy left all over Thailand – estimations by the UNODC are that there are maybe 200 hectares per year or a little more still used for opium cultivation, but the area is shrinking.

All pictures © Arno Maierbrugger apart from two aerial shots of Doi Tung Development Project © Mae Fah Luang Foundation

Doi Tung Royal Villa
Doi Tung garden
Preparing the seedlings
Flowers for poppy
Border region in the Golden Triangle
Hills on the northern Thai border
Doi Tung Arboretum
Doi Tung flower garden
Orchids for poppy
Macadamia nuts for poppy
Coffee for poppy
Planting tea seedlings
Processing macadamia nuts
Weaving at the Cottage Industries Center
Weaving at the Cottage Industries Center
Weaving at the Cottage Industries Center
Weaving at the Cottage Industries Center
Weaving at the Cottage Industries Center
Pottery at the Cottage Industries Center
Pottery at the Cottage Industries Center
Pottery at the Cottage Industries Center
Doi Tung coffee products
Do you like this post?
  • Fascinated
  • Happy
  • Sad
  • Angry
  • Bored
  • Afraid

Reading Time: 4 minutes

Reading Time: 4 minutes

A few decades ago, life in the hill tribes area in northern Thailand was no bed of roses. The region between Chiang Rai and Mae Hong Son bordering Myanmar was one of Southeast Asia’s largest opium growing destinations, with cultivation of poppies in Thailand peaking in the 1970s and 1980s.

With little to no other options or abilities than growing the “forbidden plant,” farmers got entangled in a narco-economy that sometimes was as dangerous as dealing with drug lords can get, particularly for those at the bottom of the profit scale.

“In the past, the farmers really had few choices,” says Weerachit Waranchitkun, a local official in Mae Sai district, right in the heart of the Golden Triangle in the highlands around Doi Tung mountain, also one of the major opium smuggle routes of Thailand’s past.

“They were mostly from the hill tribes and had no Thai identification card which prevented them from receiving government services such as education and healthcare. To make a living, they just cultivated opium and sold it to the intermediaries of the drug cartels active in the region, like their fathers did,” he describes the people’s economic constraints back then.

Lacking farming skills and experiences with other plants, alternatives were not in sight for the farmers from the indigenous hill tribes of the Shan, Akha and Lahu in their villages perched on the mountain sides. And they also could not just walk down to the lowlands and have a try to grow some rice or so as the drug lords prevented any movement.

“To the north, there were the Myanmar border guards, and to the south, the private militia of various drug lords watched that no one illicitly crossed another drug lord’s territory, and when villagers really needed to, they had to pay a toll,” Weerachit says.

When they needed to cross was mostly when they sold weapons to the drug militia, the only second notable source of the hill tribe’s incomes.

Phennee Phommabut, 60, previously an arms dealer for the narco militia

“We sold them what we could get from Thai army soldiers and border guards who channeled the weapons off from their inventories,” says 60-year-old Phennee Phommabut, a woman who looks like a friendly auntie, but was in fact an active arms dealer from a “shop”  in her village which she inherited from her father and where arms ranging from Israeli Uzis, American M16 rifles and even RPG launchers were sold to the drug cartels, she explains with a guiltless smile on her face.

These times are over now. The elderly villagers sitting in an auditorium of the Doi Tung Development Project telling investvine their stories retired from the opium business years ago, including Phennee, as well as Chamnan Aphisuntharakun, 68, and A-pha A-yee, 69, two former opium farmers and opium addicts, who are now growing coffee or macadamia nuts as a “hobby.”

Chamnan Aphisuntharakun, 68, and A-pha A-yee, 69, former opium grower4s and opium addicts

For the locals, things changed in 1988 when the Doi Tung Development Project was initiated by Princess Mother Srinagarindra through her Mae Fah Luang Foundation, a charitable organisation funded by Thailand’s Royal Family. Originally a reforestation project, it quickly developed into a holistic and integrated sustainable alternative livelihood development initiative, tackling the vicious cycle of poverty, drug cultivation and lawlessness in the area.

The project helped many young hill tribe villagers to find jobs outside the poppy business by introducing alternative crops and expanding the local economy into pottery, textile making, forestry, paper production, handicraft making, food processing, horticulture and tourism. What started as a charity, also gave the tribes people access to healthcare and education by equipping them with an official Thai ID card.

This is why 69-year old former opium farmer Chamnan is so relaxed. His children got a relatively good education that allows them to work good office or manufacturing jobs in town, sending him the money he needs to make a comfortable living, without touching opium ever again.

The Doi Tung mountain area in 1988, ravaged by slash-and-burn farming

Today, the projects spans over 150 square kilometers in the northernmost Mae Fah Luang and Mae Sai districts, involving 11,000 people who live in 26 hill tribe villages dispersed in the mountains. They are from six different ethnic groups, apart from the Shan, Akha and Lahu also from Tai Lue and Lawa tribes, and Chinese descendants from the former Kuomintang 93rd Army, also known as China’s Lost Army, who stranded in the area in 1949. All of them a nationalised Thais now.

The success of the Doi Tung Development Project was commended by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crimes (UNODC) in 2003 and has been regarded as one of the world’s most successful drug eradication and alternative livelihood projects to an extent that the concept is being exported to other drug-roubled regions in Afghanistan, Myanmar and Indonesia.

“The most effective thing or the project was that the Princess Mother did not see the opium farmers as criminals,” says Dollaporn Rujiravong, Senior Corporate Communication Manager of the Mae Fah Luang Foundation.

“She thought, no one wants to be bad, they just don’t have the opportunity to be good,” she adds.

Today, the entire former opium growing region in Thailand’s part of the Golden Triangle got more or less rid of the drug, at least to “95 per cent,” says district official Weerachit. There are no more drug lords, no more roaming armed militias, no more slash-and-burn farming methods, no opium dens in the hill tribe villages.

The Doi Tung project site today

Instead, the Doi Tung Development projects features a beautiful mountainside garden with exotic flowers, including orchids and trumpet vine. On the top sits the impressive Royal Villa, used by the late Princess Mother during her site visits, which is partly open for visitors.

In the vicinity, there are several related royal initiatives such as the a center for plant development, a tea oil and plant oil development center, a cottage industry center for handicrafts, ceramics (one designer series is even sold to IKEA) and textiles, Navuti Company, which produces coffee and macadamia nut and related products, as well as Doi Kham Food Products Company, well-known for their natural fruit juices and other healthy products.

Nowadays, there is almost no cultivation of opium poppy left all over Thailand – estimations by the UNODC are that there are maybe 200 hectares per year or a little more still used for opium cultivation, but the area is shrinking.

All pictures © Arno Maierbrugger apart from two aerial shots of Doi Tung Development Project © Mae Fah Luang Foundation

Doi Tung Royal Villa
Doi Tung garden
Preparing the seedlings
Flowers for poppy
Border region in the Golden Triangle
Hills on the northern Thai border
Doi Tung Arboretum
Doi Tung flower garden
Orchids for poppy
Macadamia nuts for poppy
Coffee for poppy
Planting tea seedlings
Processing macadamia nuts
Weaving at the Cottage Industries Center
Weaving at the Cottage Industries Center
Weaving at the Cottage Industries Center
Weaving at the Cottage Industries Center
Weaving at the Cottage Industries Center
Pottery at the Cottage Industries Center
Pottery at the Cottage Industries Center
Pottery at the Cottage Industries Center
Doi Tung coffee products
Do you like this post?
  • Fascinated
  • Happy
  • Sad
  • Angry
  • Bored
  • Afraid