can a balance be struck between maintaining the integrity of our rain
forests while also answering the needs of the local population? While
top-down forest management policies focus on forced evacuation of forest-infringing
local populations, a method that disrupts their lives and creates ethnic
tensions, His Majesty the King advocates a more compassionate approach.
He envisions a middle-path policy that steers clear of both environmental
degradation and antagonism of indigenous ethnic groups
by Nilubol Pornpitagpan
They live on forbidding, mountainous terrain. They look different, speak strange-sounding languages and observe their own customs. And no matter how long the hilltribes have been living in Thailand, many Thais see them as alien and threatening. Fortunately, however, His Majesty the King does not share this view.
While the authorities keep portraying the hilltribes as drug traders, the King sees them as victims of poverty and of drug warlords, a disadvantaged population who need special help in their effort to take their part in Thai society. In contrast to the hostile and aggressive tactics of the government authorities, who denounce the hilltribes as destroyers of forests to legitimise the use of violence in forcing them from their land, he is constantly trying to find effective but low-cost agricultural technology that can simultaneously improve the hill peasants' livelihood and restore the environment.
Armed not with force but with compassion, and always ready to listen attentively, the King has won the trust and confidence of the hilltribe people and indicated a way out of the ethnic and environmental conflicts that have long plagued the North.
Three decades after the King set up the Royal Project using his personal funds to encourage the hill people to cultivate new crops, the results can be seen in the new life that has come to many mountain villages. Greenery is returning to once-denuded forest areas, and the opium cultivation which was a cause of grave national concern 30 years ago is now virtually gone.
Many farmers who once grew land-consuming crops like corn and cabbage have now switched to temperate-zone species that take up less space and ensure a more stable income. With technical assistance from the Royal Project, hilltribes have become expert cultivators of temperate-zone vegetables like baby carrot, leek, sugar pea, zucchini, and sweet pepper; herbs like rosemary and oregano; flowers like red roses, chrysanthemum, gladiolus, gypsophila, aster, etc; and fruits like strawberries, pears, and peaches Ñ crops their forefathers never heard of.
"We are so happy finally to be able to lead peaceful lives. It's the best thing that ever happened to us," said Tong Sae Li, headman of Ban Khunklang, a Hmong village on Doi Inthanon, who can still vividly remember an era of constant military crackdowns inflicted to eradicate opium cultivation.
"His Majesty the King made it possible for the hilltribe people to live peacefully," he said.
Viewed through the purist eyes of forestry officials, the new greenery on Doi Inthanon is not genuine forest, but merely fruit orchards mimicking the green shadiness of natural woodland. Some of them take a dim view of the Royal Project's crop substitution programme for violating the Royal Forestry Department policy of evicting hill people from national forests.
Some environmentalists also remain sceptical of the new cash crops whose cultivation is still not free of agricultural chemicals, even if they require less land. But for Grai Sae Waa, a Hmong farmer from Ban Mai Khunklang, the King's middle path policy has been a great success, enabling his village and others to remain on their ancestral land while also helping them to get started with more ecologically-friendly farming methods which reduce soil erosion and deforestation in the highlands.
"We now earn a reasonable living," he said. "We have enough to eat and spend on what we need. We also feel life is more secure, now that we no longer have to worry about crackdowns and forced eviction."
Pongtoo Cheuasucharitpaikul, headman of the Karen village of Mae Klang Luang on Doi Inthanon, could not agree more.
"We've learned that farming doesn't really require vast amounts of land," he explained. "With research assistance on the new crops and the right way to use land, we don't have to use the old slash-and-burn style of farming. We've also seen our incomes go up because we grow different crops that produce yields all year round. Before, we got money only once a year from the opium crop."
In the days when opium was the hilltribe farmers' major cash crop, they had to play cat and mouse with the authorities.
"When we saw the troops coming up the mountain, we'd grab some food and head into the forest to hide," recalled Chakhoy Pueatit, a Muser at Ban Kob Dong on Doi Angkhang. "We'd go home only after they had left after destroying all our poppies."
But visits from the King were very different. "The King is a strong walker. He would walk long distances on rough terrain to visit us," Mr Chakhoy reminisced.
"When he came to our house, he would sit on the wooden floor and ask us how the Musers lived. He listened attentively to our problems.
"His Majesty also had dinner at the village chief's house, a simple dish of steamed chicken and khao rai (upland rice)," continued Mr Chakhoy, who was 12 at the time. "When we listened to what the King was saying, we felt that his concern for us was sincere," added Tong Sae Li.
It was during visits such as this, and the many frank talks with villagers that they included, that the King gathered the information he required to work out plans for ways to improve the hilltribes' standard of living, according to HSH Prince Bhisatej Rajani, director of the Royal Project Foundation.
He explained that it was from his discussions with the Hmong villagers in 1969 that the King found out they grew apricots as well as opium to earn income. He then asked researchers to help improve the quality and size of the fruit so that the villagers could get better prices.
To initiate the research, the King set up a fund at Kasetsart University to study crop substitution for the hill people. As findings were put into practice and it became evident that the King's innovative approach was effective in eliminating opium cultivation in the North, funding from state agencies and foreign sources followed.
The Royal Project, which is celebrating its 30th anniversary this year, currently runs four research stations and 35 Royal Project Development Centres which take care of 295 villages comprising 14,109 households with a total population of approximately 85,000 people. They are now served by an infrastructure which had previously never reached the highlands, and also enjoy the benefits of health and education programmes.
The hilltribes have also achieved a degree of financial stability through their Royal Project-initiated agricultural activities. Their produce is marketed under the Doi Kham brand name, and has won customer confidence for its high quality.
"They focus on obtaining knowledge through research, avoiding bureaucratic entanglements, and acting fast to respond to the villagers' needs while assisting them to become self-reliant."
The effectiveness of this approach has been applauded internationally. In 1988 the Royal Project won both the Magsaysay Award for International Understanding and the Thai Expo Award for attaining the quality standard of "Thai Goods for Export".
Much of the information obtained through its research has also been put to profitable use by farmers who are not hilltribesmen.
"We had little knowledge about highland agriculture when the Royal Project first started, so the research work was crucial," said Dr Adisorn Krasaechai, a flower researcher at the Royal Project Foundation and lecturer at Chiang Mai University.
But once the fruits of this research were applied, the hilltribe farmers began to achieve remarkable things. After only the first few years of research into specialised flower cultivation, the temperate-zone blooms like carnations, lilies, and roses that they grew won such wide market acceptance that the number of flowers imported from abroad plunged.
Royal Project researchers avoid bureaucratic red tape by working on their own free time as volunteers. Quick decision-making and funding also contribute to the efficiency of their work.
Dr Ounnaruj Boonprakob, a plant-breeding expert from Kasetsart University, works with the project to improve the quality of various fruits like plums, Chinese pears, and peaches. He began this work seriously three years ago after completing his doctorate degree in plant breeding at Texas A & M University. Although he has made considerable progress, there are problems that still need to be solved: the plums have sour skin and the meat around the seed is also excessively tart, and the shape and colour of the peach are still not what they should be.
"Doing research on fruits takes a lot longer than work done on cash crops," he said. "Some types of trees take three or four years to start bearing fruit, and it is only then that we can see the results of our efforts. If something doesn't turn out right, we try something new and start all over again.
"It is also a kind of farming that requires a high initial investment. So without research and technical assistance during the start-up period, villagers will opt for faster-yielding cash crops, despite the fact that the fruit orchards are less damaging to the environment and more sustainable."
Dr Ounnaruj added that he and other researchers continue to search for new varieties of fruit that will grow well in Thai soil, and that can be introduced to Thai farmers, because the more types of crops the farmers produce, the more diverse sources of income will be available to them, so their livelihood will be more secure.
"It makes us happy and proud when we find out that our work really is benefiting farmers," said Suebsak Senawong, an assistant flower researcher at the Royal Inthanon Agricultural Station. "And you can never get bored working like this, because you are constantly learning so many new things."
The researchers also open the agricultural stations as education and training centres for other hill villagers who are interested in learning about the cultivation of temperate-zone crops.
"We organise training programmes on a regular basis to introduce new agricultural technology as well as new cash crops to the villagers," said Viwat Duangpoj, head of the Royal Inthanon Agricultural Station. "We bring them out to observe our demonstration fields and learn the techniques being used there. It's important that they get a thorough knowledge of a new crop before they decide whether or not they want to try growing it. And when they seek our assistance, we always help them as much as we can."
Yaeh and his wife Mee are one couple who decided to experiment with a new crop. In March of this year they put in zucchini, and for the first couple of months made good money with it. But unseasonal rainfall damaged the vegetable, and Mr Yaeh lacked the skill to put things back on course.
"With zucchini, only fruit that have smooth skin and are of the proper size can be marketed," explained a member of the agricultural promotion staff who visited Mr Yaeh's farm to help solve the problem. "Bigger or rough-skinned fruit will be rejected, and farmers have to get rid of many of the fruit as they are forming to leave one good one to mature on the stem.
"It's normal to make mistakes in the beginning, but with the better understanding of zucchini growing that Yaeh has now, I'm sure that his next crop will be much better."
The young couple admitted that they were still greenhorns when it came to zucchini farming. "But we like it," Mr Yaeh beamed. "We have fun trying out new crops."
Tawichak Sae Ah, a 23-year-old Hmong tribesman, is another farmer who has developed an allegiance to the new kind of farming he has been doing with the project's assistance. As he screened the red roses he had harvested at his farm, cutting each stem to the required length before packaging the flowers at a Royal Inthanon Agricultural Station workshop, he said that rose farming suits him well. Now he is able to remain at home and take care of his mother who would otherwise be alone, as his brother and sister have left to start families elsewhere.
The advantages of growing multiple crops have impressed another Hmong farmer, Chakrit Songsawatwong, who is eagerly waiting to see how drip irrigation would work for his sweet peppers and cherry tomatoes, two new crops that he has begun cultivating in addition to his original chrysanthemums. A group of farmers had been asked to take part in the pilot project for a new agricultural techno- logy, and Mr Chakrit agreed even though it required an initial investment higher than what he was used to. The money was advanced for him by the Royal Project, and he will repay it when his crops are sold.
"Prices of flowers and vegetables vary," he explained. "Some days we get more for flowers, and some days for vegetables, so I thought I'd better try both. I think I can get myself out of debt soon. My income is more secure coming from different sources the way it does now. I'd like to grow even more things but my wife and I wouldn't be able to handle it, with our hands full already as it is."
Much of the success being experienced by these farmers is the result of careful planning done before a single commercial plant is put into the ground.
One of the reasons that the Royal Project concentrates on temperate-zone crops like zucchini, roses, and cherry tomatoes, which can be grown in the cool, mountainous northern terrain, for example, is that they don't compete with the crops grown by lowland farmers.
Quantity and timing are also important factors. Planners must make sure that growers do not overshoot market demand.
"The choice of crops and the harvesting time are guided by a careful marketing plan," said Royal In-thanon Agricultural Station head Viwat.
"Our marketing team studies the demand and we decide how many plots should be grown to avoid oversupply."
But much still needs to be learned. Each morning, as the highland farmers head out to tend their crops, the researchers continue their work in the laboratories and demon- stration fields for further improvements.
For the hill people under the Royal Project, gone are the days when they had to hide their farms from public view. Gone are their days of fear and insecurity, thanks to His Majesty's understanding and compassion.
But for many other hill people elsewhere, lives filled with constant fear of eviction and discrimination is far from over.
As Tuenjai Deetes, a well-respected development worker who has spent considerable time with the hilltribe people of the North, stresses, the stereotype of the hill people as destroyers of forests and producers of narcotics is a persistent one.
"But His Majesty understands that the hill people are only the scapegoats in a web of international narcotics trafficking run by powerful people," she said. "The King also recognises the hill people's land rights, as many of them have lived in these forests since long before they were declared state properties."
She added that, in contrast to the mandatory forest management policies enforced by the state, the Royal Project adheres to the King's holistic views on highland development, which recognise the central importance of harmony between humans and nature in forest preservation.
"His Majesty understands that the hill people will be a great force in the preservation of rain catchment forests if they have land security, if they enjoy a reasonable degree of well-being attained through ecological farming, and a sense of belonging.
"Our country will be rid of so many unnecessary ethnic tensions and environmental problems if only the authorities follow His Majesty's ways," Ms Tuenjai concluded.