What are His Majesty the King's development visions that could ensure the majority of Thais a reasonable standard of living and cushion them from future economic crises? Visit the King's "Living Museums" for the answer.
Among the royal advice to be found there: restore the environment, respect natural and cultural diversity, listen to the locals, go for simplicity, forego inter-agency rivalry and strive for self-reliance.
The museums, known officially as Royal Development Study Centres, show His Majesty's holistic and pragmatic development approach governed by Buddhist philosophy. They also imply a major bureaucratic overhaul would be needed for his visions to be fully realised
After several decades of modern development in Thailand, the gap between the rich and the poor is wider than ever, while the natural environment, the people's source of sustenance, is in tatters.
With the economic crisis plunging the rural folks deeper into hardship, how can we turn things around?
His Majesty the King, an expert on rural development in his own right, always insists there are no ready-made answers, nor a single formula for a solution.
But after five decades on a quest for a low-cost, simple and effective cure for rural poverty, the world's hardest-working monarch did say he has arrived at some conclusions on how to restore the poor's livelihood as well as the natural environment.
What are His Majesty's insights, the crystalisation of his life-long work? What is the basis of His Majesty's ideas on effective rural development? And how can we be sure that His Majesty's visions work?
To answer these questions, let's start with his own words on the subject:
"Development must respect different regions' geography and people's way of life. We cannot impose our ideas on the people. We can only suggest. We must go to meet them, find out what their needs are, and then fully explain to them (what can be done)."
Interestingly, the King's respect for diversity is in contrast to the state's top-down imposition of standard and inflexible policies. Such a uniform approach is also costly and authoritarian, which probably explains why it has failed miserably to address the country's problems.
To see His Majesty's development conclusions in action, visit one of his Royal Development Study Centres, or "Living Museums", which are usually situated in the roughest terrain of their respective regions.
In 1987, the King took a group of Thai journalists on a study trip to the 8,500-rai Huay Hong Krai Centre in Chiang Mai to explain what his development conclusions were. The fact that it was His Majesty's only royal press trip in decades showed how important he thought the message was.
The King stressed to the press gathering that there existed no single formula for a solution to rural poverty, given the diversity of geography that dictates the different conditions of land, water supply and climate as well as the people's ways of life.
The Huay Hong Krai site is one of six development study centres His Majesty set up in different regions to investigate local conditions and look for solutions. These centres are where His Majesty conducts various experiments in reforestation, irrigation, land development and farm technology to find villager-friendly know-how that caters to each region. The goal is to restore the natural balance so the people can work on the land and become self-supporting.
The King calls these research and demonstration centres Living Museums, one-stop service centres allowing farmers to observe on-going research and to pick and choose what they think best suits their needs and localities.
"These study centres are like natural museums, ones which are alive," His Majesty explained. "They are where we present conclusions of development research which serve as models for the people to study and to use them to make a living."
The first rural development study centre set up by His Majesty was in Khao Hin Son, a rugged and rocky area in Chachoengsao's Phanom Sarakham district, east of Bangkok. It is his model of how to turn the near-desert soil-a result of severe deforestation-into usable farmland.
The Huay Hong Krai Centre in Chiang Mai, meanwhile, is intended to be a model of catchment area conservation for the North.
For the South, the Pikul Thong Centre in Narathiwat is a study centre for the swampy, acidic land typical of the southernmost region.
For the Northeast, the Phu Phan Centre in Sakhon Nakhon studies soil salinisation and irrigated reforestation for the country's biggest region which is plagued by constant droughts.
The Kung Kraben Bay Centre in Chanthaburi, meanwhile, studies the rehabilitation of mangrove forests and coastal waters in the wake of heavy destruction nationwide. And the Huay Sai Centre in Phetchaburi studies the rehabilitation of degraded forests and how to help villagers benefit from the programmes so they become forest protectors themselves.
Dhamma of development
These Living Museums, however, are no ordinary farm research centres. They are where we can see the application of His Majesty's broader development visions and strategies which are deeply rooted in Buddhist philosophy.
While mainstream economic development excessively exploits nature in pursuit of profits, resulting in severe degradation of the environment and deeper rural hardship, His Majesty keeps on providing proof through the work being done at his research centres, that respect for nature can turn things around.
In essence, Buddhism teaches respect for others and the laws of nature. To counter the human tendency to impose, Buddhism stresses the importance of observing and learning from the silent workings of nature. For when one knows how nature works, one will understand that everything is inter-interrelated. That the survival of humans and nature are interdependent. And the survival of poor farmers and urbanites are also intertwined.
In this way, compassion grows. Then the spirit of non-exploitation. And perseverance to bring about change.
The knowledge that everything is inter-related also nourishes one's efforts to right wrongs, knowing one's energy is never wasted, although change may often be painstakingly slow.
Buddhism views the knowledge of how nature works as a vehicle to solve problems. And the King, as a devout Buddhist, realises the importance of knowledge as a tool to alleviate his people's suffering.
The rural development study centres also show His Majesty's belief that the improvement of farmers' lives must be based on thorough research that respects natural laws.
"His Majesty believes it works best if we learn to listen to nature," said Dr Sumet Tantivejkul, former secretary-general of the Office of the Board of Royal Development Projects.
A keen sailor, the King once described sailing as a time "when man meets nature. And we must learn to thoroughly understand its ways and forces if we want to live peacefully with nature."
His methods of acquiring knowledge also reflect his Buddhist orientation. First, he observes the ecology of each region and how it functions. Then he applies the laws of inter-relatedness in nature to bring it back to life again.
In line with Buddhism, which views knowledge as a means to liberation, His Majesty views the recovery of natural balance not as an end in itself, but a means to free the poor from poverty.
For when nature returns to health, the livelihood of Thai villagers will improve-and that is the ultimate goal of the King.
Interestingly, His Majesty's work at the Living Museums reveals what he considers the country's most urgent prerogative in rural development-the restoration of ecological balance.
All six regional research centres started off as pieces of barren land, a result of exploitation-probably a royal comment on the country's fast pace of development and the ensuing environmental destruction.
The King always began by nurturing the areas back to health. Only then would the centres start offering services to surrounding villages.
Needless to say, His Majesty's development visions-governed as they are by a Buddhist emphasis on balance, inter-relatedness and self-reliance-are in stark contrast to the bureaucracy's money-first strategies. Despite the country's environmental and economic breakdown, policy-makers are still pushing the country towards an abyss of debt and dependency.
Those who saw the denuded mountains at Huay Hong Krai in 1983, and their current state of mind-soothing greenery would have no doubt in their minds that the King's development visions work.
"Look at the laterite road ahead," development worker Rapeepol Taptimthong, 47, pointed his finger at the rough and dry orange road. "This is what the mountains here used to be. Now see for yourself. And it's all because of His Majesty's vision and dedication to proving that we can return life to the land if we put our minds to it."
He recalls a scene which showed him how lucky Thailand was to have His Majesty's guidance. It was raining, he said, and His Majesty was kneeling on the muddy ground at Huay Hong Krai's naturally-irrigated catchment forest.
He scooped up a handful of fresh, brown soil and inspected it closely. Then he showed it to Her Majesty the Queen who was beside him and said with a smile: "Look at the soil. Look at how the earth has improved from what it was before."
Mr Rapeepol said most dignitaries who visit Huay Hong Krai only pay attention to how tall the trees are. "But His Majesty was focusing on the earth for he knows what really matters."
Once parched and dead, the earth at Huay Hong Krai has returned to life following over a decade of His Majesty's experiments in naturally-irrigated reforestation projects where he has developed his own "middle-path" approach.
Instead of letting the sparse forest regenerate by itself-which most environmentalists prefer-or clearing the whole area for reforestation-as forestry officials normally do-the King designed his own method that incorporates and improves on natural processes and the traditional knowledge of the hill people.
To retain soil moisture, the King has invented a method to speed up reforestation by building hundreds of small, simple dams, using bricks and earth in the mountain streams. In a method that reflects his holistic and pragmatic approach, the dams help retain soil moisture to nurture the trees and prevent forest fires, thus allowing the forest to regenerate more quickly.
According to Anukul Sorawisoot, Huay Hong Krai Centre's chief, research shows that the top soil at Huay Hong Krai has increased from nil to 2.5 centimetres as a result of His Majesty's reforestation efforts. Measurable rainfall has also nearly doubled from 700 to 1,300 millimetres.
At Huay Hong Krai, things have obviously worked the way His Majesty foresaw. With more moisture and leaves to decompose, the barren land is gradually being covered with fresh, rich soil. The rejuvenated forest cover also brings more rain. A new cycle of life is in motion.
The technique has also worked at the Khao Hin Son Centre in Chachoengsao province. The 1,200 rai of near-desert, mountainous terrain was pitifully dotted by less than 100 trees when His Majesty started his healing process. Like Huay Hong Krai, it is now an island of greenery.
A balanced approach to farming
A closer look at the Royal Development Study Centres reveals another facet of the King's vision-his scientific mind and commitment to giving his people tried and tested solutions.
To help the villagers find out which tree varieties work best for forest regeneration, the areas atop the hills are divided into different plots of mostly fast-growing indigenous trees. The green valleys, meanwhile, are teeming with fruit trees, bamboo and other edible plants to test their compatibility with the regions' topography.
Mangoes, pepper vines and rattan are among the many other indigenous plants being grown in forest areas as part of the King's experiments in agro-forestry. In His Majesty's view, if the forests are the villagers' source of livelihood and income, they will automatically become forest guardians.
In contrast, the forest authorities' main policy is to alienate and evict the indigenous forest dwellers in favour of commercial tree farms. Also, their reforestation programmes mostly involve clear-cutting for fast-growing trees, not natural regeneration.
The King's rural development vision is also evident in the centres' research into chemical-free and integrated farming. This research could also be taken as a royal comment on the government-supported farming policy which seriously contaminates the soil, pollutes the rivers and destroys the food chain through heavy use of chemical fertilisers and pesticides.
His Majesty's "New Theory farming", meanwhile, promotes maximisation of land use for a farm family to become self-reliant. In recognition of the importance of water resources, His Majesty devotes 30 percent of the land to ponds or reservoirs. For food security, 30 percent goes to paddy fields. Another 30 percent goes to fruit orchards, and vegetable and herb gardens. The rest is for living quarters, roads or other infrastructure.
Like His Majesty's reforestation work that is based on the Buddhist principle of balance between humans and nature, his New Theory farming reflects his religious insights. For him, the key factor that fosters sustainable development for both people and nature is the people's own inner balance, which keeps a lid on greed while fostering contentment in moderation.
"What we should strive for is a reasonable state of well-being-por khuan, por yoo, por khin-and peace for the general public," he said in one of his royal speeches.
This por khuan, por yoo, por khin roughly means an acceptable state of well-being with food security and enough basic needs guaranteed.
His Majesty's New Theory farming is one of the royal suggestions on how to achieve a simple yet dignified life of self-reliance-a virtue highly valued in Buddhism. Given its spiritual overtones, its success is defined as basic, no-frills, stable well-being and, to a large extent, it depends on the farmers' own contentment with moderation.
"It doesn't matter if Thailand is criticised as a backward country if we are still able to maintain our peace and self-sufficiency," His Majesty pointed out in one speech.
For over five decades, the King has travelled to just about every nook and cranny in the country to listen to his people's grievances. Time and time again, he has heard stories of state imposition, abuse of power, policies based on insufficient data, inter-agency rivalry and disrespect for the local people. That has probably made him more aware than anybody of the country's need for bureaucratic reform.
To this end, His Majesty uses the Living Museums as a place where government officials from different agencies can learn how their areas of responsibility are inter-related so they can work together toward a common goal.
"This is where officials can learn to cooperate, to work together as a team," he said.
His Majesty once used the irrigated forest project at Huay Hong Krai as an example to make his point. "Before, forestry officials were at odds with irrigation officials. This project, however, has taught them that they can benefit from irrigation work. And vice versa."
Another speech in 1990 showed that the King's holistic approach is not restricted to rural development work. "All activities are inter-dependent. Therefore, everyone must be conscious of the duty of others and assist each other."
Despite the royal guidance being given, state agencies' implementation of them often fall flat because they overlook His Majesty's principle that development must start with the empowerment of people.
His Majesty calls such an empowerment process "a burst from within", meaning strengthening a community so that it can be an active player in choosing appropriate change for itself without throwing the baby with the bath water.
Good health and a clean water supply are basic factors for community empowerment, stressed the King. Next, people must have access to practical farm technology as well as information so they can cope with rapid change. That's where the King's development centres come in, said Dr Sumet, helping farmers gain more understanding of new methods and technology.
Buddhist philosophy which stresses respect for diversity is also evident in the way His Majesty works. It is common to see the King of Thailand on a field trip, a map in one hand and a pencil in another, sitting on the ground consulting villagers about the local terrain and tirelessly listening to their ideas.
"Go to the people. Listen to them. Learn from the locals. Even you have information from books or whatnot, nothing can compare with the first-hand experience of seeing with your own eyes," the King has repeatedly advised government officials.
Prince Bhisadej Rajani, chairman of the Royal Project Foundation, calls His Majesty's down-to-earth style "teaching through example."
"It is his way to show government officials how to work with the people. Unfortunately, very few people pick up his example because they are too obsessed with position and power," said Prince Bhisadej.
The Royal Project, which is the King's endeavour to improve the livelihood of the hilltribes people in the mountainous North, not only reflects his compassion for all people but is also an important policy initiative concerning ethnic minorities.
The Royal Project has successfully reduced the hill people's dependency on opium growing through cash-crop substitution programmes. Meanwhile, the programmes' emphasis on fruit orchards and environmentally-friendly farm techniques has reduced land pressure on the hills while increasing the vegetation cover.
Unfortunately, the bureaucracy is yet to learn from the King's vision. It still blames the hill people for deforestation and drug trafficking and views them as non-Thais, resulting in widespread violations of their human rights.
Apart from an overhaul of bureaucratic attitudes, the Living Museums also suggest reform of the state budgetary system.
Different state agencies currently operate under different budgets and work plans, resulting in overlapping projects and financial waste. The centralised and inflexible budgetary rules and regulations often inhibit work in progress instead of serving the people's real needs, not to mention its failure to address the corruption plague.
In a model management system, the King's rural development study centres operate under a single management and budgetary system. Officials from different agencies work as a team under the same plan. And with the centres' objectives to serve the local people, their plans are flexible as opposed to the mainstream bureaucracy's top-down directives.
According to Anukul Sorawisoot, head of the Huay Hong Krai centre, the King's vision also points toward bureaucratic reform in its work evaluation system. For while the King's methods stress a "small-is-beautiful" approach, the mainstream bureaucracy uses "bigger-the-better" criteria for rewarding personnel, thus making them unwilling to follow royal guidelines.
Empowerment of people
While the bureaucrats are yet to democratise their views and attitudes, the King's Living Museums have shown how his development conclusions can free villagers from hardship.
Prasert Talaboon, 56, of Doi Saket, is among the Huay Hong Krai centre's regular clients. He said the practical, low-cost farm technology he has learned about at the centre has changed his life.
"Before I was deep in debt. Now I have hope," said the father of two.
Chemical-intensive, cash-crop farming, he said, had left him penniless and the centre has shown him how to stand on his own two feet again.
Quitting the money chase, he turned every metre of his small plot of land over to growing food for the family. Around his house, a variety of vegetables grow amid wild grasses. The farm does not look neat, but it gives his family enough to eat. Interestingly, the plots of mixed veggies are free of pests. "So they're safe to eat," he said.
With training from the centre, he built a small mushroom shed and a chicken coop. What started off as subsistence farming has now become a regular source of cash. With reduced food expenses and a regular income, Mr Prasert soon paid off his debts. Life, he reported happily, is stable once again.
Meanwhile, his wife Utis has joined the housewives' group at Ban Pah Pai, a nearby village, which plans to launch a community business producing preserved garlic, mangoes and beans, with initial support from the Huay Hong Krai centre.
Despite the economic crisis, some 100 families in the Huay Hong Krai community network have remained relatively unscathed.
Hunger is never a problem when the villagers raise their own food. Their community business has not been hurt either since they only use local produce. And the fact that the preserved foods are made from organic vegetables and fruits and are free of chemical preservatives have also put them in great demand.
According to development worker Mr Rapeepol, the villagers' financial stability during the economic crisis proves how right His Majesty is in advocating a self-sufficient economy.
During his two decades in rural development work, Mr Rapeepol said he has observed how the cash economy has destroyed many rural families.
"When they get organised and return to their ancestors' skills to work towards self-reliance, I see families coming back together again," he said, adding that community ties have also become stronger.
Incidentally, the status of women in their families has also greatly improved now their home economics skills have become, more often than not, the main source of family income. Getting organised has also made them more articulate and active in the communities' public life.
"I won't be surprised if our women soon become active in local politics," Mr Rapeepol commented.
There is no doubt in his mind that the King's ideas for a self-sufficient economy-which is part of His Majesty's life-long development conclusions-work for the good of the rural people.
"It's clear. Self-sufficiency is as an effective buffer to protect the villagers from being jolted by external changes outside their control," Mr Rapeepol said.
"More importantly, it keeps the families and the communities together. The villagers have definitely become happier. What else could you ask for?"