from opium to coffee
27 October 2017
In Northern Thailand, the Golden Triangle has long been the world’s top opium-producing region. Today, on the hill of Doi Tung, poppy fields have been replaced with coffee and macadamia nut groves. Behind this eradication of opium growing, you’ll find the sustainable, fair-trade project development of Doi Tung.
We arrive in Doi Tung in a fine drizzle cloaking the surrounding luxuriantly green mountains in mist. The relative coolness reminds us that we’re 1,630 meters in altitude, only a few kilometers from the borders with Myanmar and Laos. Welcome to the Golden Triangle.
The site of Doi Tung has become a very popular tourist attraction in the province of Chiang Rai. Visitors can discover the royal villa, where Somdej Phra Srinagarindra Baromrajchonnee, mother of the late King Bhumibol, stayed. Built on the model of a Swiss chalet, the residence is reminiscent of the years she spent in Lausanne, plunging tourists into a unique atmosphere that some might even call a “Little Switzerland.” Below the villa, the gardens of Mae Fah Luang are captivating with their bright colors. From the museum dealing with the history of opium and its negative effects on society and on health in general, to the weaving and pottery stations, including the coffee roasting workshops, we discover one of the projects which have almost entirely eradicated the opium farming business in the northern Kingdom.
In the impoverished, isolated mountains, opium has long been the only cash crop that is profitable and easy to transport and sell. The ancient farming of poppies, which uses no fertilizer and is based on slash-and-burn agriculture, goes back to the mid-19th century in the region of Doi Tung. Its farming has led to the destruction of most of the forest and to exhaustion of the soil, as shown in the pictures exhibited at the commemorative museum of the Mae Fah Luang foundation, the “Hall of Inspiration” created by Princess Mother Srinagarindra.
Launched in 1988, the Doi Tung Development Project set itself the objective to reforest the region and to eradicate opium farming. In 1960, according to the UNODC (United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime), Thailand used to be considered as its top-producing countries. Forty years later, in 2003, the office took the kingdom off the list of opium producers and recognized the Doi Tung project for its exceptional contribution to alternative sustainable development and in eradicating the production of drugs.
Having understood that poppy fields will never be destroyed if there are no other sources of income, the Mae Fah Luang Foundation wanted to meet the basic needs of the region’s population: giving them a home, clothing, food, basic care and above all, means of subsistence.
To dissuade them from growing poppies, they had to find sufficiently profitable substitutions to rival the attractive sale price of opium. Doi Tung opted for arabica coffee and macadamia nuts, creating a market for the latter, which had never before been grown in Thailand.
Not wanting to limit themselves for alternative crops whose price depend on fluctuations in the market, Doi Tung also launched the development of finished products. Coffee from Doi Tung is a great example of this. Having learned how to grow quality coffee, the foundation created a roasting factory, and at the same time, trained members of the community in new skills. Although one kilo of coffee beans is sold for 2 dollars, roasted coffee can fetch up to 10 dollars/kilo, and with quality packaging, up to 20 dollars. “And if the product ends up in a chain like Starbucks, the value of coffee can soar up to 100 dollars, or even 500 dollars per kilo in Europe. Doi Tung then decided to beat Starbucks at its own game by opening 18 stores in Thailand,” explains Disnadda Diskul, the general secretary of the Mae Fah Luang Foundation.
Besides coffee and macadamia nuts, Doi Tung has also weaving and pottery workshops. With their ancestral traditions, the tribes of the region (Akha, Lahu, Tai Lue, Lawa, Shan, and the Chinese descendants of the KMT) carry on their know-how and sell their products to an upscale clientele in the Doi Tung shop. Or even to IKEA, which since 2010 has included in its catalog a range of decorative items from the project’s workshop, a wonderful way to showcase the work of the artisans and giving them visibility on the international stage.
With additional activities focusing on horticulture and tourism, the foundation, which now employs nearly 1,800 workers in various companies, ensures the subsistence of 11,000 people in the region of Chiang Rai. In 1989, the average annual local income for an individual was 120 dollars. In 2011, it surged to about 1,400 dollars and represents today more than 9,100 dollars per household.
Moreover, nearly 75% of the inhabitants now have Thai nationality, which wasn’t the case thirty years ago with most of the population of the tribes, making traveling to other provinces impossible and blocking access to the country’s educational system.
Too good to be true?
Although opium production has effectively disappeared from northern Thailand, the entire region, including the province of Chiang Rai, is still a revolving door for drug trafficking due to its proximity to Laos and Myanmar. The latter is the main opium poppy producer in Southeast Asia and the second in the world, according to the UNODC. Even though since 2001, the Golden Triangle has slipped behind Afghanistan, efforts at eradication deployed in Myanmar and Laos are struggling to show any effects, and since 2006, the region has experienced a growth in poppy farming. This increase, according to the UNODC, is due to in-country consumption and an absence of alternative sources of income for the local population. Hence the interest of setting up rehabilitation programs that offer economically viable, and even profitable solutions in the long term and in which local communities are involved from the start.
Currently, projects similar to the one in Doi Tung have been launched by Indonesia, Afghanistan and Myanmar. Columbia may soon follow. In late August, on a visit to Thailand, the director of the South American Nations Agency for the Substitution of Illicit Crops announced that the Columbian government indeed wants to set up initiatives similar to the ones inspired by King Bhumibol and the Princess Mother, in order to convince thousands of farmers to give up farming coca leaves. n