Poppy fields forever (not)
CHIANG RAI, Thailand—It’s another day at work for Kam Nan Saent, 74, a long-time settler of Doi Tung mountain 1,400 meters above sea level or about 150 meters lower than both Baguio City and Sagada.
Kam takes a break to talk to reporters at the production floor of the Cottage Industry Centre of the Doi Tung Development Project (DTDP), where hill tribe women like her produce home items meant for local markets as well as abroad.
She shows no trace of the misgivings she felt when she, along with a pioneering group of largely undocumented residents, almost 30 years ago signed up to work with the DTDP administered by the Mae Fa Luang Foundation.
Having come from the Burma (Myanmar) side of the tri-border in Southeast Asia’s Golden Triangle—which also covers Laos—she of the Shan ethic group eked a living out of the mountain, where many of some 11,000 locals engaged in slash-and-burn farming to cultivate opium poppy.
Many of the residents, themselves hooked on opium (raw material for heroin), represented the first link in the value chain of the global illicit drug trade. Like the mountain made barren, they looked forward only to a promise of continued hardship.
Then a helicopter landed in 1987, and the Princess Mother stepped out. Seeing the desolation, Princess Srinagarindra—mother to two Kings, the present one and the brother he succeeded to the throne—vowed to see the trees thriving again.
But it was not just about reviving the forest, it was to see that the people in the mountain attained sustenance from socially appropriate sources, and then to see them with sufficient livelihood that they could follow through toward sustainability.
The trick was to find an alternative crop to opium poppy, as well as job opportunities for the skills that locals already possess.
The first step the Mae Fah Luang Foundation took was to engage the people to plant trees and become stewards of the forest. (The minorities in northern Thailand had taken to referring to the Princess Mother as Mae Fah Luang, which means “royal mother from the sky.”)
Beyond that, specifically for the ethnic minorities in Doi Tung, it was the craft of weaving —from spinning the threads to making the textile and then the consumer products.
From the start, efforts to revive Doi Tung and wean the people away from opium enjoyed royal patronage.
Dispanadda Diskul, deputy chief executive of DTDP, says such backing endowed the project with trustworthiness, which in turn won support from the private sector.
Aside from the quasi-government Crown Property Bureau, the other initial investors that supported the Doi Tung project were Euchukiat Co., Mitsui Co. Thailand, Siam Commercial Bank, Bank of Asia and Sumitomo Mitsui Banking Corp.
Their investment is hailed as a model for corporate social responsibility as well as social entrepreneurship.
“But royal patronage is just the booster in the rocket,” says Dispanadda, himself a royal descendant. “To stay up, [a social enterprise] needs to win the trust of the locals, without which there can be no long-term benefit.”
In the Philippines, where the ecosystem for social enterprise is considered lively, the British Council says the country “is on the cusp of important policy changes that could see social enterprise start to have much wider presence and impact in the coming years.”
In a report on social enterprise activity in the Philippines released in August 2015, the council noted that both stakeholders and social enterprises recognize their need for skills related to the commercial side of their operations. The report was referring to skills on business development and management, accounting and legal and fiscal processes, as well as marketing, logistics and distribution.
As for coverage, the British Council observes that social enterprises are disproportionately present in major cities. But the values that such enterprises represent mean they should extend to areas outside Luzon, it added.
In Thailand, Dispanadda says that in order to engage beneficiaries, social entrepreneurs need to understand the people and be with them. (The Princess Mother herself built a home in Doi Tung, which became a museum after she passed away in 1995.) This, in turn, shows consistency and sincerity that earns the local’s belief in the project.
“You have to prove that you want to help, and you want nothing in return,” Dispanadda says.
In the early days, project ID cards were issued to the Doi Tung villagers. This gave them a sense of security—and lessened their distrust of “government”—since many of them were not Thai citizens.
More importantly, this gave them a sense of belonging as well as a sense of stewardship over the use of Doi Tung land.
Today, at least 1,600 Doi Tung villagers have gained or improved skills through training and hold jobs in the project’s various enterprises.
Close to three decades on and the DTDP now hosts a thriving factory that churns out items for the business dubbed “Doi Tung Lifestyle Store,” intended for niche markets in Europe and also to tourists visiting Thailand.
The foundation has been working since 2007 with Scandinavian home products chain Ikea to develop hand-woven fabric under the Doi Tung brand.
The partnership with Ikea also covers ceramics (which the DTDP added to its portfolio as early as 1996) and mulberry paper (which started in 1994).
Doi Tung products—such as clothes, bags, and paper products—are currently available in Sweden, Denmark and Austria, with preparations being made for expansion into the United Kingdom and Spain.
The turn of fortune for Doi Tung’s communities is best seen through 29-year-old coffee farmer Sopon Ayi.
As a child, during the early phase of the project, Sopon saw how his father’s opium addiction deprived his family of what were already meager resources.
“Among my father’s generation, almost everybody was addicted to opium,” he says, speaking through an interpreter.
He believes that if there had been no Doi Tung project, his family and the rest of the mountain communities may probably still be tied to illicit crops (the Thai government outlawed the opium trade in 1959) and the attendant squalor and violence.
This is not difficult to imagine considering that, on the other sides of the tri-border, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) finds that production from opium farms is “stable at high levels.”
The UNODC’s report “Southeast Asia Opium Survey 2015,” released Dec. 15, 2015, says that the Burma side of the Golden Triangle produces 91 percent of opium supply in the fabled albeit notorious fertile region, with the rest coming from the Laotian side.
The report mentions that Shan state in north Burma “hosts a number of conflict areas and ceasefire groups, [and] remains the center of the country’s opium and heroin trade.”
On the Thai side, coffee, macadamia and mulberry have largely if not altogether supplanted opium poppy.
With the first coffee crop harvested in 1992, the people behind the Doi Tung project realized that for the program to become sustainable, it had to go up the value chain—from tree to cup.
It was not enough to produce coffee beans, the people also need to produce specialty coffee and serve them directly to consumers.
The farmers earn as much as 10 times with branded, attractively packaged coffee (which could sell at $20 a kilo) than with raw green beans ($2 a kilo)—and by as much as $100 or even $500 a kilo if served through trendy shops.
Café Doi Tung now has at least 18 stores across Bangkok, Chiangrai and other parts of Thailand.
As for macadamia, which were initially planted alongside the coffee trees that thrive under the shade, these are now grown separately. Doi Tung now offers macadamia nut snacks in six flavors—natural, seaweed, pizza, honey, wasabi and salt.
The DTDP is scheduled to wrap up on its 30th year in 2017, with anticipation that the locals—having gained skills and experience over the years—can now manage the enterprises themselves.
The initiative has already shown successes in different levels that Mae Fah Luang Foundation has been tapped to replicate the Doi Tung approach to development in other parts of Thailand as well as in Burma (top opium producer in Southeast Asia), Afghanistan (top opium source worldwide) and Indonesia.
Perhaps the Philippines can learn from its example, too.