HIGHLIGHTS

  • Kasetsart University set up the Royal Project’s pioneering experiment station at Ang Khang, in the highlands of Chiang Mai Province. In several mountain stations, researchers test hundreds of temperate climate fruit trees and vegetables for their potential as cash crops. Volunteers from universities and government agencies introduce the successful ones to villagers in demonstration centers throughout the highlands.
  • Nearly three hundred upland villages benefit directly from the Royal Project, which is also introducing schools, cooperatives, rice banks, and primary medical services.
  • Technicians from Taiwan have, for fifteen years, volunteered their practical skills. The United States government and agencies of the United Nations have provided critical funding and assistance. In ways large and small, so have dozens of other countries and international organizations.
  • In His Majesty the King’s yearly visit to project sites, he sees transformation: poppy farmers are turning to more profitable crops such as vegetables, fruits, and coffee. Opium cultivation has declined by 85 per cent.
  • The RMAF board of trustees recognizes “its concerted national and international effort to curtail opium growing by bringing worthy livelihoods to Thailand’s hill tribes.”

 CITATION

For centuries Southeast Asia’s diverse and independent hill peoples lived well by “eating the forest,” following the ancient agricultural cycle of slashing, burning, and cultivating, and then moving on. As rising pressure for land in modern times destroyed the natural equilibrium of shifting cultivation, the forest began to die. This brought drought and floods to the plains and poverty to the hills. Hard pressed, the hill people in northern Thailand and neighboring Burma and Laos turned to the poppy. By the late 1960s northern Thailand alone was producing 150 tons of opium a year.

In 1969 His Majesty King Bhumibol Adulyadej of Thailand hearkened to the crisis. He set in motion a program to replace opium poppies with temperate climate cash crops and to arrest the destruction of precious forests and watersheds. This became the ROYAL PROJECT.

His Majesty appointed Prince Bhisatej Rajani to supervise the PROJECT. For research and essential administrative services, he called upon Kasetsart University, which soon set up the PROJECT’s pioneering experiment station at Ang Khang, in the highlands of Chiangmai Province.

Today, in several mountain stations, researchers test hundreds of temperate climate fruit trees and vegetables for their potential as cash crops. Volunteers from universities and government agencies introduce the successful ones to villagers in demonstration centers throughout the highlands.

Nearly three hundred upland villages beneflt directly from the ROYAL PROJECT, which is also introducing schools, cooperatives, rice banks, and primary medical services.

In the ROYAL PROJECT’s orchards and gardens, apricot trees donated by Japan grow alongside peaches and plums from North America, pears and persimmons from Taiwan, apples from Israel, and kiwis from New Zealand. Technicians from Taiwan have, for fifteen years, volunteered their practical skills. For example, fruit tree expert Soong Ching-yun is so well known in Ang Khang that villagers call him “Papa Soong.” The United States government and agencies of the United Nations have provided critical funding and assistance. In ways large and small, so have dozens of other countries and international organizations.

The ROYAL PROJECT buys produce from hill farmers, then grades, packages, and markets it. Once imported luxuries, many temperate climate fruits and vegetables are now readily available to Thai consumers. The PROJECT also processes jams, canned vegetables, dried fruits, and flowers for export.

These days when His Majesty the King makes his yearly visit to PROJECT sites, he sees a transformation. One-time poppy farmers are turning to more profitable crops. They are becoming vegetable, fruit, and coffee growers. Opium cultivation has declined by 85 percent.

In electing the ROYAL PROJECT to receive the 1988 Ramon Magsaysay Award for International Understanding, the Board of Trustees recognizes its concerted national and international effort to curtail opium growing by bringing worthy livelihoods to Thailand’s hill tribes.

 RESPONSE

Please allow me to confess that I feel most “tuen ton chai,” which is a Thai expression meaning that my heart is full of delight, excitement, fright, and gratitude, so full that it is difficult to do anything but smile. Please, therefore, do not think badly of the Foundation for being responsible in today’s event in selecting, for this very high honor, a PROJECT with such a poor performing director.

As commanded by His Majesty King Bhumibol, chief of the ROYAL PROJECT, “we gild the back of the Buddha.” To a Buddhist, this means that we do a good deed because it is right to do so. We must not do it to show off. Accordingly, it is especially rewarding to be selected for the Ramon Magsaysay Award.

Just before leaving Thailand, I was honored by an audience with the chief of the ROYAL PROJECT, and I asked His Majesty why, in his words, he founded the PROJECT. He answered that as a citizen of Thailand he was saddened by the poor lives the hill tribes led. Further, their lifestyle was at enormous cost to Thailand because they practiced shifting cultivation—destroying forest, watershed, and soil fertility as they moved along—and produced opium, which destroyed lives around the world.

While it is generally considered that opium is gold, and the area producing it is called golden, His Majesty discovered nineteen years ago that, in a tropical country, temperate climate crops could bring a higher return than opium. The ROYAL PROJECT, therefore, came into being to try out his idea—which has been proved correct. We are now eliminating opium by the gentle and productive way of giving our hill farmers other crops that make them richer.

We have enjoyed cooperation from countries sympathetic to our cause, such as the United States, the Republic of China (Taiwan), Australia, Israel, France, and the United Kingdom. We would like to take this opportunity of thanking them for their most valuable assistance. However, perhaps due to the policy of “gilding the back of the Buddha,” many do not know of our effort. Your recognition of us through the International Understanding Award should make us better known internationally. This is very good. Various organizations interested in eliminating narcotics in their nations may come and see what we are doing. Their subsequent efforts may then lessen the suffering of mankind even more.

 BIOGRAPHY

Until a few decades ago the highlands of northern Thailand formed a world apart. Only by virtue of a vague and poorly demarcated border were its people a part of the Kingdom of Thailand at all. In fact, the homeland, comprising the provinces of Chiangmai, Chiangrai, Lamphun, and Mae Hong Son, is but one small section of a vast geo-cultural region of mountains and high valleys that includes China Yunnan Province, as well as territories in Laos and Burma. Hill tribes like the Lahu, Lisu, Hmong, Akha, Karen, and Yao range widely over this area, mingling here and there with Chinese, Thai, Burmese, Vietnamese, and Lao. Over the centuries these ethnic groups have been drifting southward. Indeed, earlier migrations of this kind account of the present-day populations of most of Southeast Asia. But to the modern Thais who occupy the plains—wet rice farmers and members a sophisticated, Theravada Buddhist culture—the motley array of hill tribes occupying the mountains to the north are not part of the civilization. Until recently the Thai viewed the rugged, chilly hilltops as the domain of savages and evil spirits. A few ventured into the region trade, but most avoided it, including government officials who rarely bothered to register the inhabitants or collect taxes in these lane beyond the pale.

For their part, hill tribesmen valued their independence. The avoided subjugation to lowland kingdoms wherever possible and guided by their own distinctive lore, adhered to the authority of the chiefs. Their small, isolated villages were embraced by a vast expanse of hills and trees. Through this region they ranged at will. Most farmed by slashing and burning the forest, planting rice and other crops upon debris-strewn, half-hectare patches of burnt earth. After a few year when the virgin fecundity of their plots began to atrophy, they moved on. The forest seemed inexhaustible. Indeed, swidden (burned clearing) farming of this kind—a process some Southeast Asian hill farmers aptly call “eating the forest”—was well suited to the highland ecology so long as populations remained small and there were no other demands upon the forest. Fallow periods permitted regrowth of vegetation and soil renewal, and the land could then be replanted.

Although remote from cities and largely self-sufficient, hill peoples have long engaged in trade. Itinerant peddlers from the lowlands brought beads, jars, silver or gold pieces, and metal tools, which were paid for with products of the forest—rattan, gums and resins, as well as exotic feathers.

(For the complete biography, please email biographies@rmaf.org.ph)