The inhabitants of Thailand’s mountainous regions remember the benefits of the project started by the late king in 1969. He was able to convert opium production into food crops, helping the tribal economy and health. Some 14,000 families have become involved in almost 40 years.
Bangkok (AsiaNews) – Chatchawan Taechalertwattana is a tribal Hmong living in the village of NongHoi, Chiang Mai Province. He is one of thousands of inhabitants in northern Thailand’s mountainous region whose life changed thanks King Bhumibol Adulyadej and his war on drugs in the late 1960s.
“My wife and I used to grow opium,” he explained. “We were incredulous when we started to plant vegetables thanks to the project established by the king, and we have earned more, enough to send our children to school. Now we are very happy."
In 1969 the king, who passed away on 13 October at the age of 89 years, visited the opium fields of local tribal groups near his winter residence in Muand district.
After seeing the poverty in which the peasants lived, the king decided to establish a "tribal belt", a project to help the people of the mountains and limit excessive deforestation.
The first objective was to eliminate opium fields, which were not very profitable for farmers, and turn them over to food crops.
King Bhumibol understood that the drug trade favoured only a few people, yet threatened national security and undermined the health of tribal people.
For this reason, the sovereign provided subsidies for sustainable farming and irrigation, funded farmers’ training, and gave them precedence in the domestic market.
Over the past 40 years, about 295 villages have become involved in the project. This includes 14,000 families for a total of 85,000 people.
"In the past, all the tribes cultivated opium and people were considered criminals,” Panya Saosri, a tribal Hmong, told AsiaNews. “His Majesty King Bhumibol gave us a home and taught us how to make a living legally, without being a burden to others."
There's no mountain in northern Thailand "where the king has not set foot," says Surin Nateepraiwan, a tribal Karen. "Tribals learnt to grow opium from an early age. Every farmer was a drug addict and prices did not cover production costs. "
"I always encourage my students,” says Apichai Jitwatin, a tribal teacher, “because whenever we are discouraged, we must consider the burdens the king carried for us. He went everywhere to visit people and favoured them in terms of sustainable economy."
King Bhumibol’s work against drug trafficking has been recognised by the United Nations Programme for International Drug Control, which awarded the sovereign a gold medal in 1994. His project was the first in the world against opium cultivation.