Doi Tung: From Opium Poppy Farmers to Social Entrepreneurs
Intact nature and a flourishing economy in which former opium poppy farmers can earn secure livelihoods – what sounds like a script for an Alternative Development commercial is reality. The Doi Tung project in northern Thailand proves that Alternative Development works. The Mae Fah Luang Foundation under Royal Patronage was able to stop the cultivation of opium poppies and improve the living situation of the people.
Doi Tung is located in the so-called Golden Triangle, the border region between Laos, Myanmar, and Thailand. Just 30 years ago, the area was one of the centres of international drug crop production. In 1988, the Mae Fah Luang Foundation (MFLF), founded by Her Royal Highness Princess Srinagarindra in 1972, launched the Doi Tung Development Project. With the application of people-centred development, the MFLF addressed the problem of opium poppy cultivation by introducing licit livelihood alternatives as well as reducing poverty and related social consequences in a sustainable manner. Today, the project is regarded as one of the most successful examples for the implementation of Alternative Development worldwide.
The term Alternative Development refers to the use of development policy instruments to address the root causes of illicit drug cultivation. The MFLF believes that growing illicit crops and deforestation were end results of poverty and lack of opportunities, the root causes that made people break the law.
Doi Tung's drug and environmental problems were complicated by the fact that six ethnic minorities lived in the region with armed conflicts flaring up along the border areas. Most of them did not have the Thai citizenship. The residents of the remote mountain region in the north of Thailand mostly belonged to mountain tribes who originally came from Myanmar. However, instead of criminalising smallholder farmers, the MFLF took a holistic approach. In a first step, the approximately 9,000 people in the 29 communities were given access to health care. Those who used drugs or were dependent on them were offered treatment and rehabilitation programmes. When these people had overcome their problematic use, they started to work. Once they were working, they received additional education and were able to develop their skills. They were empowered to create the change themselves.
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At the same time, the social and environmental conditions in the region changed for the better with the joint efforts of the government: The road network and infrastructure were improved, schools and job trainings were established. While previously most inhabitants of Doi Tung were illiterate, today’s young generation attends universities. As much as total 58% of the forest has been revived with the participation of the community in the economic forestry programme and reforestation. The ethnic minorities were able to keep their traditions alive and were yet integrated into Thai society.
This project was part of a series of initiatives by the Thai government to end opium production in the north of the country. For five decades, Thailand followed this course, providing local people with legal alternatives to the illicit cultivation of drug crops. From the very beginning, German Development Cooperation supported the Thai Government's commitment through Alternative Development projects. In 2003, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) removed Thailand from the list of opium-producing countries.
Nowadays, the people gain licit livelihoods from growing and processing premium quality coffee, macadamia nuts and pursuing opportunities under the Doi Tung brand in horticulture, high fashion textiles, home décor and tourism. Doi Tung has been financially self-sustaining since 2002, and profits from the brand are invested back in development activities, making it one of the first social enterprises in Thailand.
Other countries can also benefit from the knowledge and experience of Doi Tung. The MFLF supports similar projects in other parts of Thailand as well as in Myanmar, Indonesia and Afghanistan. Moreover, the MFLF is an implementation partner of the GPDPD. Together, they facilitate measures in the GPDPD partner countries, and regularly conduct training courses on development policy approaches to the illicit drug cultivation problem. These trainings take place in Doi Tung and are attended by representatives of third countries. Every year, delegations with representatives from politics and civil society visit the projects of the MFLF in order to observe the practical implementation of the Alternative Development approach.