"The Royal project which ended illicit drug cultivation is being keenly studied by the cocaine-hit South American country"
The haunting sound of a Colombian flute hovered in the morning mist covering the hills of Nan. Walker Emelec Hoyos Giraldo was in his element, standing among seedlings at the Mae Fah Luang Foundation's training centre for its reforestation project high in the remote mountains.
He is half-way around the world from his natural habitat in Colombia. Mr Giraldo is chief of Medicinal Plants at Orito Ingi-Ande Flora Sanctuary Park, run by the Colombian National Park Administration under the Ministry of the Environment and Sustainable Development, and he is here with some colleagues for a purpose.
Invited by GIZ -- a German government unit responsible for international cooperation for sustainable development in partnership with the Mae Fah Luang Foundation (MFLF) under Royal Patronage -- they were on a mission to learn more about Thailand's successful alternative development (AD) programmes that have helped villagers in remote areas, particularly ethnic minorities, reduce or quit their dependence on illicit crops and turn toward sustainable farming, while maintaining, or even improving, their income, and helping to reforest denuded mountainsides from their slash and burn cultivation.
The group is diverse, with a total of 18 representatives from local governments, national park officials and non-government farmers' organisations. Yet they had all seen the same problems, and experienced the same story.
The regions where Mr Giraldo and his colleagues come from have for at least half a century been beset with problems of illicit drug crops, failed attempts at eradication, denuded mountains as farmers expand their livestock farming, coca cultivation, drug trafficking under the protection of armed militia, and unrelenting poverty.
Forced eradication by government security officials has only served to exacerbate the situation, pushing farmers deeper into the hills and forests which led to further deforestation. It was a vicious cycle. But it is a cycle that Thailand has experienced.
Less than 30 years ago, the hills of Doi Tung in the northern mountains of Chiang Rai were totally bare, with forests being stripped to make way for narcotic crop cultivation. The ethnic minorities had no choice but to resort to drug and sex trafficking. It was this situation that the Princess Mother faced when she decided to set up her base there to tackle reforestation and development.
"For development to work, basic needs must be tackled first. Without adequate income, people have no choice but to deforest land through illegal logging, and engage in other illegal activities such as opium cultivation and prostitution," she declared in 1988.
The most obvious issues to tackle in the initial period were what is called the Triple Bottom Line: economy, society and environment, with another two issues thrown in that were equally pertinent: culture and sustainability.
Today, Doi Tung shows barely a sign of its dire past. The former barren hillsides are covered with a lush canopy, and the villagers from six different ethnic groups now earn over 78,000 baht per person per year, compared to an annual per capita income of under 4,000 baht before the project began. From 1988, when the community was living at minus-75% below the Bangkok poverty line, they are now at plus-108%.
This is where the group from Colombia was first introduced to Thailand's AD programmes, and the result of Doi Tung Development Project's (DTDP) 30-year journey. They saw the coffee and macadamia factories, the handicraft centre for textiles, mulberry paper and ceramics which, incidentally, are also exported to Ikea's vast worldwide network.
Arabica coffee beans farmed by former opium traffickers now feed the espresso machines in Café Doi Tung outlets at Bangkok's high-end shopping centres to Japan's Muji store. Packaged macadamia nuts, macadamia cookies and macadamia spread provide value-added for the macadamia tree crops that form part of the project's economic forests which provide a sustainable livelihood for the people.
Edgar Olaya Ospina joins youngsters as he tries his hand at a community enterprise to make banana fritters. Left A selection of tree seeds collected for the reforestation project.
Nothing goes to waste: The nut shells are used in compost for fertilisers; the hard outer woody shell is used as fuel, and macadamia ash is mixed in to glaze Doi Tung ceramics for a unique hue. The success of the project was such that, in 2003, the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) recognised the DTDP as one of the world's best examples of Alternative Development.
The visiting Colombians talked to some of the villagers, and were impressed with the younger and better-educated generation who, contrary to expectations, shunned the lure and glamour of city life and were more than happy to be able to live at home with their families and help on the farms.
They saw that it could, and has, been done successfully. It still seemed a far cry from the starkness of their own situation, however.
The Doi Tung Development Project had as its royal patron the Princess Mother, who had based the development concept on that of her son, His Majesty the late King Bhumibol Adulyadej, and they believed that this royal link might have contributed to its success.
True, the royal link might have paved the way in the early days, making things easier. But more importantly, it was the late King's leadership qualities of "leading by doing", of going to the root of the problem and addressing the needs and wants by integrating all relevant units to work together to solve those problems.
The visit to the Nan reforestation project helped to put everything more into perspective for the Colombian group.
The problems faced by the villagers of Tha Wang Pha, Song Khwer and Chalerm Prakiat districts were not unlike those of El Meta in central Colombia which, in 2007, was one of Colombia's top five municipalities with the largest coca cultivation area and potential cocaine production.
Nan is important for its watershed forests which are the source of the Nan River, which in turn, feeds 45% of the water to the Chao Phraya River. The forest cover had been destroyed as a result of slash-and-burn cultivation as well as a shift towards commercial mono-culture crops like maize which took up entire hillsides, and required massive amounts of chemical weed-killers and fertilisers. Villagers, however, got deeper into debt as the vicious cycle was perpetuated each year.
Water cascades down a weir to feed essential highlands farming. Photos by Mae Fah Luang Foundation under the Royal Patronage
The Colombians were able to talk to the villagers, including those in Nam Chang Pattana village on the Thai-Lao border, a former stronghold of the Communist Party of Thailand during the 1970s-1980s. Here, armed militia threatened the security of the country, just as in Colombia.
Gradually, the AD methodology was unveiled to the Colombian group, one that involved a process of integrated and holistic efforts, one that started from the people rather than the top-down approach, where the government offers short-term aid or suppresses illicit crop cultivation and trafficking through drug seizures, manual eradication, aerial spraying by armed forces in the name of security. This had no effect on the drug cultivation, as a UNODC survey in 2015 showed that Colombia's cultivation area and cocaine production increased substantially, and that the net coca cultivation area was up 44% since 2013, from 48,000 hectares to 69,000 in 2015, while the potential cocaine production showed a 52% increase.
By the end of the seven-day trip, through field visits, workshops, training and discussion sessions, the group realised the key to a successful alternative development project to combat illicit crops lay in what is known as the Doi Tung Model, an approach which covers three basic stages: survival, sufficiency and sustainability.
A thorough survey first has to be conducted in the target villages to determine the household census, livelihoods, income, expenses, in order to assess their problems, their needs and wants, and come up with key performance indicators which, in the MFLF's case, has to answer this question: What do the people get out of it? Survival issues have to be addressed first, and only when this is done can the villagers even begin to think of reforestation or alternate crops.
Irrigation, agriculture, livestock and handicrafts are just some of the things on which to build. But the most fundamental point that will ensure success is the need to gain the participation of the villagers themselves. This can only be done by earning their trust.
"Previously, the people would just wait to see what the government would do for them, and how much they would get out of it," said Nelly Buitrago Torres, community association leader of Vereda El Guamo, a farmers' NGO.
"I wish I had known all this 40 years ago, when I started working with the people. As it is, we have not seen much change in those 40 years."
A sense of empowerment by the people is the key to success, and that was what the group defined as the most important element that they would take back with them to Colombia.
Edgar Olaya Ospina, area manager of Orinoquia National Natural Park, and his discussion group selected Colombia's Meta department as the target for which the Doi Tung Model would be transferred into the local scenario.
Covering three national parks, the area is rampant with armed militia and forest encroachment with villagers trying to expand farmland for livestock and coca cultivation. Yet this area has been overlooked by the government authorities for over 50 years.
His colleague, Olga Lucia Ruiz Morales, chief of the National Natural Park La Macarena PNN-Sur Meta, said the route from Vista Hermosa to La Macarena is a popular tourist route because of the spectacular River of Seven Colours, the Cano Cristales. However, the villagers along this route do not benefit from the influx of tourists.
The Doi Tung Model would be replicated in this area in order to recover forest land from encroachment. Park officials will survey the villages, and find ways to create income for them such as through the sales of handicrafts, banana snacks (as seen in Nan), restaurants, eco-tourism such as bird-watching and animal safaris so they can reduce their dependence on coca cultivation yet earn a sufficient income that would allow them to survive.
They also realise the challenges lay in gaining the trust and cooperation of the people, as well as that of the government at both national and local levels.
"What I told the communist leaders in Nan when we began the project here was, 'You were determined enough to fight to the death for your ideology before, now I'm asking you to get up and fight against poverty, so why shouldn't you?' " said Narong Apichai, the Mae Fah Luang Foundation's director of field operations. As it was, 10 out of 14 villages came on board immediately while the other four remained sceptical. Yet, after standing on the sidelines for a while, they sent their people to help build the check dam which today still irrigates the terraced rice fields in Nam Chang Pattana Village.
Mr Ospina summed up the impression of the entire group. "The seeds that Mae Fah Luang Foundation has cultivated are not just plants that will reforest the mountains, but actually the people."
It is the people, they now realise, who have been nurtured toward an understanding that they need to cherish and protect the land that they live on, and they need to play an active role in protecting their environment to ensure true sustainability.
Credit : Bangkok Post