Somchai Sophonsookpaiboon stands in an organic farm which is part of the Doi Tung Development Project that has turned former opium growing areas into lush forest where residents grow coffee and macadamia in Doi Tung in northern Thailand. April 6, 2019. (Reuters/Rina Chandran)
Somchai Sophonsookpaiboon does not remember much about his younger years, except that they were spent in an opium haze.
It’s how all the men in his mountain village on the Thai-Myanmar border spent their time. Stateless, with little access to education, jobs or healthcare, their only options were trading opium or walking to the nearest town for odd jobs.
Somchai’s life turned around after the late Princess Srinagarindra, grandmother of Thailand’s current king, set up a development project in 1988 in Doi Tung in Chiang Rai, once part of Southeast Asia’s “Golden Triangle” notorious for trafficking of drugs, people and arms.
The Doi Tung Development Project ended opium cultivation in the area and set up a drug rehabilitation center and social enterprises to generate jobs. It trained residents to reforest vast swathes of the hillside and grow coffee and macadamia.
It also gave residents 30-year land-use titles for small plots on which they could live and farm.
“If the project had not started, I would not be alive today,” said Somchai, 62, a member of the Lahu ethnic tribe, who now grows strawberries, cabbage and lettuce on an organic farm as part of the project.
“We had nothing, and no hope. With the project, I got rid of my opium addiction, got citizenship, got land and work, and ensured that my children had better lives than me,” he said.
The Doi Tung Development Project, run by the Mae Fah Luang Foundation under Thai royal patronage, is held up by the United Nations as a model for ending narcotic drug cultivation and improving the lives of indigenous communities.
Yet in other parts of the country, indigenous people continue to live in poverty and face challenges in accessing land, livelihoods and citizenship, according to tribal rights groups.
Of an estimated 1 million highland indigenous people in Thailand, about a tenth are stateless, according to advocacy group Minority Rights Group International, and thousands have been evicted - or face eviction - from forests that have been declared national parks and protected areas.
“Secure land rights for indigenous people is still the best option to secure their livelihoods, yet there is no law that guarantees that in Thailand,” said Kittisak Rattanakrajangsri, chairman of advocacy group Asia Indigenous Peoples Pact.
“The Doi Tung project has benefited many indigenous people, but a temporary lease on land they have always lived on is not a permanent solution,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Globally, indigenous and local communities own more than half of all land under customary rights. Yet they only have secure legal rights to 10%, according to the Washington-based advocacy group Rights and Resources Initiative.
When the military government took charge in Thailand in 2014, it vowed to “take back the forest” and increase forest cover to 40% of the total surface area from about a third.
This has resulted in hundreds of land reclamations from farmers and forest dwellers, according to research organization Mekong Region Land Governance.
The Doi Tung Development Project covers an area of 15,000 acres (20 sq miles) of reserve forest, where thousands of Akha, Lahu, Karen and other ethnic tribes grow arabica coffee, macadamia nuts and fruit trees.
The land-use titles they received in 1989 do not allow them to sell or transfer the land, but they can pass them on to their children.
“They are not ownership documents, but they are recognized by the authorities, and give the title holders an identity and a sense of security,” said Visit-orn Rajatanarvin, director of the Mae Fah Luang Foundation’s knowledge center.
The project is working with the forest department to renew the titles this year, she said, without giving further details.
The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) has recognized the Doi Tung Development Project as an effective model to battle illicit opium cultivation and deforestation.
UNODC’s endorsement appears on all Doi Tung products - including apparel, home linens and ceramics - which are sold in high-end department stores in Thailand and to global brands such as Ikea and Muji.
The project became self-sustaining in 2000 and generates about 500 million baht ($15 million) in annual revenue, Visit-orn said.
Per capita income in the area had risen to about 106,000 baht in 2017 compared to 3,700 baht in 1988, she added, while the forest cover had increased to nearly 90% from about a quarter over the same period.
In addition to the coffee and the ceramics, tourism is another growing revenue stream in Doi Tung, with thousands of visitors thronging the town’s main street on weekends and holidays.
Yet the project’s benefits are limited, according to Nicole Girard, Asia program coordinator at the U.K.-based Minority Rights Group International.
The land-lease agreement does not give residents permanent rights, and tourism can have an intrusive impact on indigenous culture, she said.
“Under international law, indigenous people have the right to self-determination and rights to their traditional lands, territories and resources,” Girard said.
“The Doi Tung model allows land leases in lieu of these rights. Perhaps this is better than forest evictions, but it is not an adequate protection of their rights.”
Visit-orn, at the Mae Fah Luang Foundation, said the project has taken care to preserve indigenous culture and tradition, and involve the communities in the process.
But for some, the income and stability that the Doi Tung project brings come with a new set of worries.
“Today, our forest, our water are under threat from too much development, and our children have less appreciation for our culture and tradition,” said Jariya Visetpermporn, an Akha from Chalor village on the Thai-Myanmar border.
“We need to figure out how we can develop without giving up our identity,” she said.
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