By Khetsirin Pholdhampalit
In my long career as a journalist, I have been fortunate to have had several chances to visit the country’s northern highlands to learn how His Majesty the late King Bhumibol Adulyadej succeeded in eliminating opium cultivation, as well as covering the denuded hills with forest.
Struggling with motion sickness as I journeyed up the winding roads to the Royal Project sites – roads that are now covered with tarmac – made me only too well aware of the difficulties faced by His Majesty during his frequent trips to the highlands in the 1950s to 1960s. Indeed, he often alluded to these routes as “disco roads”, in a humorous reference to the shaking and bouncing suffered by the occupants of his car as it navigated unpaved roads deep in the countryside.
His Majesty trekked from one remote village to another to consult with the hill tribes in a manner that was far removed from how a king would normally communicate with his subjects.
“The way His Majesty spoke to them…they were very friendly. The King took a keen interest in their lives. There were very frank with His Majesty. (One) particular day, His Majesty asked the Hmong what, apart from opium, was their source of income. They said peaches – the small local peaches – and they told the King that the income from opium and from peaches was about the same,” the Royal Project Foundation’s chairman HSH Prince Bhisadej Rajani is quoted as saying in the book “Royal Activities and International Cooperation” published by the National Identity Foundation in 2014.
Persuading the hill tribes in the far North to grow other crops in place of poppies was the first step and perhaps the most important. HM the King requested Kasetsart University to earnestly explore the potential for this inhospitable land, at the same time donating Bt200,000 from his private funds to set up the Royal Hill Tribe Assistance Project in 1969. In 1980, this was renamed the Royal Project and later in 1992, the Royal Project Foundation.
HM the King and other members of the Royal family began making frequent visits to hill tribe locations, which entailed a lot of climbing. One story tells of His Majesty walking through a jungle and up a mountain because he had heard about someone who had grafted three peach trees. Many people questioned why he would want to view three peach trees.
“Everyone said it was very tough on the King to walk for an hour to see three plants,” Prince Bhisadej said in the book. “But His Majesty knew that by going there it would demonstrate a keen interest. And that was good promotion for the plants.”
The launch of the Royal projects to develop high-altitude, cold-climate crops and prevent slash-and-burn agriculture, deforestation and the cultivation of narcotic plants meant that sizeable tracts of woodland could be salvaged, generating a natural water supply and nurturing the well-being of the hill tribes who call the northern highlands home.
Today, there are 38 Royal Project Development Centres spread over Chiang Mai, Chiang Rai, Mae Hong Son, Lamphun and Phayao provinces. Chiang Mai alone has more than 20 sites and these serve as living museums for anyone interested in learning about sustainable alternative living and how poverty can be alleviated.
The produce from the Royal Projects – like strawberry, portobello and lingzhi mushrooms, avocados, figs, pears, mangoes, beans and rice, coffee and tea, as well as processed foods and ready-to-drink fruit juices – bears witness to the success of the Royal Project Foundation’s extensive study, research and experimentation in bringing sustainable development to the local people in each area.
Now a popular tourist destination, the Royal Agricultural Station Angkhang in Fang district of Chiang Mai was the first research station set up in 1969. His Majesty spent his personal funds to set up this station to provide alternative sources of income for the villagers and they have responded by growing such temperate fruits as peach, Asian pear, kiwi and strawberry.
Standing 1,400 meters above sea level, this mountainous site – once covered with opium poppies – occupies a research area of 1,800 rai covering nine Shan, Lahu, Palong and Chinese Yunnan villages, for whom the station provides sanitation and health facilities.
“Here we focus on research into temperate fruits and plants and are now able to produce more than 300 species. We also educate the local people on new agricultural technologies and we have a training center open to farmers from all the country. The Royal Forest Department donated the cultivable plots and each family received one rai to plant strawberries and cabbage. We buy all the agricultural produce and the proceeds after expenses go back to the villagers. They can earn Bt400,000 a year for their strawberries, while those who grow vegetables get about Bt70,000,” said Mayurin Yodsriwan, coordinator of the Angkhang Station.
The highlight here is the organic tea plantation. Spread over 50 rai, the plantation is cared for by the Palong tribe – one rai for one family. The four main varieties are green tea, red tea, Yuanjue Oolong and Jinchain Oolong No 12, all of which are ideally suited to this climate.
Three kilometers from the Angkhang station is Khob Dong village, home to Lahu families who are the main producers of the Royal Project’s portobello mushroom. The species is of Australian origin and was introduced here just five years ago. There are currently 10 plant-thatched huts in which the mushrooms are grown and each produces some 200 kilograms every two months.
“The portobello mushroom requires a temperature of 10 to 20 Celsius and is relatively complicated to cultivate. The cap can measure from three to six inches in diameter and typically matures in November and December. So far, we have been able to produce about five to 10 kilograms a day and sell the mushrooms for Bt400/kg and also export them to Singapore,” the research station’s official Puripong Kawichai told The Sunday Nation earlier this year.
Some 150 kilometers from Muang district of Chiang Mai and 1,000 meters above sea level, Gae Noi Royal Project in Chiang Dao district grows a variety of leafy vegetables, plus mango, red bean and highland rice. The rainy season is a good period to grow two of the Royal Project’s most famous products – red kidney and azuki beans. This site also produces four species of mangos, namely Nuan Kham, Palmer, R2E2, and Irwin cultivars, which each boast a unique taste.
“His Majesty the King first visited here in 1980 and introduced the local people to the cultivation of the kidney bean. It is easy to plant and nurture, requiring just full sun exposure and well-drained soil. It’s a perfect crop for the long transportation from Gae Noi to Chiang Mai’s Muang district. Fresh vegetables tend to be too easily damaged,” project official Yongyuth Khampaeng explained.
“The first species of kidney beans were supported by the Agricultural Research Service of the US but now the royal project has developed its own species and distributed the plants to other development centers as a crucial step in weaning farmers from opium.”
Located in the same district is Nong Khieo Royal Project, home to some 1,000 Lahu, Lua, Akha and Kachin families and a center for avocado cultivation, which has now reached a production level of about 60 tons a year. Spread over 96 rai, the project has introduced the Buccanaer, Booth, Peterson, Hass and Pinkerton cultivars and these are being grown by 48 farmer members.
Teen Tok Royal Project in Mae On district of Chiang Mai is where shiitake and lingzhi (ganoderma) mushrooms, as well as Arabica coffee, are cultivated.
“We have about 100 members cultivating shiitake mushrooms and since April, we have started to promote the MT2 species of the lingzhi mushroom, which is high in polysaccharides and very much in demand by the market. So far, we have three plant nurseries run by six farmers and we buy the fresh lingzhi from them for Bt300/kg. We expect to get at least 180 kg every six months,” said the project’s official, Narawuth Suthavass.
It’s hard for visitors today to realize that these properties were once all bare hills covered with infertile soil and parched streams. HM the King launched thousands of projects over the decades to assist people and improve the land. He journeyed throughout the country’s remote areas with four simple tools – a pencil, a map, a camera and a walkie-talkie.
“The camera was for documenting what he saw and helping him plan his work, and the maps were for double-checking locations with the people in the area. Government officials had drawn up the maps and he wanted to make sure they were correct,” Pimpan Diskul Na Ayudhaya, director of Doi Tung Development Project’s Knowledge and Learning Centre, once told The Sunday Nation.
“The walkie-talkie was for communicating with officials to ensure quick solutions were delivered. And, as for the pencils, Dr Sumet Tantivejkul, secretary general of the Chaipattana Foundation, said His Majesty requested 12 pencils every year – one for each month. He used each one up completely. No one dared to throw away any of his pencils.” – The Nation