Story and photos by Peter
The Hill Tribe peoples, numbering just over one million
out of Thailand’s population of 62 million (as of 1999), have long been
marginalized, cultivating the opium poppy as the only means of survival in
an alien - and often hostile - environment. Inevitably, the onslaught of
materialism engulfed them with a disastrous outcome for the Hill Tribe
children, presenting an image of impoverishment, drug abuse, and in many
cases, innocent victims of HIV/AIDS.
On the initiation of His Majesty the King, in
establishing the Royal Projects and, more recently, the collaboration of the
Royal Project Foundation (RPF), the National Council for Child and Youth
Development (NCCYD) under the Royal Patronage of HRH Crown Princess
Sirindhorn and the United Nation’s Children’s Fund (UNICEF), a new life
- one of hope and accomplishment - has emerged. Gone is the image of haunted
faces, enslaved to drug-addiction and the many vices concomitant with this
Chiangmai Mail special correspondent Peter Cummins
was recently commissioned by UNICEF to visit some of the Hill Tribe villages
close to Chiang Mai and reports here for the Mail.
In accordance with its obligations to protect ALL
children EVERYWHERE, UNICEF is constantly exploring ways and means to
protect children and ensure their rights which, under the articles of the
“Convention of the Rights of the Child” include the right to participate
in matters which affect them. The plight of Thailand’s Hill Tribe
children, particularly, is highly relevant to UNICEF’s mandate.
Prince Bhisadej Rajanee manages the King’s Royal Development Projects.
Just recently, in fact, UNICEF went to some Hill Tribe
areas outside Chiang Mai, specifically the Ban Nong Hoi Royal Development
Center, to discuss progress with the children and young adults there. They
positively exuded enthusiasm, confidence and a self-reliance which did not
end at the village steps. Quite the contrary; they discussed animatedly the
status of their own cash crops, the competition as to who was the most
successful farmer/marketeer and - with much laughter and good humour - who
amongst them had not “done so well” over the past few months.
of the Nong Hoi Networkers: youth leaders Yongyuth (second left) and
Moorakit (left) set a fine example for their peer group at the village.
children in the Nong Hoi School playground: now there is a future.
Nong Hoi Centre
A microcosm of the success of the Hilltribe Youth Career
and Leadership Development Project (HYCLPD) is the Nong Hoi Development
Centre, located in the Nong Hoi Village, Tambon Mae Raem, Mae Rim District,
some 40 km from Chiang Mai. It is a remarkably beautiful area of
approximately 13,000 rai, comprising thickly wooded areas juxtaposed to
cultivated plots alternately clinging to the hillsides and dropping into the
valleys, spread between two watersheds above the Ping River.
Being 1,200 m above sea level, the climate is ideal for
temperate fruits and vegetables which, like the people in the area, thrive
on the somewhat rarefied air and the misty surroundings.
girl Supaporn (20) stands proudly in front of her ‘cabbage patch’ at the
Royal Nong Hoi Project.
beauty of the hills around Chiang Mai.
Nong Hoi station from the opposite hilltop.
Chairman of the Nong Hoi Youth Group is 23-year-old
Yongyuth who obviously revels in his leadership responsibilities and sets
the example for the newer and younger members of the group. Yongyuth liases
with the village chief and the Royal Project Director to formulate
programmes, assist his tribal siblings to select an appropriate occupation
and monitor progress through meetings with network counterparts from other
villages. Yongyuth is one of 280 hilltribe youth who are participating in
the Hilltribe Youth Project supported under UNICEF’s Child Protection
Each young participant can submit a request to start a
particular income-generating activity after one full week of life-skills and
Project and UNICEF staff join the youth volunteers for an overview of the
entrance to Nong Hoi: a gateway to new life - the Royal Nonghoi Project.
Yongyuth, with only an ‘informal education’ up to the
equivalent of grade nine, has reaped immense benefit from his crops,
marketed through the Royal Projects outlets, and has thus been able to
contribute much to the welfare of all in the village. Growing and marketing
rose apples and spinach, the money thereby earned is ploughed back into the
community funds from which an individual can draw to follow a pursuit -
agricultural or otherwise - that has been approved by the Project.
UNICEF, which works through the National Council for
Child and Youth Development (NCCYD) for the benefit of the Hill Tribe
children, is especially concerned with the girls whose vulnerability to
exploitation and abuse is only too evident. Girls are selected to join the
agricultural activities only if the family approves and then they are
trained to be able to participate fully in the village’s agricultural
pursuits and, in the process, gain self-respect and confidence, allowing
them to avoid the pitfalls waiting to ensnare them.
Among UNICEF’s aims are the empowerment of more girls
– not forgetting the boys, of course – through family and the community
network. The training is not only to help the young people to become
confident, productive and proud but – and more importantly – to teach
them to be highly aware of and thus eschew the evils and temptations of an
alternate life leading to degradation, drug abuse and HIV/AIDS.
Three cheerful, vibrant Hmong girls, led by their
‘mentor’ Supaporn, joined the discussions at Nong Hoi. Supaporn was
proud of her very own “cabbage patch”. But she has contributed much more
than a cash crop to help the community; she has been the inspiration to
bring her siblings into the village mainstream and join fully the
volunteers check the crops.
the “fish-farm” at Mae Sa Ma.
heading out to the market - and another good year ahead.
From there, each girl will be a catalyst to bringing in
more of the girls of the village, saving them, in turn, from the possible
One of the boys in the group had not been so successful
and his approved project of pig husbandry had failed. The pig died. “He
tried to save money by cutting down on pig food,” one of the girls
giggled. Yongyuth, a true leader, rescued his unfortunate prot้g้
who now farms zucchini and pumpkin - “very well,” said Yongyuth.
Another of the boys, Morakot, Yongyuth’s committee
member, was very happy with his lot. At the neighbouring village of Mae Sa
Mai, Morakot has a “black” chicken farm, pointing out with a grin, that
due to the beliefs of some people, the black chicken brings a better market
price. He is also embarking on a fish-farming project.
What an incredible difference NCCYD has made to the lives
of these young people. Like Yongyuth, Supaporn is very proud of her
achievements and is looking to improve the lot of even more of the village
UNICEF, which monitors the progress in each of the 35
villages in the network, looks to continue support when this present phase
finishes at the end of this year.
The advancement of the young people is not just limited
to agriculture, however. There are opportunities for training in local
crafts and other skills, as well as further education but, UNICEF notes,
there is a dire lack of information. Although any one of the children and
young adults has access to the Project Director for guidance and assistance,
there is virtually no printed information available to the youngsters.
Crops for cash
Fancy a yellow sweet pepper? A cabbage? Some spinach? Or,
perhaps, a black chicken - reputed, by some groups, to have medicinal value?
What about a head of crisp, green lettuce for that fresh salad you were
wanting to prepare? And you can throw in some equally fresh tomatoes,
Chinese celery, carrot and radish and spice it all up with a few herbs. The
merchandise is so fresh that you can almost smell the earth of the hill
stations around Chiang Mai where the produce was grown, and feel the cool,
invigorating mountain mists which nurtured them.
“black chicken” farm.
down for a rest after work on the hillside.
These items are produced at Ban Nong Hoi and Ban Mae Sa
Mai, which are but two of the Royal Project Foundation’s 35 centres
established in the northern areas around Chiang Mai, Chiang Rai, Lumphun,
Mae Hong Son and Phayao.
The Royal Development Projects
It was in 1969 when His Majesty the King, vitally
concerned about the addiction to and the cultivation of opium by the Hill
Tribes, initiated the Royal Development Project, established with his own
personal funds. The King was fully aware of their plight and that their
slash-and-burn agricultural practice was de-foresting vast areas and
destroying the watersheds of the north; its destructive side-effects spelled
disaster to the Tribes themselves, as well as the environment and the
Keenly observing this dilemma, H.M. the King established
the Royal Project Foundation, acting himself as the Honorary President, with
HSH Prince Bhisadej Rajanee as chairman of nine appointed committees, the
prime aim being, “To help the Hill Tribes help themselves.”
Under the dynamic direction of H.M. the King’s close
associate, M.C. Bhisadej Rajanee, the Royal Project’s development centres,
in just over three decades, have added four research stations and now
incorporate 295 villages, comprising 14,000 households totalling some 85,000
As this correspondent observed, the forests have re-grown
and the erstwhile bald hills are now covered in luxurious foliage and flora.
A huge number of cash crops, such as those mentioned above, have replaced
the opium poppy as the Hill Tribes’ livelihood. So successful have been
the Royal Projects, in fact, that in 1998 they were accredited with the
“Magsaysay Award for International Understanding” and the “Thai Expo
Award” for attaining to the “Highest quality standard of Thai goods for
on the crops: Nong Hoi.
hydroponic crops at Nong Hoi.
Regardless of the success of the Royal Projects, however,
there was an alarming disaffection among Hill Tribe children who were being
subjected - and in many cases, succumbing - to bad influences, direct
by-products of the onslaught of materialism: drug abuse, anti-social
tendencies, inappropriate sexual behaviour. “Easy money” from hordes
exploiting the children has further corrupted the traditional Hill Tribe way
As a result, many young people fled to the nearby
“big” cities, there to fall victims of exploitation, of abuse, drugs and
HIV/AIDS. This exodus had another pejorative effect: it was depriving the
people themselves of the young human resources so essential to developing
and sustaining the precarious and fragile communities.
From this, in early 1999, the Royal Project Foundation (RPF),
the National Council for Child and Youth Development and UNICEF joined
forces to establish the “Network of Hilltribe Youth Volunteers”,
designed to be, “A learning process for self-reliance and social
participation of Hilltribe youth”. These three main supporters who
contribute financial, technical and human resources are joined at various
relevant stages by government agencies, non-governmental organizations,
community leaders, youth groups and staff of the Royal Project Centres who
all contribute appropriate expertise.
Now, entering the latter stage of the most successful
first phase, from December 1999 to December 2001, this project is building
the capacity of Hilltribe youth living in the operating areas of the Royal
project’s 35 centres.
The first step was to select and train youth volunteers,
support their career development activities and establish the network. Some
300 Hill Tribe and other young people in the highland areas have now been
trained to be self-reliant and mobilize other youth groups in the network.
Through this impressive empowerment of youth, some 74,000
tribes people from 280 villages are now becoming the beneficiaries of this.
For the youth themselves, the former degradation and exploitation through
drugs and other evils are now but evaporated smoke from some distant “pipe