III. Highlands and Highland People

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					                        Extract from ‘The Peach and the Poppy’: Chapter Three

                  III. Highlands and Highland People

                     The geography of the Thai highlands

       Thailand is a tropical country. In the minds of many, it is associated with tropical
islands, with fertile plains turned over to paddy fields, and with the palaces, slums and
sky-scrapers of Bangkok. Yet as one travels north, gently sloping land become uplands
and uplands become highlands. Indeed, the north of Thailand includes a mountainous
area that spreads from there out through Myanmar, Laos, the Yunnan province in the
south of China, and to a lesser extent into Vietnam and Cambodia. In a rich country
these mountains might be a celebrated source of income from tourism. For the countries
through which this mountainous region runs, however, they represent difficulty upon
difficulty. They are a locus of poverty, they conspire to keep the borders of these
countries unpoliceable, they offer hideouts for rebels and dissidents and they are a
location for opium production. They are the source of water for the lowlands, but in
themselves are remarkably fragile and cannot sustain lowland agriculture without proper
care. Thailand has faced all of these problems.

       The north of Thailand covers an area of 17 million hectares, 33% of the
Kingdom’s total land area of 51 million hectares. These 17 million hectares are divided as
follows: there are 3 million hectares of lowland, which is flat or fairly flat; there are 5
million hectares of upland, which is sloping, hill-covered land below 500 meters in
elevation. The remaining 9 million hectares of land are ‘highland’ land above 500m.
These highland areas are a mix of hills, mountains and flat land, or what are called
mountain plateau. The Thai highlands are larger than several small countries combined;
they are more than twice the size of the Republic of Ireland or Denmark, and about the
same size as Austria or South Korea.

       As one ascends into the highlands, climatic conditions change considerably.
Firstly, and most importantly, average temperature falls, and the difference between day
time and night time temperature becomes wider. Secondly, the natural rainfall pattern
intensifies, with the dry season becoming drier and the wet season becoming wetter. This
can be seen by comparing the climate charts for Chiang Mai, in the uplands at an
elevation of around 200m, with those at the Royal Project’s Royal Ang Khang

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Agricultural Research Station, three hours to the north, in the highlands lying along the
Myanmar border1. One can see both of these features in the bar charts above- at Ang
Khang rainfall usually remains low for several months early in the year before soaring to
much higher levels than are seen in Chiang Mai. Likewise, at the peak of the cold season
in January, the average daytime temperature is around 8 degrees lower, and the average
night-time temperature about twelve degrees lower. These data are averages of averages:
in fact, although unusual, morning frost is not unheard of at Ang Khang.

           These climatic differences have a major bearing on life in the highlands. First, the
heavy monsoon rainfall can make highland roads impassable, either making them boggy,
or by causing mudslides. Second, it creates damp, humid conditions in which crops
quickly rot or fall prey to pests and diseases. Third, the lower temperatures mean that
many tropical crops cannot be grown in the highlands, particularly during the cold
season. The Thai highlands are large, and there are major differences in rainfall patterns,
soil types and the availability of water that make agricultural conditions vary from place
to place. This being said, the general pattern described above holds throughout the

           One of the most important features of the northern highlands is that they are the
source of water for Thailand’s central plains, its agricultural heartland. The four great
rivers of the north, the Ping, Wang, Yong and Nan form there and then empty into the
Chao Praya, which winds through the central plains, into Bangkok and out into the sea.
The most important of these, the Nan, provides something like fifty percent of the water
that empties into the Chao Praya. Activities that contaminate or endanger the northern
rivers therefore endanger much of the country.

           In order to complete our review of the geography of the Thai highlands, we must
also consider its political geography. The most important fact is that the north has
continuous borders with Myanmar and Laos, most of it comprising mountainous and
hilly terrain. This has two consequences. Firstly, the border is effectively unpoliceable.
This is not a matter of Thailand being under-developed or under-resourced. Even the
United States of America cannot seal its borders effectively; the Mexican border, the
Canadian border and the Bahaman Islands are all too extensive to be fully policed. Hill-
tribe people have in general been able to pass from one side of the border to the other at
will and, to a lesser extent, so have drug traffickers. Even now, the Thai police do not

1   source: Thaiutsa, B (1996); Thailand Northern Meterological Center

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attempt to seal the borders: knowing that both refugees and traffickers are likely to head
for cities and large towns, they often wait there to catch them.

           The second consequence of this political geography is that, culturally, the
northern mountain people have usually had a sense of belonging more to the mountain
range itself than to any of the particular countries through which the mountain range
passes. For many of them, these countries have simply been a source of persecution, and
an impediment to living their lives. The northern mountains thus helped to sustain
cultural separation between hill-tribe people and ethnic Thais, although as you we will see
later in the book, this has been changing.

                                       The people of the hills

           Highland areas are generally inhospitable and for this reason it is common for
people who have been displaced by larger and more powerful civilizations to end up
living in them, in the manner described in the previous chapter. The mountainous area of
South-East Asia is home to dozens of different ethnic groups who, in general, live there
because they have nowhere else to go. Because forested mountains cannot be policed,
these people have fairly free movement between the countries over which these
mountains range. Sadly for them, many of them have been forced to take advantage of
this freedom of movement again and again, as conflicts throughout mountainous south-
east Asia have driven them from place to place. In Thailand, these indigenous highland
dwellers are referred to as ‘hill-tribes’. Let us consider the history of the hill-tribes,
particularly up to the mid-nineteen-sixties, so that we can understand the situation with
which the Royal Project was confronted.

           Probably the most famous of the hill-tribes are the Hmong people. According to
the Hmong legends, the Hmong people were not always highland dwellers. They say that
some four thousand years ago they occupied the central Yangtze plains of China, but
were driven from there into the Yunnanese highlands by a probably mythical Chinese
Emporer called Yii the Great around 2,200 B.C2. In fact, the Hmong people have
another legend that they originally came from a land with long winters and long nights,
indicating that they might have originated from even further north than the central

2   This story is recounted in Gua, B. (1975)

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plains. The Hmong lived in peace and formed small kingdoms in the Yunnanese
highlands until the Manchu dynasty imposed direct rule on them in 1644. The Hmong
were overwhelmed by the superior force of the Manchus and as result many fled south
through the mountains to Laos, Myanmar, Vietnam and Thailand. In Myanmar, ongoing
struggles between separatists in their northern highlands (the Shan States) and the
Rangoon-based government have ensured a continual flow of migration eastward into
Thailand. In Laos, a civil war between Royalists and the Pratet Lao communists, which
culminated in victory for the Pratet Lao in 1975, ensured mass migration southward,
again into Thailand.

           The Hmong have a warrior culture, and have the longest and best-established
tradition of opium-growing of any of the hill-tribes. In their capacity as warriors, they
fought on both sides of the Laotian civil war, and were instrumental in the defeat of the
French at Dien Bien Phu in Vietnam, where they helped to portage Viet Cong artillery
through the mountains in order to outflank the French army3. Poppy has had a place in
most hill-tribe cultures, but the Hmong have had the longest tradition of its cultivation as
a cash crop, as many were resident in Yunnan when China became engaged in domestic
production, towards the end of the nineteenth century. As we shall see in the next
chapter the cultivation of opium as a cash crop would come to the other hill-tribes
somewhat later, in the second half of the twentieth century.

           Along with the Hmong, two other cultural groups originate from southern China.
One is the Yao, who have a strong tradition of literacy, and consequently are considered
the most technologically advanced of the hill-tribes in Thailand. The second are the Haw
Chinese. The Haw are not strictly hill-tribes, but are descended from Yunnan Chinese
who built up close trading relationships with the Hmong when they were still resident in
Southern China. Opium grown by Hmong would be sold to these Yunnanese traders,
who would then sell opium on to criminal syndicates. As the Hmong moved, so too did
some Yunnanese. Their basic mode of doing business, i.e. as the middle-man between
Hmong farmers and drug traffickers, was preserved intact for some time.

           The second group of hill-tribe people originate from further west, from the area
around the border between Tibet and Burma. The major groups from this region, as
found in Thailand, are the Karen, Lahu, Lisu and Akha. Most have arrived in Thailand
fleeing the struggles between Rangoon and the separatist northern states of Myanmar,

3   See McCoy, A. (1989)

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along with some Hmong who settled in Myanmar. A notable exception to this
generalization is the Karen people, some of whom have been resident in the north of
Thailand for several centuries. The six groups mentioned so far, the Hmong, Yao, Karen,
Lahu, Lisu and Akha are the most populous of the hill-tribes in Thailand. There are also
a number of other tribes, such as Palong, Lawa, Shan, Wa, Lua and Kamu, much smaller
in numbers than the ‘big six’.

        The hill-tribe groups have certain similarities. All traditionally practice some form
of swidden, or ‘slash-and-burn’, agriculture (although there are significant differences
between the forms actually practiced). All are traditionally ‘animists’, orienting their
spiritual lives around the existence of local spirits, although large numbers have now
been converted to Christianity or Buddhism. The differences are pronounced, though.
Each has their own language, and their own customs. The Hmong and the Yao have a
‘patrilineal’ society, meaning that descent is traced through the male line, whereas the
other four have matrilineal societies, tracing their descent through the female line. Some
of the tribes subdivide themselves into clans, such as the Karen, Hmong and Lahu, and
some do not. The Karen have a reputation for being skilled conservationists with an
awareness of issues such as erosion and soil conservation, whereas the Hmong in
Thailand had little such knowledge.

        Broadly speaking, the later the hill-tribes arrived in Thailand, the further up into
the highlands they would be forced to settle. Therefore the Karen typically lived at the
lower elevations, the Yao, Akha, Lahu and Lisu live at intermediate elevations and the
Hmong lived at the highest elevations. This pattern no longer holds so clearly, as
migration into Thailand by most ethnic groups has continued unabated, and techniques
of land development have allowed the government to create new agricultural land where
none existed before. Nonetheless, the accompanying diagram presents a widely accepted
summary of the settlement of the hill-tribes around the time of the formation of the
Royal Project.4 The Hmong were probably less keen than the other tribes to live at lower
altitudes: they would tend to actively seek out prime poppy growing land, which, in
South-East Asia tends, to be sloping land above 1000 meters elevation5. So while their

4 from Kunstadter, P. and Chapman, E.C. (1978)
5 There is a common myth that the opium poppy only grows at elevations above 1000m on sloping
ground. At the time of writing opium was being grown in large amount in the lowlands of Afghanistan on
flat ground. It does seem to be true, however, in countries like Thailand.

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                                   Extract from ‘The Peach and the Poppy’: Chapter Three

position and the top of the mountains seemed the least attractive to the non-opium
growers, it was in fact the most attractive to the Hmong.

             A survey taken by the United Nations in 1965 and 1966 estimated the hill-tribe
population at 275,000, the majority being Karen and Hmong6. The estimated sizes of the
major tribal populations are shown in the chart below. (It is worth noting that at the
time, and ever since, the population has been doubling roughly every 25 years, and was in
2003 close to one million people.)

             Before we turn to discussing the historical agriculture, land use and living
conditions of the hill-tribes, a caveat must be noted. This is that systematic and
comprehensive information about these topics has never been assembled. There exist
many anthropological studies of small numbers of villages. Both the Thai government
and the United Nations have conducted surveys, but the first attempted were unable to
be survey all hill-tribe villages. The various development agencies that have been working
in the Thai highlands have their own experiences and, when possible, conducted surveys
to gather information about the hill-tribes. These experiences, though, are not necessarily
representative, and there is a limit to the number of surveys that can be taken when there
is other work to be done. Underlying all of these problems is the fact that the hill-tribe
populations were highly transient and rapidly growing, both through immigration and
due to a high birth rate. In such situations, even if correct generalizations could be
gathered, they would probably cease to be accurate quickly. Consequently, it means that
generalizations and estimates concerning the historical practices and conditions of the
hill-tribes are likely to be only rough, and there will be many examples of exceptions to
these generalizations.

             As mentioned, the hill-tribe people are all, traditionally, swiddeners. All forms of
swiddening involve the same method for the preparation of fields. Firstly, an area of hill-
side is found with adequate tree cover. Second, the trees will be cut some way down their
trunk, some of the wood cut being used for firewood, and some being stacked around
the base of the partially felled trees in order to help them to burn better. Third, the
greenery on the trees and other vegetation is cut away, since it does not burn well.
Fourth, the fields are left to dry, which means that this part of the process needs to take
place in the cool season, when there is little rain. Fifth, and last, after they are sufficiently

6   Phillips, J.V. et al. (1968)

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dry, they are ignited. Often, they have become so dry by this point that they can combust
with explosive speed.

           It should be born in mind that swiddening is only needed on sloping land. Most
hill-tribes farmers had a mixture of flat land, which could be used for permanent paddy
fields, and sloping land, which would be swiddened. There is little or no exact
information about the relative distribution of flat and sloping land amongst farmers, but
in general, at higher elevations flat land is less common, and so the true highland farmers
tended to have little, if any, flat land. The tribes living at the lower elevations, such as the
Karen, tended to have more substantial amounts of flat land available, and it was thus in
the Karen-occupied areas where rice paddies were found (and are still found today).

           Swidden farming can be broken down into three sub-types7. Firstly, there is the
system that was used at lower elevations, e.g. below 600 metres. In this system, rice is
grown in a swidden field for just one year and then a new field is found, the old one left
unfarmed (or ‘left fallow’) for around two years so that its tree cover and fertility would
be restored. Second, there is the system used at intermediate elevations of 600 metres to
100 metres, where the soil is typically less fertile. Here the system is the same except that
the field would be left fallow for seven to twelve years. The third system is the system
usually used for farming opium: after the field was cleared it would be farmed for
between three and ten years before the soil became too infertile to use, at which point
the field would be abandoned. It could take the field as much as forty years to recover,
and if over-farmed former opium fields are taken over by a species of tough grass known
as imperata grass, which historically had no agricultural use and which could not be
removed by any means at the hill-tribes’ disposal. This form of farming could render
fields permanently useless.

           As we mentioned before, this is only a rough generalization. Some Hmong did
not grow opium at all. Some Karen tried to grow opium, but were usually not successful
as their fields were not usually at high enough elevations. Some Lahu opium farmers
who live in Royal Project areas used to grow opium, but did not use the method
mentioned above, as they did not know that the fields become exhausted after a time.
(Consequently, these Lahu farmed exactly the same fields for twenty years, the opium
yield falling to around one sixth of what might be considered a normal level, due to
rapidly declining fertility.)

7   This categorization is due to Kundstadter and Chapman, op. cit.

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           Another major difference is the skill with which swiddening is executed and
organized. There are reports of Lua farmers in the north-west of Thailand who were
particularly skilled8. Before the fields were cleared, village elders would carefully select the
sites of the new fields by examining the growth of the vegetation and physically tasting
the soil to determine if fertility had been sufficiently restored. Once an area had been
identified, individual families would clear portions of the new field. These Lua were
aware of the dangers of erosion and prohibited the felling of trees along ridges or
waterways, and would fine any villagers in violation of this prohibition. As the fields
dried, the entire village became involved in the preparation for the burning. Every
household would either contribute labour or would pay a tax to finance fire-fighting
activities. The villagers would build a firebreak around the site of the new field,
completely clearing a five to ten metre corridor of combustible material, so that fire
could not spread beyond the site of the new field. Once the field was ready to be burned,
it would be ignited, while Lua armed with muskets would wait at the periphery, to shoot
any game that might flee from the fire. After the fields were cleared, the Lua would make
terracing by building structures of bamboo poles and rocks along the contours of the
fields, which would retard erosion and allow the farmers to grow vine plants like squash.

           The same case study includes a description of a nearby Karen village. The Karen
have a reputation for being skilled conservationists, and some have been observed to
practice swiddening without doing damage to the environment. Not so these Karen:
aware of the principles of erosion, they nonetheless failed to prevent the cutting of trees
along waterways; impressed by the Lua’s communal approach to fire-control, they were
not able to organize anything similar themselves; familiar with the Lua method of erosion
control, they were inconsistent in actually applying it. This is a prime example of how the
familiar generalizations about the hill-tribes are only partially correct.

           The three main crops grown in the highlands were rice, opium and maize. Rice
would be grown either in rain-fed paddy fields, on flat land, or in the form of upland rice,
on sloping swidden fields. Opium, for reasons discussed in the next chapter, was usually
grown in conjunction with maize, which is why maize was also a major highland crop.
Other popular crops included various forms of nuts and also tea. Many of the hill-tribe
farmers had small gardens in which they might grow a few vegetables, with which they
would supplement their diet. Again, this is a general picture, and individual farmers and

8   Kunstadter, P. (1970)

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villagers were doubtless growing some quite interesting and unusual crops which were
not being widely cultivated. We know, for example, about the Hmong village at Doi Pui,
where the villagers were growing a local variety of peach tree and generating an attractive
income from it.

        A further distinction in swiddening is between rotational and pioneer swiddening.
‘Rotational cultivation’ is sometimes used interchangeably with ‘swiddening’ or ‘slash and
burn cultivation’, but is more properly applied to a sub-type of swiddening. The term
properly refers to the swiddening system employed by sedentary farmers like the Karen.
Their settlements tended to remain in a fixed location near their permanent paddy fields,
and their swidden fields would move, perhaps rotating around the region of the village
over decades, hence the term ‘rotational’. By contrast, the Hmong and some Yao have
been described as ‘pioneer swiddeners’, meaning that once the poppy field is exhausted,
they are willing to dismantle their entire settlement and move to a new area suited to
poppy cultivation. Relocation of entire Hmong villages to sites suitable for poppy
cultivation has been observed on numerous occasions. The Hmong and the Yao are
usually considered to have been the most nomadic of the major hill-tribe groups, and this
would explain why they, unlike the other major groups, tend to build their houses directly
on muddy ground without much by way of flooring- if they expected to move every five
to ten years, it would not make sense to over-invest in the construction of their homes.
But as always, there are exceptions to this generalization: many Hmong farmers were not
pioneer swiddeners at all, and were able to farm opium in the Thai highlands for decades
without abandoning their settlements. Much would depend on the availability of suitable
land- some regions have an abundance of sloping land with alkaline, sandy loam soils
suited to poppy, some have little. The lucky opium farmers, situated in an area with
abundance of such land, might never have to leave their settlements.

        Swiddening is often treated with abhorrence by those who do not practice it.
However, some researchers now believe that it is not necessarily harmful to the
environment. Swiddening as practiced by the Lua mentioned above and the more skilled
Karen does not lead to long-term depletion of forest cover, as the forest recovers
quickly. The clearing process has actually been found to raise the level of soil moisture
and soil nutrients greatly, and the fire itself is not environmentally catastrophic (there
have been forest fires, after all, for millennia). When practiced with skill, swiddening is an
acceptable way to farm sloping land with low investment costs. One has to say that it is
only ‘acceptable’, since it is believed that even the most successful swiddeners, except

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those growing opium, would in general only just be able to grow enough food to eat. So
it is not a system that would ever create riches.

        The problem with swiddening is that the system starts to break down if land is
not left fallow for adequate periods of time. When this occurs, the land is not sufficiently
fertile when farming is restored. Then the yields will be particularly low, meaning that the
farmer will have difficulty feeding his family from it. The field may also be rendered
permanently infertile, as its nutrients are exhausted and the organic matter that retains its
structure, and therefore its ability to retain water, is washed away by erosion. In either
case, demand for land then increases, meaning that more land must be turned over to
farming, and there is a greater temptation to farm a field before fertility is properly

        The tendency to reduce the stock of fertile land is undesirable under any
circumstances, but it is potentially catastrophic in what are called ‘watershed areas’. A
watershed area is simply an area where large amounts of water collect before draining
downwards, into rivers, lakes and underground water sources. If the structure of the soil
in watershed areas disintegrates too much, it loses its ability to store and channel water
adequately, preventing the watershed from collecting water and ultimately causing the
water sources to dry up. For settlements and farms dependent on existing rivers and
lakes, this is disastrous, capable of leading to a total failure of crops, a total loss of means
of living. Over-farming causes soil degradation, but swidden farming is potentially more
dangerous than sedentary agriculture, since it can be done on watershed land. The critical
variable for the safe practice of swiddening is what is called the ‘carrying capacity’ of the
land: the number of people who can occupy the land, so that all swidden fields are left
long enough in order to recover.

        Thailand’s problem is that in the sixties, the highlands had already reached the
limit of their carrying capacity swidden farming. There were too many people, and so
many fields would not be left fallow for long enough. This problem was compounded by
the fact that many hill-tribe farmers either practiced conservation poorly, like the Karen
described above, or, unaware of its necessity, did not practice this at all. Many of the
Hmong in the Royal Project report that, prior to the arrival of project staff, they had no
knowledge or awareness of the dangers of erosion.

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                               Extract from ‘The Peach and the Poppy’: Chapter Three

                                   Hill-tribe living conditions

             The hill-tribe people generally lived in poor conditions whether or not they grew
opium. Most had minimal incomes, and other than a small number educated my
missionaries, most were uneducated. Malnutrition was normal, and they were plagued
with the diseases of poverty, such as dysentery and tuberculosis.

             It is difficult to say what the average income of a hill-tribe farmer was in the mid-
sixties, because there is such a difference between a lowland Karen subsistence farmer
and a highland Hmong opium farmer. The average annual income of a senior Wall Street
Investment Banker who makes ten million dollars a year and a dozen families from
Chiang Mai, who each make about two thousand five hundred dollars a year, is
approximately five hundred thousand dollars. But this information has no value because
the populations being averaged over are just too different. In order to apply statistical
methods like the calculation of averages to a population, we must be sure that our data
really is drawn from a single population (statisticians say that the data must be stationary,
and if the data is not drawn from a single population it is non-stationary).

             Therefore, the sensible way to proceed is to separate the hill-tribe people into
three rough-and-ready groups. The first group is the subsistence farmers living at
relatively low elevations, such as the Karen, comprising about 45% of the hill-tribe
population. Since subsistence farmers grow food to eat and not to sell, and we know that
highland subsistence farmers rarely produced much excess, their cash incomes would
have been quite close to zero. However, for two months of the year such farmers would
often seek off-farm employment, for example in logging, for which they were paid
approximately five baht a day. If the average family had two able-bodied men capable
working off farm, this would generate an annual cash income of about 600 baht per year,
approximately fifteen US dollars then and now.

             We then separate the opium farmers into those farmers, mainly Hmong, whose
farming was totally oriented towards producing opium, and other highland farmers
growing opium as a cash crop to supplement their subsistence farming. A United
Nations survey9 reports that the average Hmong opium growing family cultivated about
8 rai of opium. The 1965/6 harvest of opium was believed to be 147 metric tonnes. In

9   Phillips et. al op. cit.

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the mid-sixties, the price of opium in Thailand ranged between 600 and 800 baht per kilo
(between $US15 and $US20)10. These higher prices were available to those farmers living
closer to large cities such as Chiang Mai, with the prices falling as one progressed up into
the highlands. This price difference is attributable to what economists call risk discount.
The principle is this: the further a drug must be transported, the more risky it is to do so;
since it becomes more risky, anyone purchasing the drugs will require a higher return to
compensate them for their risk; the higher return is achieved by offering a lower
purchase price; thus drugs become less valuable as they are moved away from their final
market and more valuable as they are moved towards it. (As we will see in the chapter on
opium, this is one of the fundamental facts about the economics of drug trafficking.)
Taking 700 baht per kilo as an average price, this puts a value of about THB103 million,
roughly $US2.5 million on the entire crop. Divided equally amongst an estimated 45,800
hill-tribe families, that equates to an average income from opium farming of THB2,245
(just over fifty dollars).

              However, it would be wrong to divide this income equally amongst the tribal
population, as many farmers, especially the Akha, could not farm opium. Living in the
hotter, slightly lower-lying areas the climate was not suitable for the poppy. It would be a
reasonable approximation to divide the two-and-a-half million dollars of opium income
amongst the 55% of the hill-tribe population who were not Akha, for an income of
about THB2,200 per family, or, around $US55. This is quite crude, though- not all of the
upland peoples farmed opium, and some of the Akha people are reported to have tried,
to farm it (without success).

              It is possible to push the estimate one stage further, at the cost of risking over-
generalizing to a greater degree. It is believed that the Hmong people dominated opium
production in Thailand (probably due to the fact that they had the longest-established
tradition of growing it and because they occupied the best land for it). A contemporary
United Nations report estimates that the average Hmong family in the Thai highlands
had about 8 rai of opium under cultivation in a normal year. On that basis, it can be
estimated that the Hmong accounted for around 85% of annual production. Factoring in
this, Hmong families would earn around THB9000 per year, or $US240, and other
opium farmers would earn around THB1000 per year from opium, around $US25. While
doubtlessly over-generalizing, there are many reports of Hmong farmers who grew no

10   Phillips et al., op. cit.

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                          Extract from ‘The Peach and the Poppy’: Chapter Three

crop other than opium, in large fields of at least 8 rai, and also reports of other tribes
who mixed opium and rice, so the basic picture is probably sound.

        What of other income sources? It is not possible to estimate the value of these,
but they are not likely to be too significant. Subsistence farmers like the Akha could not
afford to produce cash crops- it was difficult enough for them to grow enough food to
eat when all available land was used to produce rice. The prospects for off-farm labour
would be at most two months per year at around THB5 per day- an annual income of
900 baht per year per family if two family-members can be so employed. Farmers
growing opium as one of many crops would usually also grow some rice for eating and a
few other cash crops, but these would be of poor quality and quite difficult to sell. It is
unlikely that the value of these cash crops would be significant compared to the value of
opium. So the average family incomes for the hill-tribe people come out as close to
nothing for subsistence farmers, around one thousand baht per year for small opium
farmers and around nine thousand baht per year for large opium farmers. Some could
earn an additional thousand baht a year from labour, and there would be a small residual
from other cash crops.

        This information has little value without a basis for comparison. We can compare
this with what a full-time labourer would receive. Someone working 365 days a year at 5
baht a day would have earned 1,825 baht per year, about forty-five dollars. A family with
two full-time labourers would therefore earn around THB3,600 per year, and with three
would earn THB5,400. This shows just how low the income earned from growing opium
was. The large-scale opium farmers got less than double what we estimated could be
earned just through manual labour. This is a poor return indeed on the land, seed and
labour used, especially given the many risks involved. It seems that they were better off,
however, than the family following the mixed strategy of growing rice, opium and a few
other crops. Although they would not have to buy so much rice, their income would be
half or quarter of what could be earned by simply abandoning the farm and working for
someone else.

        The income earned from opium poppy was good (although clearly not
exceptional), but volatile. The growth of the opium poppy and the amount of opium that
it generates is sensitive to various factors such as soil type, degree of sunlight, rainfall, the
age of the poppy field and skill in cultivation. Consequently, in any given year the actual
yield from an opium field can depart widely from the average. Hill-tribe farmers in the

                                             Page 13 of 28
                             Extract from ‘The Peach and the Poppy’: Chapter Three

Royal Project often report that in a good year the yield from their opium fields would
double, whereas in a bad year they might not receive any opium at all. Opium farmers
have no guarantee how much opium they will get in a given year. This means that in a
bumper year, or indeed in a normal year, farmers have to save a substantial amount of
their income to protect against the inevitable bad years. This has several consequences.
Firstly, especially for the farmer depending entirely on opium, more money must be
saved that otherwise could be spent on food or consumer goods. Secondly, farmers who
are unable to maintain adequate capital face ruin. Some farmers might just experience a
run of freakish bad luck which caused their savings to be used up. More likely, farmers
would become indebted, and the repayment of debt would eat into their savings. Then,
when the bad year inevitably came they would have no means of supporting themselves.

         Incomes contribute towards good living conditions, but it is quite possible to
have a reasonable income and poor living conditions- for example if there is nothing to
spend one’s income on. Some of the larger opium farmers could earn reasonable
incomes from opium, but these did little to improve their quality of life in other respects.
By all reports living conditions for almost all of the hill-tribe families were poor. There
was almost no prospect of education, because even if schooling was available, families
needed children to work from an early age.

         The health conditions in the villages were truly terrible11. Lacking sanitation,
diseases caused by fecal contamination of water-sources such as dysentery were
common. This was worsened by the fact that few villagers had any knowledge of the
basis of disease transmission and the importance of cleanliness. Consequently, diseases
would thrive in hill-tribe communities. Infections of the respiratory system such as
tuberculosis were extremely common. These were caused in part by the great disparity
between the warmth of the day and the cold of the night, which creates cold, damp
conditions under which pathogens attacking the respiratory system can thrive. They were
also exacerbated by families burning wood and other organic matter for heating and
cooking, the smoke from which irritates the lungs and makes them more vulnerable to
these kinds of infections. Most homes were not adequately ventilated, and in cold
highland nights many villagers would make the problem still worse this by sleeping next
to their fires. Preventable diseases such as whooping cough and malaria were also

11 see Kunstadter, op. cit Kunstadter and Chapman, op.cit..; Phillips, op.cit; Suwanwela, C., Poshyachinda,

V, Dharmkgrong-at, A. (1978)

                                                Page 14 of 28
                               Extract from ‘The Peach and the Poppy’: Chapter Three

           Malnutrition was an endemic problem. The typical hill-tribe diet consisted of rice
and some steamed vegetables. Although some owned livestock, it was unusual for a
family to eat meat with any regularity. Consequently, the hill-tribe diet was usually
protein-deficient and calorie-deficient. Malnutrition will make those who suffer from it
tired and lethargic, and various vitamin deficiencies can induce specific disorders in the
growth and repair of bodily tissues. All of these effects greatly lower the capacity to
work, and prevent a family from producing as much food as they might. Malnutrition
will also increase vulnerability to disease, worsen the prognosis of diseases once
contracted, and is a major cause of complications during and after child-birth.
Anthropological studies of hill-tribe villages from the mid sixties show shocking and
upsetting infant mortality rates: in the survey of the Lahu and Karen families discussed
above, 40% of the children born during the two-year period of study died before its

           The final aspect of hill-tribe conditions worth mentioning is drug-addiction.
Traditionally, opium was used as a form of medication. Since opium induces constipation
and relaxes the respiratory system, as well as containing codeine, it is effective in treating
gastro-intestinal disorders like dysentery and respiratory conditions like tuberculosis. (It
has been used for these purposes around the world, in rich countries as well as poor
ones, throughout history.) Addiction was always a risk, but preferable to death, which
can be the outcome of untreated diarrhea. Opium is also an excellent pain killer
(although not nearly so effective as morphine or heroin). So it was also used as a way of
coping with the pain caused by hard physical labour without adequate nutrition. The
recreational smoking of opium was in general tolerated only in the elderly, although
younger people would also smoke it upon occasions. At many hill-tribe social gatherings
a small group of people might be observed discretely smoking opium at the periphery
somewhere. Interestingly, the reasons for opium smoking were just the same as the
reasons that westerners consume drugs- as a coping mechanism to deal with the
difficulties of life, as a form of release or escape, or simply for the pleasure of it12.

           It is reckoned that in opium producing villages and households, few people
smoked opium at all, with addiction rates typically being below 1%. By contrast, in the
non-producing areas, addiction rates could be as high as 10%. These levels were in part
caused by the practice of highland opium farmers hiring farmers from the uplands, like

12   Suwanwela, C., Poshyachinda, V, Dharmkgrong-at, A., op. cit.

                                                  Page 15 of 28
                         Extract from ‘The Peach and the Poppy’: Chapter Three

the Karen, to work on the opium harvest and paying them in opium. The situation was
to become more complicated and more dangerous when heroin started to appear in the
hill-tribe villages: in the late sixties heroin refining came to the golden triangle, many of
the hill-tribes, living on trafficking routes to Bangkok, were exposed to supplies of heroin
for the first time.

        Opium could be both a blessing and a curse: its medicinal value has never been
questioned- its derivatives, morphine, and, in a few countries, heroin, are still used
medicinally today. For many farmers it was the only possible cash crop in a context
where attempts at subsistence farming would have lead to starvation. Yet the damage to
the environment, to communities and to the health of individuals done by opium is

        Opium was firmly entrenched in hill-tribe life and removing it was not to be an
easy task. Addiction and medicinal value alone would have made its immediate excision
damaging, but the major consideration was that many highland farmers did not have
enough land to grow enough rice to feed their families. The UN report mentioned above
estimated that the Hmong and other farmers living at high elevations would need as
much as 32 rai of upland rice cultivation to feed their families, and for a Hmong family
to have this much land was almost unheard of. The UN team estimated that the average
Hmong holding was between 16 and 30 rai. Consequently, ending opium cultivation
without providing any alternatives would have induced mass starvation.

        It is worth pausing to mention Hill-Tribe attitudes towards opium. Generally
speaking, hill-tribe communities had a broadly negative attitude towards it. The use of
opium, except by the elderly, was tolerated but not condoned, and generally met with at
least mild disapproval. The dangers of addiction were well-known. Many hill-tribe people
were not actually aware that opium was illegal, or at least had been since 1959. For those
that were, the need to cultivate opium created an unwelcome atmosphere of secrecy and
tension between government and village. Many opium-farmers also disliked the
disruption caused by periodically having to relocate settlements in order to find new
opium fields.

                                            Page 16 of 28
                               Extract from ‘The Peach and the Poppy’: Chapter Three

                                   The political environment

           In the late nineteen sixties, discussions of the hill-tribe people were dominated by
three themes: opium cultivation, ‘slash-and-burn cultivation and Thailand’s communist
insurgency. It is probably fair to say that many Thais assumed that all hill-tribe people
were burning down the highlands of the north, flooding the world with heroin, raising
arms against the government, and possibly all three. We have already seen that this was
not the case with opium- many hill-tribe people did not live at sufficiently high altitudes
to grow poppy. At the time, the north’s production only accounted for about 15% of the
total world supply, but the fact the remains that fifteen percent is substantial amount. In
1969, it is estimated that there were around 350,000 heroin addicts in the United States,
who probably consumed around 87 tonnes of diluted heroin over the course of the
year13. This would be made from about 7 tonnes of heroin base, which itself would come
from around just 78 tonnes of opium. That is about half of the 1965/6 output of
Thailand. Put another way, the hill-tribe people were producing enough opium to feed
around 700,000 addicts.

           The truth concerning the hill-tribes’ involvement in the communist insurgency
and in environmental degradation is similar: it is not quite as it has been perceived, but it
was nonetheless a serious concern. To understand the extent of the problem we must
review the history of the insurgency. First of all, it must be appreciated that South-East
Asia was once perceived by both the Soviet Union and the United States of America as
one of the most important fronts in the Cold War, and Thailand was a frontier country.
As such, it was positioned to be part of the ‘proxy war’ between the United States and
the Soviet Union, and to a lesser extent China, during which governments declaring for
one side would routinely receive massive military aid from one of the powers, whereupon
anti-government forces would immediately receive support from the other of the powers

           The Thai generals of the post-Second World War period were of an anti-
community bent and were keen to ally with the United States: consequently they received
a total of $2.5 billion of American military aid between 1951 and 197514. It was therefore
inevitable, given the way that the Cold War was fought, that the communist movement

13   see Hollahan, F. (1970)
14    Pongpaichit, P. and Baker,C. (1995)

                                                  Page 17 of 28
                                Extract from ‘The Peach and the Poppy’: Chapter Three

in Thailand would be supported by the great communist powers. This is not to say that
the Communist movement in Thailand arose purely as result of external influence: prior
to the dissolution of the Soviet Union communism had a much stronger appeal to young
idealists than it does now, and so it is quite possible that many communists would have
taken up the cause without external influence. But there were such influences: on one
hand, the Communist Party of Thailand (CPT), the largest communist group, was
formed by means of a merger between the Thai Communist Party and the Thai branch
of the Chinese Communist Party; on the other, we know that a pro-communist radio
station ‘The Voice of the Free People in Thailand’ was broadcasted into the Kingdom
between 1962 and 1979 from transmitters in Yunnan in Southern China15. So at the least
there was Chinese influence, and since the CPT also possessed quite advanced facilities
in Soviet-influenced Communist Laos, they were probably also receiving support from
the Soviets.

            Initially, Thailand’s communists restricted their activities to the cities, and had
they stayed there, a real problem might never have emerged. Orthodox communists,
those inspired by the theories of Marx and Lenin, believe that revolution should be lead
by the urban proletariat. The main ideological difference between Marxist-Leninists and
the Chinese communists, amongst whom Mao Tse Tung was the chief ideologue, is that
the Chinese advocated a rural-based revolution. Despite the fact that the CPT was
dominated by members of the Thai branch of the Chinese Communist Party (even after
the merger in 1949), the CPT continued to restrict its areas of activity to urban areas for
some years. However, General Sarit’s government, which held power from 1958 to 1963,
was so effective at dismantling the apparatus of the communist party that they had little
option but to flee for the country and take up the strategy of rural revolution. Some went
south and joined with Muslim separatists and some went to the highlands of the north.

            The insurgents used guerilla tactics to make large areas of Thailand unsafe for
security forces to enter. These areas would act as ‘buffer zones’ making it safe for the
guerillas to create large armed bases on the other sides of those zones. Around 1968, the
CPT started recruiting Hmong and Yao in the far north and Karen in the far north-west.
As the CPT put it “In the north, we seize the highland, mobilize the exploited minority
hill peoples, force the enemy to retreat, and turn the area into a base area... After seizing
the highland, then we expand the guerrilla zone... The enemy is restricted and

15   Pongpaichit, P. and Baker,C. (op. cit), and Baker, C. (2003)

                                                   Page 18 of 28
                             Extract from ‘The Peach and the Poppy’: Chapter Three

suppression is difficult. The masses practice swidden cultivation, and are used to moving
around”16. Inspired by Chairman Mao’s redistribution of land in China, the CPT tried to
recruit hill-tribesmen by breaking up land holdings and giving the land to the hill-tribes.
As the CPT explained “A revolution in land is a slogan to mobilize our masses. In the
hill area, land is not concentrated, but we began by abolishing the illegitimate
landholdings of gangster landlords, and destroying other forms of feudal exploitation.”

             Once freed from the cities, grew rapidly: there were perhaps 5,000 guerillas by
1972, 8,000 by 1974 and 12,000 by 1979. In 1975 the military reckoned that 412 villages
were totally under insurgent control. According to the insurgents, there were thousands
of small conflicts between them and the army, and also a number of large pitched battles.
The Thai army was actually driven back after direct assaults on the bases in Chiang Rai
and Pitsansulok, and at more than one point serious commentators argued that the Thai
government would be overthrown and replaced with a communist regime, as had already
happened in Laos.

             The insurgency was eventually put down. The government was able to neutralize
much of the external support for the insurgents by achieving healthy relations with the
Chinese, culminating in ‘The Voice of the Free People of Thailand’ being switched off. A
new strategy for dealing with the insurgents was launched in 1980, combining amnesty
for the idealists who had simply fled Bangkok, accelerated rural development for those
feeling neglected and overwhelming military force for those not otherwise placated
(presumably the committed communists).

             At most a few thousand hill-tribe people could have taken up against the
government, probably fewer, and those that did were restricted to the further reaches of
the Kingdom. Nonetheless, hill-tribe people came to be seen as disloyal by many
members of the public and the government. And the early years of the Royal Project all
took place against the backdrop of the insurgency: traveling to many of the Royal Project
sites involved traveling around or passing through many communist-controlled areas.
Some times, field work forced Royal Project staff to stay overnight in communist-
controlled villages, although they were always treated well.

             Let us now consider the hill-tribes’ role in deforestation. Most of Thailand’s
deforestation has occurred in regions where hill-tribe people did not live, mainly the
north-east and the central plains. The following chart shows that between 1961 and 1982

16   Baker, op. cit.

                                                Page 19 of 28
                              Extract from ‘The Peach and the Poppy’: Chapter Three

the north remained comparatively free of wide-scale deforestation17. Certainly the north
has seen significant deforestation, being accountable for 18% of the deforestation
between 1961 and 1978, but this is compared to 30% due to the central region and 40%
due to the north-east. Moreover, looking at the crucial period of 1961-1973, we see that
the forest cover of the north barely changed at all. This requires some explanation.

         The first part of the explanation is that deforestation is a natural consequence of
the expansion of the agricultural frontier- people looking for new land to settle on and
farm. As populations grow, they need more food to eat, and that comes from the land.
This is the simplest and most basic explanation for Thailand’s deforestation, and careful
analysis bears it out: the Royal Project Foundation’s forestry division has calculated that
there is a 96% correlation between Thailand’s population growth rate and its
deforestation between 1962 and 1989, meaning that 96% of the changes in the level of
forest cover can be explained by changes in population18. This allows us to return, briefly,
to the topics discussed in chapter two. We saw that food production can be increased by
increasing yield (usually by employing agricultural technology) or increasing area under
cultivation. In the case of Thailand, the choice made was, in the main, increasing area
under cultivation, which amounts to the destruction of forest. Most of the increase in
food production arose from increasing cultivated area19. Thus, the deforestation reported
in the chart above is in fact the price paid by Thailand for by its general agricultural

         The hill-tribes should not be considered responsible for large amounts of the
national level deforestation of Thailand. However, they were certainly responsible for
some deforestation, and although the areas involved were comparatively small in terms
of total area, the danger was that the deforestation often located in watershed areas. It is
likely that most of this deforestation was due to highland opium farmers: as discussed,
the system practiced by the Karen could be implemented without causing long-term
reduction of tree cover. This is the theory- in practice Karen farmers were themselves
coming under increasing land pressure and their system was becoming less sustainable.
Also, some of their land was being taken over by highland farmers for opium cultivation.
These effects, though, are difficult to quantify. The damage done by opium farming can
be quantified, though.

17 source: Pongpaichit and Baker, op. cit.
18 Thaiutsa, B. (2004)
19 see United Nations (1988)

                                                 Page 20 of 28
                               Extract from ‘The Peach and the Poppy’: Chapter Three

           It can be estimated that around 25,000 rai of tree cover (around 4,000 hectares)
was lost every year at the peak of opium cultivation. This estimate is derived as follows;
we think that at its peak opium production was close to 200 tonnes per year20, and we
know that the yield was around 1.6kg per rai, so we can estimate the area under
cultivation at about 125,000 rai. This is not lost annually- opium fields last several years.
A reasonable estimate for the lifetime of an opium field is around five years, which
means that every year one in five opium fields have to be replaced. That implies that
every year 20% of the stock is replaced, 20% of 125,000 rai being 25,000 rai. 25,000 rai is
a tiny amount of the total area of the highlands, just .02%. However, that is only one way
of considering it. Most readers will be familiar with one sport or another. In terms of
fields upon which sports are played, 25,000 rai is around 92,000 basketball courts, 72,000
tennis courts, and 5,000 large soccer pitches (the type on which international games are
played). It is an area of about fifteen square miles, which might be, for example, a
rectangular region five miles wide by three miles long. This is a large area: one could
stand on the summit of a hill and it would occupy the vista below. The loss of 25,000 rai
every year would mean the loss of such a vista every year, with green hills replaced by
poppy fields, and then later by dry scrub land.

           As we mentioned the real problem was not the extent of opium-cultivation
driven deforestation, but its location. Being on watershed areas, it would lead to the
reduction of water supply, as will be described in more detail in the next section, and
could ultimately have turned the north into a desert. This process was already under way
in the highlands. Any of the great rivers of the north might easily have been destroyed,
which could in turn have greatly reduced the flow of water through the Chao Praya, with
devastating effects on Thailand as a whole.

           Thus, while small compared to the ongoing national deforestation, the local
deforestation caused by the opium-farmers was still extremely serious. Here the statistics
are less kind to the opium-farmers, for in the 1961-1973 period the rate of deforestation
was only around 40,000 rai per year: opium farmers therefore accounted for about 55%
of it. Given that opium production was on a rising trend, one can only speculate as to the
possible extent of the damage had nothing been done.

20   US BNDD estimate, cited in Hollohan (op. cit.).

                                                  Page 21 of 28
                          Extract from ‘The Peach and the Poppy’: Chapter Three

                     The fragility of the highland ecosystem

        One of the fundamental reasons why the hill-tribes were so poor is that highland
regions are not well-suited for agriculture. This is because they are fundamentally fragile.
In order to understand the Royal Project and highland agricultural development in
general, it is helpful to understand why this is so.

        Much of the fragility of highland ecosystems is attributable to the fragility of
highland soils. Soil is comprised of several different layers, the most important of which
being the layer called topsoil. The topsoil layer runs from just beneath the surface of
vegetation down to a depth of several metres. It is comprised of degraded organic
matter, which helps soil to retain water, and is rich in the nutrients that plants need to
grow (mainly nitrogen, potassium and phosphorus). Topsoil is the variety of soil that is
suited for agriculture, and it is for this reason that farmers plough ground before sowing-
the mechanical disruption serves to bring fresh topsoil closer to the surface.

        Mountain regions are, obviously, characterized by sloping land. Sloping land has
a thinner layer of topsoil than flat land, partly because the constant flow of water
downhill prevents the accumulation of a deep topsoil. This is compounded by the fact
that the relatively cool highland climates slow the formation of topsoil from degrading
organic matter. Highland soils also tend to be relatively uncompressed and thus
physically more prone to being degraded. (This is for the reason that they have not been
subjected to glaciation to the same degree. ‘Glaciation’ refers to a process occurring during
the last ice age, about 18,000 years ago when much of the physical terrain of the world
was formed by the passage of huge bodies of ice, the glaciers, across the land. Lowland
areas would bear the greatest glacial weight and therefore their soils are the most
compact. More elevated areas bore a lower glacial weight and in the case of the highest
elevations may have escaped the glaciers completely.)

        Being thin and uncompressed, the topsoil in mountain environments is especially
prone to being carried away by wind and rain, that is, it is more vulnerable to erosion.
The immediate symptoms of erosion are lowered soil quality and reduced yields. This can
carry on until the land is almost completely infertile, leading ultimately to desertification
(the transformation of fertile land into desert). Erosion has additional undesirable
effects- soil that runs off from the highland areas ends up in rivers and reservoirs

                                             Page 22 of 28
                            Extract from ‘The Peach and the Poppy’: Chapter Three

downstream. The rivers can become blocked and the general quality of the water
decreases. The storage capacity of reservoirs, and thus, also, their capacity to generate
electricity, decreases. Top soil is also particularly good at holding water in the ground- as
it is lost, the soil’s ability to retain water decreases. This makes the lowlands more
vulnerable to flooding- healthy topsoil in highland areas is a country’s first flood-defense.

           Part of the fragility of highland areas lies in their almost total dependence on the
maintenance of tree cover. Tree cover is essential for maintaining soil quality and
structure, playing four different hydrological roles. Firstly, they function as umbrellas do,
physically shielding the ground from some rain, which may be absorbed into the bodies
of trees or may evaporate. Second, the roots of the tree improve the internal structure of
the soil by creating channels of various sizes in the soil, increasing the soil’s water-
bearing capacity. This is important for agriculture as well as for slowing the passage of
water in the direction of slope. Third, trees act like sponges, drawing water up from the
roots and helping to prevent the soil from becoming water-logged. Fourth, the roots of
the tree physically grip the soil around them, holding it in place.

           The importance of these effects can be illustrated by observing the massive
increase in erosion brought about by replacing forest with field crops like corn and rice.
The accompanying chart shows two examples from Thailand. A forested hill might lose
as little as 10 kilograms of soil per hectare per year to erosion. After removing the trees
and farming it, it might lose as much as 100 tons of soil per hectare per year.21

           This, then, is the root of the fragility of highland ecosystems: a fragile soil
dependent on the existence of its tree cover. This fragility is not immediately apparent
from visual inspection of untouched highlands, as they tend to look green and lush. But
trees suited to the highlands usually have root structures that are quite shallow and
spread out widely, making them suited to the thin highland topsoil. And the moisture
that is so apparent in the lushness of the vegetation does not exist independent of the
trees, it exists because of them.

           Without adequate tree cover, watersheds do not function properly. To explain: a
watershed is an area where water runs down hill and collects. If you have a sloping
garden you may find water or excess dampness at the bottom of the slope- this area is in
effect a watershed. In fact, most areas are a watershed in a sense, because there is usually
an uphill direction from that area from which water might flow. In this strict sense,

21   Tangtham, N. (1999)

                                               Page 23 of 28
                         Extract from ‘The Peach and the Poppy’: Chapter Three

though, most watersheds are not large and their existence is not especially interesting.
Probably the most interesting kind of watershed is the large, highland watershed, because
these are the sources of many rivers, which arise as a result of intense mountain rains,
running down hill and collecting in troughs and valleys.

       When the soil structure of large, highland watersheds becomes degraded, water is
not retained and is lost to human use. Therefore, that particular area no longer acts as a
water supply for a river lying downhill from the watershed area. The removal of the tree
cover from a watershed area is thus particularly damaging. In the short-term, the yield
from the watershed land will decline rapidly due to erosion of fertile topsoil and declining
water-capacity. In the long-term, the area ceases to feed downstream rivers, affecting
numerous ecosystems and the livelihoods of both local people and the people

                           The plight of the highland farmer

       Farming in the highlands is a difficult thing to do. One reason is because poor
quality and highly erodable soil leads to comparatively low and falling yields. Another is
because climatic differences from the lowlands make it difficult to transfer lowland crops
into a highland setting. It is also due to the fact that remoteness and lack of
communications impose high distribution costs on farmers and impede their interactions
with markets in other important ways. We have discussed the first of these problems in
the previous section, but let us take the opportunity to review the other two.

       Firstly, there is the problem of the difficulty of transferring lowland crops to the
highlands, owing to the lower highland temperatures. All plants have a number of
variables that affect their growth rate- their need for sunlight, their preference for soil
types, the kinds and amounts of soil-nutrients they need, and critically, preferred
temperatures. Temperature is a particularly important variable- temperature requirements
are what distinguish tropical, semi-tropical and temperate zone crops. Both cold and heat
can play a role in plant growth- deciduous fruit trees, for example, usually require cold
periods in order for their buds to break and form fruit. They will not usually grow in
tropical climates because they are not cold enough to grow fruit, without which they do
not tend to propagate. Plants generally spread naturally and easily into areas of similar

                                            Page 24 of 28
                           Extract from ‘The Peach and the Poppy’: Chapter Three

temperatures22, but they do not spread so well from the lowlands into the highlands,
because of the rapid changes in temperature that accompany increasing elevation.

           Since lowland areas have a higher population density and more food output than
highland areas, lowland agriculture will tend to be the main focus of new crop
development. As the focus of new crop development is usually the development of
higher-yielding and more disease-resistant varieties, and lowland crops often cannot be
transferred to the highlands, highlanders will tend not to benefit from these improved
varieties. With some crops there may be potential for transfer, but the new crops
developed usually need high inputs of agricultural chemicals, which are often not
available to the highlanders. Because of this, highland crops will tend to be lower-yielding
and may be more vulnerable to disease, than lowland crops.

           Highland farmers may also suffer more from the effects of volatility than their
lowland counterparts. We already discussed volatility in the context of opium production,
but in fact all agricultural incomes have a tendency to be highly volatile. The volatility of
agricultural incomes is due to the fact that the two determinants of income, production
and prices, are themselves highly volatile. Production is volatile for obvious reasons-
weather, pests and disease regularly have large and unpredictable effects on harvests.
Price volatility is more difficult to understand. It derives from the fact that market prices
are the sum of all market participants’ opinions on the current and future supply and
demand for any given commodity. Thus, agricultural prices, and indeed, all commodity-
and asset-prices, can change suddenly and dramatically as events around the world
change market participants’ opinions regarding the future state of agricultural markets. If,
for example, trade talks between the European Union and the United States were
reported to make progress, the price of bananas might fall, as market traders anticipate a
relaxation in tariffs in bananas. This would occur whether or not the report was accurate.
The poor Bolivian farmer, half a world away, suddenly receives less for his banana crop.
If, the following day, the reports were shown to be false, the price of bananas would rise
again. Such events, which are common, make it difficult for farmers to have predictable
and stable incomes.

           One natural strategy for handling volatility, long employed by small farmers, is
diversification. The principle is that if a farmer grows several different crops, rises in
price and production in one crop might cancel out falls in price and production of the

22   Diamond, op. cit.

                                              Page 25 of 28
                             Extract from ‘The Peach and the Poppy’: Chapter Three

other. This principle is illustrated in business schools with the example of the ice-cream
salesman and the coat-salesman: the ice-cream salesman does excellent business in the
summer but goes bankrupt in the winter; the coat salesman does excellent business in the
winter but goes bankrupt in the summer. If one and the same businessman sells ice
cream in the summer and coats in the winter, he does good business all year round.
However, in real life it is rarely possible to find assets or commodities that balance each
other out so neatly and one can only approximate to this ideal. In any case, the fewer
crops a farmer has, the more difficult it will be to employ the diversification strategy
efficiently.23 A highland farmer possessing a small choice of crops thus diversifies less

         The third reason why highland agriculture is so difficult is that highland regions
will be difficult to reach from the main markets for agricultural produce and from
sources of agricultural supplies like fertilizers, pesticides and seeds. They tend to be far in
absolute terms, separated by sloping land and may not be served by roads24. If they are
served by roads at all, the roads will often be of poor quality and may not reach right to
individual settlements. Roads that do exist may be unsable for parts of the year, and
settlements will often not have mail or telecommunications.

         Poor communications have a number of effects: Firstly, they increase the cost of
getting crops to customers (their ‘distribution cost’). This is perhaps the most prohibitive
aspect of highland agriculture. Consider a highland farmer with 6 rai, about one hectare,
of land, who knows how to grow lettuce. The average yield from growing lettuce, using
intensive methods, is 18 tonnes per hectare. Without pesticide and fertilizer our hill-tribe
farmer might get half of that. Suppose our farmer grows his 9 tonnes of lettuce, which
might be around 36,000 heads, it would be virtually impossible to transport them to
market. The more remote hill-tribe villages in Thailand, in the mid-sixties, were six hours
drive from Chiang Mai and then a two-day trek on foot across mud-trails. A farmer in a
remote region of a larger country like Afghanistan or Colombia would face an even more
demanding journey. Even if the farmer could physically move the lettuce, the likelihood
is that most or all of it would perish by the time it reached market.

23 Although this is complicated by the fact that lowland farmers producing cash crops usually feel
economic pressure to farm very few or even single crops (‘mono-cropping’). But it holds true that in
general highland farmers have fewer crops from which to choose than lowland farmers.
24 See Jodha, N.S. (2003)

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                              Extract from ‘The Peach and the Poppy’: Chapter Three

           By contrast, the same area would grow around 11 kilos of opium, which is tough
and does not perish, and therefore can easily be transported long distances by a single
person. This is the tragedy of the highlands and drug-crop production: using the average
of 700 baht per kilo the value of this opium would have been 7,700 baht (just over $190);
selling at a price of only 5 baht per lettuce, it would be 180,000 baht ($4500), twenty-four
times the income available from opium if the farmer could get the lettuce to market. The
remoteness and poor communications of the Thai highlands in the mid-sixties prevented
farmers from being able to earn such incomes. This is a problem for highland regions all
over the world- their isolated locations often give them the physical potential to produce
exotic or high-value crops, but it is not practical to transport them to somewhere they
could be sold.

           High distribution costs also increase the cost of acquiring seeds, fertilizer and
pesticide. The higher costs paid for agricultural inputs exacerbates a problem faced by all
poor rural farmers- the agricultural cycle needs capital to acquire farming inputs, and this
is often either not available, or only available under exploitative terms: prior to the Royal
Project, it was common for traders, or, perhaps more appropriately, agricultural loan-
sharks, to lend money for the acquisition of seed and such like, to be repaid at the flat
rate of 50% after the harvest25. Sometimes credit might be available, but not enough to
cultivate all of a farmer’s land, sometimes credit was only available to buy opium
(narcotics traders being a pervasive source of credit around the world). Since rural
farmers generally have problems acquiring credit for inputs, highland farmers have more
problems, because high distribution costs increase their credit needs.

           Lack of adequate distribution typically gives farmers access to only small, local
markets. This means that niche crops, such as the artichokes currently grown in the
Royal Project, tend not to be viable. Secondly, highland farmers may face a bargaining
disadvantage in spot markets (markets in which goods are sold for immediate delivery)
since the buyer, knowing how difficult it would be to return home with their produce,
can extract a lower price from the seller. Small markets are also more vulnerable to price

           A final problem that lack of adequate communications causes, both in the sense
of having roads and in the sense of having communications technology, is a lack of
market information. Highland farmers will often lack basic information about where

25   Kunstadter and Chapman, op. cit.

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                              Extract from ‘The Peach and the Poppy’: Chapter Three

products can be sold and for what price. This can allow unscrupulous traders to deceive
farmers about the true value of their goods, and to pay unfair low prices in buying them.
A lack of market information means that farmers also lack information about threats and
opportunities. There are highland communities in India who used to rely on Cinchona as
a main source of income, whose livelihoods were ruined when, unknown to them, a
synthetic substitute had been developed26. Had the information that this substitute had
been developed, they might have been able to develop other crops before the Cinchona
market collapsed. Conversely, the world is experiencing a boom in demand for artemesia
annua, the basis for ACT therapies for malaria, mentioned above. Many families in rural
areas use it as medicine for personal use or plant it around their houses to repel insects.
Having ready access to it, they have a potentially valuable new cash crop at their disposal,
with attractive characteristics- it propagates rapidly and is suited to dry soils. But without
market information the families may be unaware of its potential. So a lack of market
information can conspire to keep farmers in poverty in several ways.


           Reviewing the Thai highlands, the highland people and the many difficulties of
life in the highlands, we see that the consequences of an absence of agricultural
development include poverty, environmental destruction and drug-crop production.
Poverty is caused at least partly by inadequate crops, farming systems and distribution, all
in some way traceable back to the endemic problems of highland agriculture.
Environmental destruction is caused by a combination of the innate fragility of highland
ecosystems, population pressure and inadequate farming systems; opium production is
caused in part by the high degree of adaptation of opium to the poor distribution
capability of poor farmers in underdeveloped areas, and in part by the lack of agricultural
alternatives. The lack of agricultural development runs through all three problems.

           Our discussion of the background to the Royal Project is almost complete, save
for one part: up to this point opium has not been discussed fully. It is to this topic that
we now turn.

26   see Balasumbramanian, K. (2005)

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