Life after opium: Thailand’s Doi Tung development project

He would have been handsome in his youth, with a strong jaw line and kind eyes, weathered now by seven-odd decades on this earth – many of which were tough. His smile revealed teeth like a tobacco chewer’s.

In fact, the Thai villager smoked – and grew – opium for 21 years, back when the Doi Tung area in the Chiang Rai region of northern Thailand was almost exclusively drugs and weapons: part of the notorious Golden Triangle (a name coined by the CIA) – at the intersection of the borders of Thailand, Laos, and Myanmar.

Once upon a time – not that long ago – this area was producing more than 70 percent of the world’s opium, most of which was then refined into heroin. It’s since been overtaken by Afghanistan, home to the Golden Crescent, which now – after 16 years of war – has reached a record high of opium production; government, US and international efforts be damned.

And, according to the United Nations, opioids remain the most harmful drug class in health terms and societal cost worldwide.

There are whispers among some Thai locals that drugs are still making it across the borders, albeit in considerably smaller amounts, of course. And it’s easy to see how, standing at the border of Myanmar and Thailand – it remains a latticework of sharpened bamboo stick at the same height as me (5’3) in the tallest places. The why is the same as with most forms of illicit drug trafficking and cultivation – money. A better life. But perhaps those thick in the grip of an opium addiction back then would tend to disagree.

Things are immeasurably better since the time the villager grew poppies – right up until maybe 30 years ago. “Everything’s good – especially the school,” he says by way of a translator. “Everyone gets to study in school.”

Now this villager is an ambassador for others – especially young people –  to stay off drugs. His message to them: “If you smoke opium you’ll get lazy, causing the problem to yourself and your family.”

The Doi Tung development – life after opium

The Doi Tung Development Project came to fruition in 1988 after the visit from Thailand’s Princess Mother (mother of the king), HRH Princess Srinagarindra, by way of her organisation – the Mae Fah Luang Foundation. The name of the foundation – Mae Fah Luang – translates literally to royal mother from the sky, referring to her choice of travel method – helicopters.

She had a soft spot for Chiang Rai’s more temperate climate, and after seeing the large-scale deforestation and opium cultivation, committed herself to the region, first by building a Royal Villa there to prove to the locals that she was in for the long haul.

After Britain’s Opium War (1839 to 1942) and the Chinese Revolution, when Mao Zedong’s government drove opium cultivation out of China, the Golden Triangle had really begun to flourish. The people who had settled in the Doi Tung also weren’t predominantly Thai, but instead a number of ethnic minorities: Akha (indigenous people with origins in China), Lahu (Chinese and Mainland Southeast Asia ethnic group) and Liso peoples (Tibeto-Burman ethnic group). This would later present challenges in communication, but ones that weren’t insurmountable.

Before he production, sale and use of opium was prohibited Thailand in 1956, it formed more than a third of the country’s tax revenue. And even after it was outlawed, the people up here – in the remote parts of northern Thailand – were able to keep cultivating. Few people visited, especially not government officials, and it was right on the border: perfect for trafficking large sticky bricks of opium by the way of local militia on the backs of donkeys.

Many of these ethnic groups residing in the Doi Tung area adopted a “slash and burn” approach to the forest. Without real claim to the land, they weren’t sure when they might be asked to leave, so long-term cultivation was out of the question. Opium was a cash cow. And many people were hooked. As it is inscribed on the wall of the Foundations Hall of Inspiration at Doi Tung: “His life depended on two plants: rice to keep him alive and opium to make him forget…”

So, when the Princess Mother arrived to dry and desolate hills devoid of the grand green forests the region is known for, she proclaimed: “I will reforest Doi Tung.”

And that she did. And much, much more.

The perfect example of social entrepreneurship

Bangladeshi Nobel Peace laureate Muhammad Yunus’ theory is that social entrepreneurship offers a way to ‘plug the gaps’, so to speak, in the inequality generated by capitalism. In his book, Creating a World Without Poverty – Social Business and the Future of Capitalism, Yunus describes social business as the “missing piece” of the capitalist system. “Introduction of it into the system may save the system by empowering it to address the overwhelming concerns that now remain outside of mainstream business thinking.”

If you’re looking for a good example, this is it.

The Princess Mother believed that the root cause of villager’s deforestation and opium cultivation (and ultimately, use) centred around poverty and lack of opportunity, so she committed to changing that.

The first phase of the project was survival (1988-1993): ensuring enough food, adequate infrastructure, healthcare and sanitation, access to resources and legal sources of income. The Foundation – following direction from the King – was sure not to entirely hamstring the local people by slashing and removing all poppies. It was to be a smooth transition to licit forms of crops. Local people were given jobs in assisting with reforestation efforts by the Foundation, health care (including treatment for drug addiction) was offered to locals during this time, as well as clean drinking water and access to roads and electricity. A small step, but a huge source of pride for the locals, was issuance of identity cards for these locals (with a census conducted at the same time), that were accepted by military, police and government officials. Many of these people were mountain people, with no legal nationality status, no passports and no real right to the land, so this was a huge step for them. Opium crops were slowly replaced by long-term legal crops: Arabica coffee and macadamia nuts, which the area is now somewhat famed for.

The second phase was sufficiency (1994-2002), where the goal was stable income for locals with more work alternatives, as well as higher productivity and value of local products and resources. There was continuous work during this phase on infrastructure, education and health (including the treatment and prevention of HIV/AIDS). Education encouraged Doi Tung students to study beyond high school, and the curriculum took a vocational or “learning by doing” approach.

Doi Tung’s business units expanded – the organisation “went up the value chain” with its coffee – roasting it and offering Café Doi Tung in locations throughout Thailand. Cottage industry manufacturing areas were opened, offering the chance for locals to take their hand up at pottery, hand-woven textiles, tufted carpets and mulberry paper. Doi Tung now partners with some heavyhitter corporates like Ikea and Muji for production. The cultivation of beautiful flowers and plants for the Mae Fah Lung Garden was introduced, as was tourism – people from all around the world were starting to get interested in what was happening in the north.

The long-term sustainability phase (2003-present) is about sustainability of the project.

Now, the villager’s children are heading off to university – some, to very prestigious universities in Thailand and beyond. Locals have a wide variety of career options if they want to stay at Doi Tung. The scales have tipped in terms of income per capita from most people in the region being classified as “extreme poverty” to “lower middle income” and “middle class”. The United Nations has commended the project, and according to Doi Tung, it’s the only place in the world where you’ll find a UN label on the products stating: “The sale of this product contributes to the achievement of a drug-free world. Through alternative sustainable development, villagers who once depended on opium production and use can now earn secure legitimate incomes by making these products.”


Life is good now and has changed drastically over the past 30-odd years. As one villager said, when the Mae Fah Lung Foundation arrived: “People put their weapons down and took up Thai citizenship.”

We visited as part of the organisation’s Living University, where we were able to stay in accommodation on-site at Doi Tung, visit the attractions, hear local’s stories, see goods such as pottery and textiles being created, and help some villagers further north create dams. It was a once in a lifetime experience and I am seriously grateful for it. (Thank you for the Fujitsu-JAIMS Global Leaders programme for taking me there!)

The next problem – crystal meth

Despite the success of this project – a new challenge is on the horizon, if not on the foreground, and it’s a problem that is global – “yabba” or crystal methamphetamine.

Doi Tung has a zero-tolerance approach to drug use now, a female villager says. She’s sitting next to the former opium cultivator and user. Those with multiple transgressions can be asked to leave the village, and therefore – essentially – quit a considerably better life than offered outside the development’s boundary line.

This villager looks like the Thai version of a grandmother who is a regular at the Remuera Lawn Bowls club. She’s elegant, poised and dressed in traditional garb, hair coiffed and lipstick on.

She was a weapons dealer before the Doi Tung development, though my question about where she was dealing arms to is either lost in translation or avoided. Nam’s not implausible if you look at the dates.

Drugs and war have gone hand-in-hand for many years – “as much a part of conflict as bullets; often defining wars rather than sitting anecdotally on the sidelines of them”.

The simple reality is that we are always going to have guns, drugs and wars. It’s the basic economic theory of supply and demand. But, as the Mae Fah Lung Foundation has demonstrated – sometimes, possibly more often than not, drug cultivation and use are not the problem, but a symptom of the real problem of poverty and local of opportunity.

In the words of Thailand’s most-adored Princess Mother: “No one wants to be a bad person, but they do not have the opportunity to do good.”

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Hannah Norton is a former journalist and editor who now works in public relations. In her spare time, she also likes to write – and this website is a collation of her “work that’s not work” – from blog posts to short stories. She is based in New Zealand.

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