The hill tribes of Thailand and the place of opium in their socio-economic setting


The hill tribal peoples
The place of opium in the socio-economy of the hill tribes


Pages: 7 to 18
Creation Date: 1968/01/01

The hill tribes of Thailand and the place of opium in their socio-economic setting

Report of the United Nations Survey Team on the economic and social needs of the opium-producing areas in Thailand

In 1964, the Government of Thailand requested the assistance of the United Nations in carrying out a survey of the economic and social needs of its opium- producing areas with a view to facilitating the abolition of poppy cultivation and addiction by measures of economic and social development offering the individuals affected alternative means of livelihood in industry, handicrafts and agriculture; the Economic and Social Council, on 11 August 1964, adopted resolution 1025 (XXXVII) C supporting this request. The Survey was timed so as to allow the Thai authorities to complete a socio-economic survey of the Hill Tribes in Thailand and also so as to coincide with the flowering of the poppy plant and the incision of the capsules.

The survey team sent out, in response to the Thai request consisted of a social anthropologist, an agricultural economist and a specialist in opium problems in the Far East, with an official from the United Nations Secretariat acting as adviser. [ 1] The team spent most of two months among the tribes and its report is now in the hands of the Government of Thailand. The following extracts are published with the agreement of the latter, and the succeeding number of the Bulletin will present the recommendations made by the survey team.

The hill tribal peoples

The total number of hill tribal people in the border areas of Thailand fronting on Burma and Laos has in the past been variously estimated at between 200,000 and half a million. The most scientific attempt to arrive at an estimate has been the Survey carried out by the Thai Government in 1965/66. This Survey was part of the preliminary work for the present U.N. Survey and we shall refer to it many times in the following pages.

The 1965/66 Survey gave a total hill tribe population of 275,249 persons. Within the limits of the declared sampling error of 11% we may accept this figure as accurate.

Account was taken in the Survey only of people living above an altitude of 600 metres. There are a number of minority groups in north Thailand who live below that altitude and who are sometimes classed as "tribal" peoples. The largest of these groups is the Lawa. There are also groups of Karen and Shan. As none of these groups at lower levels are opium producers there is justification for leaving them out of account for present purposes. But it should be noted that when we are speaking henceforth of hill tribal peoples we are not including all "tribal ", or minority, peoples in the north. Nor are we intending to imply that the groups at lower levels are not important elements in the total social and ecological situation in the hill country.

In the hill tribal population there are six mare groups with populations estimated by the 1965/66 Survey to be:



Per cent of total population

53,031 19.3
16,119 5.9
15,994 5.8
9,440 3.4
123,380 44.8

There are also a number of minor tribes (including the Htin to whom we make reference later) and Yunnanese migrants, including the Haw Chinese.

The approximate area of land above 600 metres is 110,000 square kilometres giving a population density of about 2.5 per square kilometre.

The tribal peoples are culturally distinct from the Thai, although far back in human prehistory they came originally from the same general stock. They are also different from one another in language, dress, customs and recent places of origin. A very broad distinction can be made between those tribes which are culturally fairly close to the Chinese, namely the Miao and the Yao, and those which are of Tibeto-Burman origin, namely the Lahu, the Lisu, the Akha and the Karen.

Apart from some groups of Karen, all the tribes appear to have moved into Thailand comparatively recently. They are the latest surge of the population movement southwards from China which brought the Thai people themselves here only seven centuries ago. Like the Thai they are still represented in China or in the countries through which they have passed.

Chinese records indicate that the ancestors of the Miao lived on the banks of the Yellow River about 3,000 years ago. They were driven south by the pressure of the Chinese. Today there are approximately 2 million Miao in China in the Provinces of Kweichow, Kwangsi, Hunan and Yunnan. According to the 1965-66 Survey their greatest concentration in Thailand is in Phetchabun Province but they are also found in large numbers in Chiangrai, Chiangmai, Nan and Tak Provinces and smaller numbers in the Provinces of Mae Hong Son, Lampang and Phitsanulok.

The Yao are first mentioned in Chinese records as inhabiting the area east of Kweichow about 2,500 years ago. In the course of their history they appear to have become more culturally assimilated to the Chinese than the Miao, although generally preserving a sense of separate identity. Many Yao groups are to be found in China today especially in the provinces of Kwangsi and Yunnan. In Thailand they are concentrated in Chiangrai Province with a few groups in Nan, Lampang and Chiangmai Provinces.

The Lisu, Lahu and Akha tribes are represented in greater numbers in southern Yunnan or the Burmese highlands than in Thailand. The Lisu in Thailand have their greatest numbers in Chiangmai Province, almost as many in Chiangrai Province and a smaller number in Mae Hong Son Province. The Lahu are in greatest numbers in Chiangrai Province but are strongly represented in Chiangmai Province and have a smaller number in Mae Hong Son. The Akha, except for one small group in Mae Hong Son Province, live entirely in Chiangrai Province. The Karen have apparently been moving into Thailand for centuries from Burma, where they still have the greater representation. In Thailand they are in greatest numbers in the Provinces of Chiangmai and Mae Hong Son but have also settled in Chiangrai, Lamphun, Lampang, Tak and Kamphaeng Phet Provinces.

Each of the tribes has a number of sub-divisions. In Thailand there are two main sub-divisions of the Miao: the Blue Miao and the White Miao. The most obvious distinction between them is a difference in costume but there are also differences in language and in some customs. Persons from different subdivisions may intermarry, however, and the general similarity is great enough to allow co-residence in some cases of households from different sub-divisions in the same village.

The Lahu have four sub-divisions in Thailand: the Black Lahu, the Red Lahu, the Lahu Shahleh and the Lahu Shi. The Karen have two main sub-divisions: the Skaw Karen and the P'wo Karen. As with the Miao, the differences are most obvious in costume but extend also to language and customs.

The Yao, Lisu and Akha appear to have no major cultural sub-divisions.

The names given to the tribes or to the sub-divisions in ethnographic literature may differ from the names given to them by the Thai and both may differ from the names the groups apply to themselves. For instance, the term "Miao" is most generally used in ethnography because it is the usual transliteration of the Chinese name for the people. But in Thailand the term "Meo", derived from French writings on Indo-China, is commonly used, while the people everywhere call themselves "H'mong". The Akha are most often called by the Thai "E-Kaw" but the term "Akha" seems closer to the name the people apply to themselves. The Lahu are frequently called "Mussur" by the Thai and the same word occurs in French writings on Indo-China. There are also other variations of terminology in common usage.

Members of the same tribe or sub-division of a tribe share a general sense of cultural affinity and of distinctiveness from other tribes or sub-divisions. At the tribal level the sense of distinctiveness may be strong enough to prevent intermarriage with other tribes completely and generally serves to discourage it. On the other hand, the sense of affinity facilitates intermarriage even between widely separated sections of the same tribe and also leads to the acceptance of migrants from one area into another.

Apart from the general sense of affinity there is no over-all tribal or sub-tribal unity on the social or political levels. Normally the village is the largest political unit which the people recognize and even villages have permanence only so long as the individual households continue to associate voluntarily with them. In tribes such as the Miao, which have a clan structure, local clan heads exercise a leadership over their clan members and social ties of clanship may be recognized over the total tribal area providing a closer affinity within the general affinity.

Apart from the Yao who have some religious books written in Chinese script and some of whom can write in Chinese characters, none of the tribes has a traditional written language. Christian missionaries have educated some of the tribes-people to write in their own languages and the Thai Government has recently been pressing ahead with the establishment of schools to teach Thai, but it is still the case that at the present time the majority of the tribespeople are illiterate.

In many cases, however, they have quite a rich cultural life. Their distinctive religious beliefs provide the occasions for many ceremonies and there are regular festivals giving expression to the artistic abilities of the people and satisfaction of their social and recreational needs. Village conditions often cannot be described as poor because the average income level, especially in the opium-producing areas, may be higher than that of the average rural Thai family. The social life of the villages is usually well organized. The leaders control internal affairs with very little friction, there are few inter-village disputes and no inter-tribal fighting. There are some poor villages but these are mostly outside the opium-producing area.

The relationship of the tribal peoples with the Thai Government has always been good. This is because of the tolerance with which they have been treated. Nearly all the tribal people have come into Thailand because it has offered them better economic opportunity or refuge from foreign domination. They have been permitted to settle in the country without disturbance to their social organization or tribal integrity. They have been allowed to occupy land which belonged to the Crown and to migrate from place to place. Recently welfare measures have been instituted for their benefit.

The continued happiness of the tribes depends upon the degree to which necessary changes in their ways of life can be introduced without disrupting their existing social harmony or lowering their standards of living. The change with which we are concerned in this Report is the elimination of opium production. The following section is devoted to the analysis of the part which opium plays in Hill Tribe economy. We shall see that it is a large part. The consideration given later in the Report to the results of the 1965/66 Survey will show that it is probably a much larger part than anyone, Thai or foreign, has imagined hitherto.

The fact that opium is a much more basic feature of the economies and cultures of some of the largest tribes than has been previously recognized indicates the magnitude of the problem faced by the Government. It is not a feature which can be eliminated easily. Had the amounts of opium been small and confined to a few areas, it might have been possible, although still probably unwise, to contemplate forcible measures to eliminate it. The social disruption might accordingly have been comparatively slight and remedial measures been within the resources of the Thai Government. But this is not the case.

The tribes within Thailand are now part of the Thai nation. Upon their peaceful development depends their own happiness and, in some degree, the happiness of the Kingdom as a whole. Measures to eliminate opium and to advance the general welfare of the tribal people will require careful planning and the most judicious application. Part of the planning must be careful research into the existing socio-economic structure of each of the tribes concerned. The structures differ in the various tribes. It would be beyond the scope of this Report to attempt to discuss the differences even if our information were sufficient, which it is not. But the differences must be appreciated and the economy and social structure of each group understood as a result of thorough research if development measures are to be carried out successfully.

The task of providing a different economic base for the tribal groups at present dependent upon opium is a task of great magnitude. In this Report we make some suggestions as to the types of measures which may be tried. But we realize that the task will tax both the wisdom and resources of the Government, which we believe should receive the maximum possible aid in its work in this field. In addition to any material aid which may be given, acknowledgement should be paid to the sincerity of the Government's efforts in what can only be a long-term operation.

The place of opium in the socio-economy of the hill tribes

Not all the tribal groups living in the hills of north Thailand are opium producers and of those that are some are much larger producers than others.

Three factors determine the extent of production:

  1. The altitude at which the group lives;

  2. The degree of skill , usually based on generations of experience, which it has in poppy cultivation;

  3. The types of soil available to it.

The opium poppy does not grow well at heights below 3,000 feet; and groups living lower are not normally poppy cultivators. Such groups are the Lawa, the Shan, the Khmu, most of the Akha and many of the Karen. The tribes that live generally above 3,000 feet are the Miao, the Yao, the Lisu and the Lahu and they are the prime opium producers. They are not the only ones. An increasing number of Karen appears to be cultivating the poppy. Their villages are usually situated well below 3,000 feet but they clear swiddens for poppies at higher levels. A minority of Akha has apparently low-producing fields at less than 3,000 feet. The Htin in Chiangrai Province also produce opium. None of these other groups, however, can compare in the extent of their production with the Miao, the Yao, the Lisu and the Lahu.

The Miao and the Yao live at the highest altitudes and generally opium appears to be a much larger element in their total economy than is true of any of the other tribes. They are also the most skilful at poppy cultivation. This does not mean that they are the best agriculturists in terms of maximum utilization of natural resources. Other tribes, such as the Karen, farm their land according to a judicious rotation cycle which allows them to remain in the same area for generations. The Miao, on the other hand, may cultivate the land without respite until its productive capacity becomes so low that they are forced to move to other areas.

This difference in land-use methods is probably directly related to the place opium has in the total economy. The Miao certainly, and the Yao apparently, came into Thailand quite recently with a tradition of poppy cultivation and they seek the land which is best suited for it. They have a different attitude of mind from the tribes long resident in this area. Whereas the Karen live with the country, the Miao master it. They exploit it, they exhaust it and they leave it. This behaviour we believe to be a consequence of the emphasis upon poppy cultivation.

It should be realized, of course, that we have been speaking in generalities and we shall continue to do so throughout this chapter. There are some Miao who do not use land in this manner; there are some Karen who are not good conservationists; there are Yao who have opium only as a minor element in their economy; and so on. We are dealing with a large region and the scene is varied. Moreover, our information on many groups and areas is inadequate.

We can, however, say with confidence that in general there is a marked difference in socio-economy between the tribes which have opium production as their primary interest and those which either have it as a secondary interest or do not produce it at all. As an example of the first category we shall discuss the Miao because our information on them is more extensive.


In seeking new areas for settlement and cultivation the Miao are guided by the criteria for good poppy growth. The first criterion is altitude. Other things being equal, the higher the better. There is very little usable land above 1,600 m (5,300 feet) and most Miao villages in Thailand will be found between that height and 1,000 m (3,300 feet), with a median height of about 1,200 m (4,000 feet). Usually the people try to settle as high as they can without losing fairly easy access to water. Hence their villages are often situated at the sources of streams or on the ridges immediately above.

The second criterion for a good site for cultivation is configuration of land. If possible the slopes should not be too severe. If steep slopes must be used, farmers prefer them to be the top slopes of hills, where erosion should be least. The search for the right configuration of land is another reason why the Miao seek high altitudes.

The third criterion is that the land should either be under virgin forest or at least under secondary growth of long standing. Land which has recently been used for growing hill rice is not generally regarded as suitable for poppy.

The fourth criterion is that the soil should have certain qualities. The Miao judge these qualities by the characteristics of the natural vegetation upon the land. The exact significance of the signs they use requires more detailed study but in the agricultural section of this Report it is suggested that the degree of alkalinity of the soil is an important consideration. A relatively high general fertility as indicated by luxuriant growth is also sought.

When a Miao group needs new land, it will seek it according to these criteria. Reports will be obtained from tribesmen who have visited relatives in other places. Reconnaissance parties may be sent into likely areas. Land discovered by such means may sometimes be quite small in area but this may nevertheless be considered enough to justify the movement of the group into it.

In the areas which have been studied so far by anthropologists the average amount of land used each year by a Miao family for growing poppy appears to be about 8 rai. [ *] The total amount of land needed for poppy cultivation during the expected period of residence will, therefore, be approximately 16 rai.

It should be stressed that this is an estimate of the average figure only. When Miao families are able to employ the labour of persons from other tribes the areas of their cultivations may be greatly increased. It has been reported that some families have had a total of forty or fifty rai under poppy in a single year. Much more investigation is needed before we can be sure of the real extent of Miao cultivation but we can fairly safely accept as minimum figures in Miao opium-producing communities the averages of 8 rai of poppy per family per year and 16 rai per family during an average period of residence in an area.

To assess total land needs we must also calculate how large an area is needed to grow rice if a family is to be self-sufficient in it for a year. The estimate of Dr. Krui Punyasingh is that the mean yield of hill rice per rai is 470.1 kg. We assume that this is unhusked rice. Utilizing this figure and known consumption figures we conclude that a family of three adults and three children will require approximately 6.5 rai of rice land to provide their needs for one year. Although so short a fallow period probably harms the soil, the family may begin to use the land again in after years so that the total area required for rice cultivation during a ten-year period, if the family is to be self-sufficient, will be 32.5 rai.

Adding the amount we have calculated for poppy requirements - 16 rai - to the amount calculated for rice requirements - 32.5 rai - we reach a total of 48.5 rai of land for each family for a ten-year period. In facht the areas available to many Miao families are of smaller size. Probably a majority of families grow less than half the rice they need for food. They exploit smaller areas of land - from 16 to 30 rai. By using them exclusivly for poppy with some rice, they can support themselves adequately on areas which if they were obliged to use them exclusively for rice, would be too small to give them subsistence.

Settlement on such a small area of land will mean that the group can remain there only for about ten years after which time it must move again. Many Miao groups do in fact move after periods of less than ten years. Generally they will explain their migrations as due simply to shortage of land and maintain they would much prefer to be stable. They do not, they say, enjoy moving. it costs them money for transport. They must build new houses. They are often forced to part from friends and form new alliances. They lose at least the major part of one year's rice harvest because they cannot resettle and make large rice fields at the same time. They say, therefore that they leave only because they are forced to do so by shortage of land.

All this is true. but it is only part of the truth. The fact is that Miao are prepared to go into areas which will support them for only ten years or less. They are not deterred by the prospect of such a short period of stability. Their overriding motive is to find areas which will be excellently suited to poppy growing. The total size of the area is less important than its productive capacity in opium, provided it is up to the minimum size mentioned above. Because they view the situation in this way, the Miao often find themselves in areas where short residence is inevitable.

Even when a group does find a relatively large area which would be capable of providing its members with enough land for a long settlement, it frequently allows a situation to develop in which the prospect quickly disappears. Relatives or even strangers from other Miao groups are permitted and even encouaged to join the group and soon there is pressure on the land.

The temptation of good opium land is so strong that sometimes Miao may greatly over-extimate its capacity to accomodate them. An example of this occured in the village of Meto in the Hot District of Chiangmai Province. A small group of Miao from the Chiang Dao area had moved to the Mao Cham District in 1959. After two years they decided that the land there was not enough. Accompanied by a few men from Mao Cham who had lived there for a longer period, they moved to Meto. A reconnaissance had shown them that there was a fairly large area of forest land above the cultivations of karen, who had villages at a lower level. At first there were only four families in the migrating Miao group. By 1964 other people had followed them from both Mao Cham and Chiang Dao and the village had grown to sixty households. There was now little land left for new clearings. but 1964 happened to be an exceptionally good growing year for poppy and opium production reached an exceptionally high point. The news spread at remarkable speed. Emissaries from a Miao group far away near the Laos border of Chiangrai Province arrived seeking permission to settle at meto. This was granted. There was not enough land, however, under Miao control to allow all the newly arriving immigrants to squeeze in. Negotiations were opened with the Karen neighours who, in return for chash payments, were induced to allow the Miao to cut forest in areas which they claimed as their reserve against future land need.

About 12 households arrived from Chiangrai. With great labour they built houses and planted crops partly on new land and partly on used land ceded them by established Meto residents. Unfortunately 1965 proved to be a poor year for poppy. The Chiangrai people realized they had made a mistake and retraced their steps. The consequences, however, did not end there. The intrusion of the Chiangrai people had put a final pressure on the Meto land and it became evident to the long-established residents that they could not maintain themselves there much longer. They have now begun to move away, scattering, some going back to Chiang Dao District, some going to Mae Sariang District of Mae Hong Son Province, and some to areas in Tak Province. By February 1967 the village at meto had been reduced to 35 houses and it is possible that there will be non there within a year. For most people the length of residence in meto has been about eight years.

This incident is fairly typical of the behaviour of the Miao. They are true "shifting cultivators". it is not simply the cultivations which shift but the cultivators as well, and they may shift a hundred or more miles in one movement. Before such a major move is made there may be local shifts. If the area in which a group settles is large the people will first farm in proximity to their village site. Later they will farm further away, building secondary houses in their fields but maintaining their houses in the village where they will congregate during slack periods in the agricultural year and at times of festivals. As the distance from village to cultivations increases, however, the secondary houses will be built to a better standard and in time they may become the only houses. The original village will then have atomized into a number of separate nuclei dispersed over its territory. This can usually be taken as a sign that settlement in the area is coming to an end. The territorial limits of expansion have been reached. The next stage is a leap, or series of leaps, right away from the area. New congregations will occur in other places and the process of accretion and dispersion will be repeated over roughly a ten-year period.

From the foregoing discussion we can summarize our first conclusions regarding the effects of opium production on Miao settlement and land use. The Miao establish their villages at altitudes above 3,000 feet and as high as 5,000 feet. They prefer to clear jungle land on the crests of hills and on the first slopes of the highest valleys. Almost half of the land which they cultivate during their residence in an area they use for poppy and they farm this land for five to ten years in succession until it will produce no more. They then move, often great distances, to settle in new areas. Poppy cultivation encourages a migratory pattern of living. Because the Miao depend upon opium production they do not grow enough other crops, especially rice, for their subsistence needs.

It should not be thought that Miao groups could turn away easily from opium production to full subsistence farming. Many of them are caught by the consequences of their settlement patterns. They do not have enough land in the areas where they are living to make themselves self-supporting in rice and supplementary foods for long periods of time. Conversion to subsistence farming would, therefore, require territorial relocation of groups. Without further investigation it is difficult to tell how possible this would be in terms of land resources and how acceptable it would be to the social groups concerned.


The attention given to opium production affects the whole agricultural pattern of the Miao. It limits the amount of production which can be achieved with other crops. It also favours a particular set of crops. We shall now discuss these effects in the order given.

If a family devotes much attention to poppy cultivation, it cannot cultivate enough rice to feed it throughout the year. It will not have the labour required to clear the necessary area of land. Even if poppy cultivation involved no more work than rice cultivation, it is doubtful if the family could cultivate enough rice land for subsistence in addition to the four rai of poppy land. Karen communities which are not engaged in opium production are able at best to grow only a small surplus of rice above their subsistence needs and therefore the Miao, giving much attention to poppy, are unlikely to be able to grow enough for all their food needs.

Poppy cultivation does in fact demand more labour than that of rice. Not only must the ground be cleared as for rice. It must also be hoed. Then it must be hoed again when the plants are a few weeks old and the plants must be thinned. A further hoeing and thinning is required after two months. When the crop has reached maturity the seed capsules must be tapped, this operation requiring the labour of most of the family from late December until some time in February.

The fact that tapping the seed capsules requires the labour of most members of a family for almost two months until February (and in some cases it may be until the end of February) imposes a limitation of time on the amount of rice land which can be cleared. We have noted that rice must be planted on land which has been freshly cleared from forest either of a primary or secondary type. The cutting of the forest growth should be finished by late February if sufficient time is to be allowed to ensure that it will be dry enough to burn off satisfactorily before the planting time in April. The concentration of labour resources on the opium harvest until perhaps the end of February limits the amount of land which can be cleared in this way. Indeed the only way in which many Miao manage to cultivate as much poppy and rice as they do is by employing Karen or other labourers. We discuss the subject of employment later.

Opium production also influences the selection of other types of crops for cultivation. It gives a special value to maize in the Miao economy, To understand why it does so we must consider both the planting calendar and the demands made by rice and opium upon labour resources.

Rice is planted in April when the ground has been freshly cleared by burning. But poppy cannot be planted until August. If the ground intended for this crop were left unplanted until then, it would become covered by weeds which neither the season nor the extent of growth would permit to be cleared by burning in August. The problem is well overcome by planting maize on the clearings intended for poppy at the same time as rice is planted on the other clearings. The maize can be harvested in August and the poppy sown immediately on ground that needs no further clearing; or if the maize is not quite ready for harvesting, the poppy can be planted amongst it. On some slopes the maize is deliberately not harvested until after the poppy plants have become established in order to give the very young plants protection from the heavy rains which often occur in August.

Most Miao communities crop all their poppy land for maize each year. The result is a considerable amount of maize. They rarely eat much of it themselves. They use some to make a potent alcoholic spirit to drink at festivals, but most they use as pig food. They are thus enabled to raise large numbers of pigs.

We find, then, that opium production is part of a larger production complex embracing poppy itself, maize and livestock raising. If opium production is eliminated it will affect the whole complex. There will be less purpose in growing so much maize. And it will not be so easy to grow so much even if it is desired to do so, because just as maize keeps the ground clear for poppy so too does poppy keep it clear for maize. Sometimes it is suggested by those interested in seeing an end to opium production that the hill tribes could substitute stock raising for poppy cultivation. This may be possible over a longer period of time, but in the case of the Miao the first effect of eliminating poppy cultivation would be to reduce the number of livestock.


Poppy is grown primarily as a source of cash income. Only a small proportion of the opium harvested is consumed by the people themselves, although the amount varies according to the number of smokers in a family. Many Miao families have no smokers.

A portion of the cash income is needed to buy rice, since, as stated previously, the average Miao family produces only about half its annual rice needs. Of the remainder of the cash income some will be used to acquire necessary goods such as items of clothing and semi-luxuries such as torches, watches and so on. The amount still left, if any, will usually be converted into large silver neck rings. Each of these rings contains silver to the value of about 400 baht (U.S. $20).

The rings are worn as ornaments by both men and women, but they have much more than a purely decorative importance. One of their values lies in their use as bride-price. A man cannot obtain a wife unless he can pay over to her parents a certain quantity of silver which is frequently in the form of neck rings. Wives must be obtained from other clans the members of which are often strangers so it is almost impossible to avoid making the exchange. Opium production is therefore highly important to the Miao as a means by which silver and hence wives can be obtained. The elimination of opium production would demand a considerable readjustment of social intercourse amongst the people.

The second, non-decorative, importance of the rings is that they are a form of savings. In years of poor harvest the people may sell rings to traders or to silversmiths in the town in order to get the cash they need for necessities.

In a year of very high production the cash income may be enough to allow purchases beyond the ordinary. This occurred in the village of Meto after the excellent harvest of 1964. The village was transformed in appearance. Many of the householders replaced the thatch on their roofs with corrugated iron. Some also bought transistor radio sets.

A proportion of the opium is traded directly for goods from hawkers or from traders resident in the villages. Generally, however, the Miao prefer to sell their opium for cash and to use cash in their dealings with traders. At the height of the opium harvest in some high-producing areas there may be as many as one trader for every five or six households in the village. Usually the traders are Chinese of Yunnanese extraction, although sometimes they are Thai and occasionally hill tribesmen belonging to the group in which they are trading. The Miao cultivator / Yunnanese trader relationship is obviously an old one originating in China to which both parties are well adjusted and which appears to be on the whole mutually beneficial. The traders referred to here are not to be confused with some more recent immigrants from Yunnan, some of whom also engage in trade in the hills but are less welcomed by the hill tribesmen.

Although most of the regular traders in the villages have some dealings in opium, their operations in this regard are frequently small. Most of them are primarily small shop-keepers. The big opium traders live in the towns and operate through intermediaries who visit the villages especially for the purpose of buying opium. They do not normally trade goods in return. Our information is, of course, limited on this point.

The income from opium varies greatly according to the fertility of the various areas, the climates of different years and other factors. Estimates both of production and cash incomes have been made by a number of authorities. Certainly there are considerable differences. In the village of Meto studied by the Tribal Research Centre yields ranged from 1 to 5 kg per rai or 9.38 to 31.25 kg/ha. In 1964/65 the most successful cultivators produced totals of up to 15 kg. In 1965/66 productivity was considerably lower but a few households got a total of approximately 10 kg. The present season has been the poorest on record in the area.

The selling price of raw opium in the villages at the height of the season is usually about 800 baht or $40 per kilogramme, so that the few farmers who produced 15 kg in 1964/65 received an income of approximately 12,000 baht or $600. Less than this amount, however, would have been received in cash. In some of the households a portion of the opium would have been smoked. Some of it would have been traded directly to hawkers or storekeepers for goods and some used to pay Karen labourers. We must recognize, too, that an income of this size is quite exceptional. In most villages there is a wide range of incomes, in both good and bad years, among the households. This is partly the result of different qualities of land but many other factors enter as well. One such factor is the ability of the producer to hold back some of his opium until the price rises. It is lowest at the time of the harvest when there is much opium on the market and rises throughout the year.

Micro-climatic factors and soil characteristics account for differences in the quality of fields owned by different households in the village. Generally the first arrivals in an area get the best land and it remains theirs by customary right so long as they continue to farm it (or, in the case of paddy land, leave it fallow with the intention of using it again). Those who come later must be satisfied with what is ceded to them by the first settlers or what they can find themselves.

Visible signs of a good crop are the height of the plants at maturity, the size of the capsules and the number of capsules per plant. On poor fields there may be only one capsule per plant but on top quality fields there may be six or more and most of them large. Normally the Miao tap each capsule only once but in very good areas they may tap a second time. In most areas productivity begins to fall rapidly after about five years of continuous use of the land. Unfavourable weather conditions, such as exceptionally heavy rain or drought, will reduce the yield from any piece of land but the effect will be worse on land nearing the end of its productive capacity, because the crop will be thinner and less vigorous. In a really bad year, such as the present one, many plantings may fail entirely. We saw many instances of partial failure. On the other hand, under the best conditions of soil and management yields can be fairly high even in a bad year. We saw an instance of this at the Miao village of Pang Kop in Nan Province. In some fields there were 4 feet high multi-capsuled plants yielding at least 5 kg per rai.

It appears that generally the Miao average income rises and falls over a roughly five or six-year period. It ranges from a point at which barely enough is gained to pay for necessary food supplies to a maximum of perhaps 5-6,000 baht above such costs. If comparisons for Miao incomes are to be made with incomes of non-opium producing groups note should be taken of the periodic fluctuation and an average made over a five or six-year period. Our estimations of income are based on a family of six persons of whom four are assumed to be of working age.

We have already said that there will be considerable variations between the incomes of different households in the same village. There are obvious reasons, such as differences in numbers of workers and land resources, why this should be so, but casual enquiry may suggest that the differences are in fact greater than they really are. In the case of rice production and most other subsistence crops a household pools its production, which can then be expressed as a total for the whole household. But almost always in the case of opium, nuclear families within a household have their own fields and they keep their harvests to themselves, sometimes not revealing its exact extent even to the other families in the household. By a nuclear family we mean a married couple and their children. Sometimes there may be only one such family in a Miao household, but often there are more. The largest Miao household we saw in a village in Tak Province which contained 44 persons comprising five nuclear families. This large household had a single hearth and a single food store. But each of the constituent families had its own poppy fields and kept their production separate. Because of this, questions put to a household head as to his opium production might elicit misleading answers, either through his ignorance of the total production or because he understands the questions to apply only to his own family.

We may summarize at this stage that opium is grown as a source of cash. The income varies between households and according to climatic conditions. It is subject to more or less regular fluctuations over a period of time. Despite high incomes in some especially productive years, an average income for Miao households, allowing for years in which there is almost no production, is probably about 3,500-4,000 baht ($175-200). This should not be thought of as a cash income above subsistence needs. Opium is partially an alternative for subsistence crops - an alternative to which the Miao are obliged to conform by the consequences of their own economic attitudes. At least half the average cash income is spent on necessary food.


In their search for good poppy land the Miao often interpenetrate other tribes occupying areas of forest in excess of their cultivation areas. Occasionally, too, they may take over land long abandoned either by other tribes or by earlier groups of Miao, although such land is regarded as much less desirable. Frequently they live in close proximity to other tribes. Sometimes these other tribes are already poppy growers and the Miao presence does not make much difference to them. In situations where their neighbours are Karen, however their influence may be considerable. There may be beneficial effects as well but we can distinguish three which are harmful:

  1. The Karen become labourers of the Miao. The Miao are efficient farmers who are soon able to accumulate a working capital, which they apply to employing Karen labour to multiply their income. In some districts more than half the total work on Miao poppy fields is performed by persons other than Miao, in most instances by Karen. The workers may be given a contract to clear or hoe an area of land for a certain sum, or they may be employed as day labourers. In either case the payment usually averages about 5 baht per day plus food. It is hard to assess the effect of the employee relationship on the Karen. For some it is a means of getting cash otherwise unattainable. But a majority of the Karen who go to work for the Miao are opium addicts. They spend most of their wages on opium and the opportunity to buy it from the Miao probably confirms their addiction. Their long absences from their own homes must make it difficult for them to cultivate enough crops for their own support and that of their families.

  2. The Karen are encouraged by the Miao example to become poppy cultivators. Enterprising Karen are inspired to copy the Miao. Usually they are far less successful partly because their land, being on lower and steeper slopes, is less suitable for poppy and partly because they lack the knowledge or experience of cultivation techniques. Nevertheless, they often plant quite large areas and harvest fairly considerable quantities of opium.

  3. Pressure develops on Karen land. The pressure may develop for two reasons. The Karen's adoption of poppy cultivation takes some of their land permanently away from rice production. Secondly, the Miao may induce the Karen to part with more land than, in fact, they can spare if they are to preserve a healthy rotation. Both processes have occurred in the Meto area. Some of the Karen neighbours of the Miao, although they or their ancestors have resided in the area for the last fifty years, are now being forced to search for new land elsewhere. Their fields have lost productivity through long continued cultivation. They had sold their forest reserves to the Miao and they had wasted good rice land on unsatisfactory poppy production. They were then forced to cultivate their remaining rice land too frequently. The final result is that the area can now accommodate neither them nor the Miao, and both are moving.


After poppy land has been cultivated to a point where it no longer produces enough to make it worth while continuing the practice, it usually reverts to secondary forest far more slowly than that used for rice. This is not surprising. It has been used continuously for 5-10 years and it has been constantly hoed over. There is little hope of cultivating such land again for many years. Often, indeed, it becomes coarse grassland. The group which has exploited it to this stage must move away to seek new land. As suitable land for poppy is often in relatively small patches, the group may have to move a considerable distance away from the area. This situation largely explains the pattern of Miao migration. Good poppy land is not everywhere to be found, especially now that so much of it has already been worked over.

Given the nature of poppy cultivation it is probably good that groups do often have to go so far away. The complete abandonment of poppy land once it has reached the point of no return provides the only chance it has of regaining its fertility.

There is little doubt that with the present methods of cultivation the poppy is harmful to the land. The areas in the hills of north Thailand which have been changed from forest to grassland are almost all areas which have been used by the opium-growing tribes. The species of grass which have spread are of low value for stock grazing. It is true that the ultimate harm done may be no more serious than to take the land out of production for at least very many years. It could be argued, therefore, that at least some use has been got out of the land and that this is better than not having it used at all. This, however, does not take sufficient account of the fact that the hill tribes need continuing resources if they are to live. Although it is as yet hardly manifest, serious pressure on the land will probably increase in the next few years, especially if health services are provided for the hill tribes, and veterinary services are expanded to cover their livestock. It is highly important, therefore, that the fertility of the land should be preserved if at all possible.

Fertility could be somewhat better preserved if the land were used for rice on a suitable rotation cycle. It should be possible to preserve it also even when it is cropped for poppy if either chemical fertilizers were used or the land followed more frequently. But it would not be acceptable to encourage better methods of poppy cultivation. Therefore the only course to take is to attempt to eliminate poppy cultivation.


More study is required to determine the place of opium production in the socio-economy of other tribes. Mr. Douglas Miles, an anthropologist attached to the Tribal Research Centre, has supplied us with some useful information on production in a Yao community which he is studying, and we hope that in time similar information will be collected on other tribal groups.

In the present season the Yao farmers studied by Miles are averaging over 4 kg of raw opium per rai or 25 kg/ha. They appear to be superior in their planting and harvesting techniques to any other cultivators of which we have knowledge. Many of them plant three varieties of poppy according to the following schedule:


Time sown

Time harvested


Thus they have a long harvesting season . * They also tap the capsules not only once but up to three times. The secondary tappings are less productive than the primary, but add substantially to the total yield.

A detailed comparison of the Yao methods with those of the Miao should prove valuable because both are highly knowledgeable poppy growers with generations of experience. The Miao with whom we are familiar also sow two or three varieties of poppy but usually all at the same time. They mature at slightly different times but the difference is less than if they were sown in different months. Some of the varieties .probably do less well than if they were sown later. The Miao are aware that capsules may yield again if tapped a second time, but say that this is worth doing only in very productive areas and in fact they very rarely tap a second time. It appears that the Yao methods of cultivation and harvesting do give a higher return per rai. But the Miao method may give a better return per unit of labour.

Such a conclusion would accord with the facts of land use in the Yao community studied by Miles, and in the Miao community of Meto. The Yao fields are relatively small. Their size is dictated by the area which the household would be able to harvest. As multiple tappings mean much greater time required for harvesting, they limit the area planted. The Miao plant larger areas. They harvest less thoroughly, but their total production per household appears to be greater.

The Miao practice is more costly in terms of land. 'It also means that opium production has a more important place in their total economy. We have seen, indeed, that it has a predominant place. In the Yao community being studied by Miles it has a much smaller place. Not all the households grow poppy. Those that do also have large enough rice fields to supply their needs throughout the year. Rice production is the first interest of the people, and the village produces a surplus which can be sold for cash. The land nearest the village is used only for rice and the poppy fields are much farther away. Almost no maize is grown on the poppy fields presumably because they are so far away and to transport it back to the village would be difficult. The fact that maize is not grown must mean greater labour in clearing the fields and this is probably a factor in keeping the poppy fields relatively small.

Note by the Editor

It is of interest to recall that in the USSR three varieties of-opium poppy are now being sown: an early yielding, a medium yielding and a late yielding. This practice was adopted to overcome the manpower problem when all opium had to be harvested from a single strain of poppy which came to maturity at one time, thus requiring that the harvesting operation be completed in 8 to 10 days. By planting poppies which come to maturity at different times, the harvesting can now be staggered so that an overall economy of labour at this stage is achieved.

The Yao clearly have a different pattern of farming from the Miao, at least in the areas of which we are speaking. The Yao have been stable for thirty or more Years. They have been able to maintain their residence in the same place because of the agricultural methods they use. But we cannot conclude, of course, that the Miao could have practised the same methods in their area and achieved the same results. A critical factor is the amount of land available. We have suggested that in the case of many Miao communities the amount is too small to permit full subsistence agriculture.

It is evident that hill tribe communities differ greatly in the availability of resources and in the methods used to exploit them. For development and welfare measures to be successful, therefore, full prior investigation of the local conditions under which they will operate is necessary. In the recommendations which we have made we have urged the need for studies of local conditions in all districts with hill tribe populations.

The part which opium production plays in the socio-economies of tribes other than the Miao and Yao cannot be assessed at present because of lack of accurate information. Much more light will be thrown on the matter when the National Statistical Office has had time to analyse in detail the data collected during the 1965/66 Survey. Valuable information on yields of opium under different conditions has been gained through the extensive crop sampling carried out by Dr. Krui Punyasingh. However, the sampling cannot be considered final because it is not sufficiently representative. No samples were taken from the cultivations of the Blue Miao and only very few from those of the White Miao. Yet the Miao produce over 50% of the opium harvested in Thailand. A high proportion of the samples were from Lisu areas, but the Lisu are not generally considered to be high producers of opium because they frequently occupy land which has been previously occupied by other tribal groups. It appears possible that the average yield of 1.3 kg per rai or 8.1 kg/ha calculated from the sampling referred to above could be an under-estimate.

The Tribal Research Centre is sponsoring a socio-economic study of the Lahu on the same lines as that being made of the Yao by Miles and it is hoped that. Similar studies of other tribes will begin soon.

Many of the gaps in existing information are therefore likely to be filled in before long. In the meantime we consider that opium production plays a large part in the economy of almost all the Lahu and Lisu groups, an increasing part in those of some Karen groups and some part, although apparently a small one, in the economy of a number of Akha groups.


Attitudes are, of course, far less accurately measurable than are the facts of production. One can give only general impressions based upon statements of the tribal people themselves and the opinions of observers.

The largest producers, the Miao, grow poppy not for love but for profit. Despite their skill at poppy cultivation and the care they expend on it, they regard the crop with disfavor for three reasons:

  1. They are aware of the problem of addiction. Social sanctions against opium smoking are becoming evident. It is now difficult for known addicts to gain positions of leadership in their communities. Young smokers are unpopular as suitors. Many addicts, particularly young men, express the wish to be cured and will sometimes journey to the lowlands in search of treatment. There are, however, few facilities available to them at present.

  2. Interference with sales of the crop as the result of the activities of Government suppression agencies creates uncertainty about its disposal and causes fluctuations of price.

  3. The atmosphere of illegality and secrecy surrounding the whole situation creates suspicion and for various reasons is not conducive to the best relationships between officials and tribesmen.

For all these reasons many tribespeople-possibly the majority--would be willing to abandon poppy cultivation if suitable alternatives could be found. There is no fundamental division of opinion between the tribes and the Government. Although the reasoning may differ, both parties are agreed that opium production is harmful. We have pointed out the undesirable effects of poppy cultivation on patterns of land use. The tribespeople are aware of the degrading personal effects of opium. But the intricate place which it has in their socio-economy is such that their very survival in some cases depends upon it. Its eventual elimination would be possible only through judicious measures planned upon the basis of thorough research into local conditions and carried out by dedicated people infused with sympathetic understanding of the hill tribes and their ways of life.



A group of 21 pregnant heroin-addicted women were studied by Dr. J. F. Perlmutter (Department of Obstetrics-Gynecology, the Brooklyn-Cumberland Medical Center, Brooklyn, New York). Neonatal addiction was found in 54.5 % of the new born, perinatal mortality was 17.4% and the rate of prematurity was 56.5% ( Int. Pharm. Abstracts, 5, 2, 109, 1968.)


From the United States Bureau of Drug Abuse Control we learn that LSD has been found on chewing gum and chocolate filled candies as well as in the form of blue and purple tablets. Agents of the Bureau have purchased LSD tablets known as "cupcakes" or "wedges". For instance a tablet purchased in the Northwest was uncoated, orange outside, pink inside, 4.2 mm in diameter, 2.6 mm thick and contained 163 mcg of LSD. Numerous amounts of white double scored tablets containing amphetamines have also been encountered.


It is reported that teenagers in the United States of America are smoking the leaves of Daucus carota (wild carrot) called the "Queen Anne's lace ". It is widely distributed, the domestic carrot being the same plant altered by cultivation. A pharmacognosy book states that the ripe fruits are diuretic, stimulant and also a menstrual excitant. ( Microgram, I, 5, 1968.)


In furtherance of the campaign to detect and destroy the clandestine cultivation of the opium poppy, representatives of the State Attorney General's Department at the end of 1966 launched a research programme in Sierra country to the north-east. This was aimed at destroying poppy cultivation by means of a herbicide.

While reconnoitring the Province of Durango, elements of the Federal Judicial Police discovered a clandestine opium poppy plantation which was considered suitable for the experiment. It was a well cultivated plot, 170 x 12 m in extent, far from any roads and hidden in a mountain valley. The average height of the plants was 65 cm and there were thirty plants to the square metre, giving a total of 25,000 plants.

The choice of terrain was decided upon by Air Force Captain Luis Young Orozco, Chief of the Air Services of the Attorney General's Office, agents of the Federal Judicial Police, as well as the Chief of the Military District. Preparatory work included the installation of tanks and pumps for spraying the herbicide, while ground forces prepared a storage depot for the concentrate Tordon 101 as close as possible to the operational area. (The active ingredients of "Tordon 101" are: 10% 4-amino-3,5,6-trichlorodicholinic acid triisopro-panolamine; 40% 2,4-dichlorophenoxyacetic acid triiso-propanilin-triisopropanolamine.)

At daybreak on 28 February 1967, orders went out to the ground forces in the camp. Three hours later the group reached the plantation where it felled three trees and cut back the undergrowth. It was thus possible to provide an unobstructed approach and landing zone for the helicopter. In addition, the ground force occupied itself with refuelling operations and protecting the aircraft against possible surprise attack by farmers who might have observed the operation. When all was ready radio contact was established with the camp. In a short while the Hiller helicopter arrived equipped with tanks for the spraying operation. A mixture of 15 litres of concentrate of herbicide to 30 litres of water was used. The helicopter flew up and down the plantation, spraying at a height of 10 to 12 feet at a speed of between 15 and 20 miles an hour, the operation taking 20 minutes. The temperature was 19 °C at 10.30 a.m. Pacific time. Eight days later the plantation was revisited and it was found that the poppy plants had withered and were flattened.

After 15 days the plants were found to be completely dried out even to the roots. A specimen was taken by a Mexican Army Captain who collaborated in this exercise. It was observed that the herbicide sterilizes the soil to deny any form of cultivation for a period of at least two years.

The success of this herbicidal campaign from the air against clandestine poppy cultivation depends to some extent on the terrain. It cannot be as successfully used in mountainous territory where transportation of the herbicide and of water, for example, would pose problems; the helicopter would also not be able to manoeuvre easily in a hilly setting and it might be damaged by traffickers, thus also jeopardizing the lives of the crew and enforcement agents engaged in the operation.

(Contributed by Juan Barona Lobato, Representative of Mexico, United Nations Commission on Narcotic Drugs.}


This substance was identified as 3,4 methylenedioxyamphetamine. MDA in powder and capsule form is being sold in the New York area as mescaline. One clandestine "laboratory" was seized recently in New York. 1,2 methylenedioxy-4-(2-nitropropenyl) benzene was the substance used as a precursor, one step removed from MDA. ( Microgram, I, 5, 1968).


The team was led by Professor J.F.V. Phillips, with Professor W.R. Geddes and F.T. Merrill as experts, and A. Messing- Mierzejewski, United Nations Secretariat, adviser.


1 rai = 0.16 ha = 0.3954 acre. (1 ha = 6.25 rai.)