Drug abuse control and the environment in northern Thailand
The highlands of northern Thailand
Te narcotics problem in Thailand and in the Golden Triangle
The environment problem in the highlands of northern Thailand
Narcotics crop control and highland development
Author: S. LA-ONGSRI
Pages: 31 to 35
Creation Date: 1992/01/01
The ecology in northern Thailand has been affected by the lifestyle of minority groups living there and some ethnic Thai people. Since 1970 development work to improve socio-economic conditions and national security has been under way. The highlands cover an area of 17 million hectares consisting of forest and watershed areas. A new problem has arisen with the spread of heroin abuse in the neighbouring Lao People's Democratic Republic and Myanmar, producing a negative impact on the ecology, politics and the administration of minority groups. The Government of Thailand has shown flexibility in striving to solve these problems through development work in cooperation with the private sector. This has contributed to good relationships between the countries concerned. Some of the policies and programmes introduced by the Government of Thailand are reviewed in this article.
The lifestyle of the people of the highlands of Thailand before 1969 threatened the future of the area as well as that of the rest of the country. Since 1970, however, the steps taken to protect the highland environment have helped to restore its equilibrium and to strengthen national security. The progress achieved facilitates access to remote and at one time unsafe areas while also stimulating agricultural land use.
During the first phase of highland development, income from agriculture was reduced for a time because of necessary changes in agricultural techniques and the introduction of a crop substitution programme. Since then, however, the living conditions of the hill tribes have improved.
Development which emphasizes change in the highlands alone is clearly not adequate in the current situation. The Sustainable Agricultural and Rural Development System (SARD) has been introduced to foster mutually beneficial conditions of agricultural production and marketing for both highland and lowland peoples, and to ensure the most productive utilization of resources.
The word "highland" is the general term for mountainous or upland areas, including plateaux or flatland, more than 500 metres above sea level.
The north of Thailand lies between latitudes 15¦deg; and 20¦deg; north and longitudes 97¦deg; and 102¦deg; east, and covers an area of 17 million hectares. Its land mass presents the following physical characteristics:
Lowlands, comprising 3 million hectares of flat to slightly undulating land;
Uplands, referring to undulating land rising up to 500 metres above sea level to reach the hill areas;
Highlands, totalling 5 million hectares in extent.
The importance of the highlands is as follows:
They are the source of the main rivers in the north, the Ping, Wang, Yom and Nan, that join and become the Choa Phraya River which flows through the central part of the country and into the Gulf of Siam;
Highland forest areas are home of the hill tribes. Statistics published in 1991 by the Public Welfare Department of Thailand showed that there were 3,532 hill-tribe villages with 96,591 households totalling 552,636 hill-tribe people, as well as 27,072 non-hill-tribe people living in the highlands. The hill tribes, in their culture, beliefs and attitudes, differ from the lowlanders, and their practice of shifting opium-poppy cultivation affects national stability;
Through their common border with the Lao People's Democratic Republic and Myanmar, they stand at the crossroads of the Golden Triangle and the production and smuggling of narcotic drugs.
Illicit opium-poppy cultivation is most frequent in the upper northern provinces of Thailand, and the main cultivators are hill people from six tribal groups. From 1965 to 1967, a United Nations team conducted a survey of opium-poppy cultivation in the region and found 145 tonnes of opium production. The introduction of a crop-substitution programme known as the Royal Highland Development Project in 1969 led to a reduction in opium production, and the subsequent implementation by the Government of Thailand of development measures in parallel with eradication measures have been successful in controlling the quantity of opium produced.
The Office of the Narcotics Control Board of Thailand has carried out follow-up surveys on a regular basis since 1979. The most recent survey revealed that the amount of opium produced was approximately the amount required for consumption by the tribal abusers themselves. However, although the Government of Thailand can control the quantity of opium production, the impact of illicit opium-poppy cultivation still poses a serious problem to the country, particularly in respect of deforestation.
Both national security and tribal societies have been threatened by the migration of minority groups from China and Myanmar into Thai territory as a result of the wars in Viet Nam and the Lao People's Democratic Republic and also the fighting among the Myanmar minority groups along the border. Often, the weapons used in the fighting are acquired from the illicit cultivation of and traffic in opium.
In the past, natural resources were stable and soil fertility was maintained through the limited utilization of resources. At present, the increase in population and limited farming areas in the lowlands are major causes of exploitation in the highlands. The problem involves shifting cultivation, which leads to soil erosion, shortages of irrigation water and destruction of the highland environment, with adverse consequences for the living conditions of the population.
Over the past two to three decades, it has become evident that because of shifting cultivation the forests, which are natural sources of water, are being destroyed at a rate of about 280,000 to 300,000 hectares per year. At present, the total area affected is around 2.8 million hectares, or 70 per cent of the entire northern forest areas.
Most highland communities have caused damage to natural resources in various ways, including forest destruction, and their methods of cultivation, instead of conserving the soil and water, induce soil erosion and increase sedimentary deposits in rivers and reservoirs. In 1985, the Land Development Department of Thailand compiled data on this phenomenon and reported that in various watersheds in the north, soil was being eroded at a rate of 4.4 million tonnes per year. Such degradation of the highland environment, which occurs not only in Thailand but in many other parts of the world, creates an ecological imbalance that also threatens the lowland environment.
Since the introduction of the Royal Highland Development Project in 1969, the Government has undertaken work on natural resource conservation as well as highland agricultural development. Studies and programmes of terrace construction have been carried out, and a more suitable cropping pattern designed to conserve the fertility and structure of the soil and to protect the watershed has been introduced. Since 1973, the Office of the Narcotics Control Board has undertaken a number of highland development projects designed to wean hill tribes from opium poppy cultivation.
Highland development projects face major problems involving technical and administrative coordination between agencies, which cannot proceed with development within. their jurisdiction because no master plan has been drawn up to deal with all aspects of highland problems, and because most of the highland communities lack a well-organized local administration. Solutions to these problems are now being worked out by the Government.
The adverse environmental consequences of the production of narcotic drugs affect national stability and create problems of a social, economic and administrative nature. The loss of topsoil and reduced fertility caused by erosion have brought a sharp fall in agricultural productivity.
Success in solving the environmental, problem will largely depend on the implementation of SARD, defined by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations in 1987 as a system of management and conservation of natural resources based on changing technologies and community concerns and the needs of both present and future generations. Such an approach to agriculture, forestry and fishery emphasizes the conservation of soil, water and plant and animal life without destroying the environment.
The implementation of SARD requires the following action: revision of agricultural policy and the formulation of a social and economic master plan for rural development; participation of the community in human resources development through education, training and service so that the community itself will be able to take care o environments management and protection; and integration of the various environmental management methods into rural income distribution arrangements.