Doi Tung: Thinking outside the box

Doi Tung products14 March 2008 - Weaning poor farmers off opium poppy cultivation in the former Golden Triangle of South-East Asia requires sustainable alternative livelihoods. Without meaningful employment, the farmers will inevitably fall back on the lucrative cash crop they know so well.

The innovative Doi Tung project in Thailand has significantly improved farmers' standard of living over the past 20 years so that the 11,000 people involved in the project have now become self-sufficient. And with better incomes, social problems such as migration and prostitution have also been alleviated.

Disnadda Diskul, Secretary-General of the Mae Fah Luang Foundation which manages Doi Tung, was in Vienna this week for the UN Commission on Narcotic Drugs. "We must produce more than subsistence-level economies," he said.

The approach he advocates through Doi Tung is, firstly, to provide healthcare, "because sick people cannot work productively." Secondly, one must ensure food security. Thirdly, farmers should be educated to take on the project's technical jobs. This creates sustainable livelihoods that allow them to break free of the opium trap.

Doi Tung clothes"The final stage is when we - the development facilitators - make our exit. True sustainability is when people are masters of their own destiny", said Diskul. 

As a result of Doi Tung, environmentally sound projects have replaced the cultivation of opium. The slash-and-burn destruction of forests has slowed down. Residents of the community earn incomes from the sales of agricultural products, eco-tourism and handicrafts. "If you want sustainability," says Diskul, "don't put all your eggs in one basket."    

The Doi Tung approach has now expanded to Myanmar, Afghanistan and Indonesia. It succeeds because the community input is central to the project's design. It builds on indigenous wisdom and skills but benefits from state-of the-art business and marketing know-how.  

One example from Doi Tung is the value-chain for coffee. Whereas green beans fetch $2 per kilo, roasted coffee sells for $10 per kilo. If attractively branded and packaged, expect $20 per kilo. And if the product ends up in a coffee-shop like Starbucks, the value of the same coffee shoots up to well over $100 - or even $500 in Europe. So Doi Tung decided to beat Starbucks at their own game and successfully opened 18 trendy cafes in Thailand.

This same value-chain approach is being applied in Afghanistan. It has allowed Afghan women to profit from wool processing, yarn spinning, weaving and dyeing. The final step will be to regenerate the industry of weaving fine Afghan carpets allowing women - who would otherwise have difficulties doing so - to support themselves with dignity.

In Doi Tung, tasteful, market-driven products now cater to discerning and affluent Thai consumers. The handicrafts, textiles and designer clothes produced under the project have been exhibited at fashion shows as far afield as Berlin and Milan. Made by ethnic minorities, the collections use natural materials combined with handmade techniques to create products that enhance the modern lifestyle. "They are sold for their value - not because of charity" adds Mr. Diskul - "and that is an essential ingredient of sustainability."