Thailand’s Royal Project and Cultural Heritage
‘In 1969, the forests of northern Thailand were vanishing, being replaced by fields of opium poppy, grown by poor hill-tribe farmers of the region. It was a health epidemic, humanitarian crisis and environmental disaster. A solution was needed. Then, King Bhumibol Adulyadej of Thailand visited an opium-growing village for the first time. In that village he discovered that the opium poppy was grown only out of desperation and lack of alternatives, and discovered the starting point for an alternative - the peach tree.’
From The Peach and the Poppy, by Khrongkan Luang
The late King of Thailand was very respected and generous and did much to unify his country by his instigation of the Royal Project. When we visited the Royal Project Fair in December 2016 we saw admiration for him by the Thai people and hill tribes alike. Since his death in October 2016, Thailand is still in mourning and the love of a benevolent king can be felt in the hearts of the people. He set up the first Royal Agricultural Station, Doi Ang Khang, in Chiang Mai Province in 1969 as the Royal Project’s plant research station for sustainable agricultural development, based on the concept of self-reliance.
The project aimed to create self-sufficient communities that would become independent of external support and well equipped to adapt to the changing environment of Northern Thailand. At Doi Ang Khang, King Bhumiphul saw the research and development of a graft between large peaches and local cool weather peaches and the prospect of an enhanced variety of produce and income for the farmers. He enabled local tribal farmers to learn about agriculture - they realized that they could have a legal income from farming fruit and vegetables instead of opium. A drug rehabilitation and education program was implemented along with increasing research in plant, water and soil improvement.
The story of the peach and the poppy
The book by Khrongkan Luang is the story of how King Bhumibol' s discovery grew into one of the world' s largest and most successful development projects, totally eliminating opium cultivation and improving the lives of tens of thousands of farming families in northern Thailand.
After much research the best species of plants and flowers have been chosen for the program; to yield the best quality and quantity in the cool climate of Thailand’s north. Countries around the world also provided plant specimens or tools to assist The Royal Project: e.g. Roses have been provided by the Netherlands, fast growing trees like maple or pine trees have been given by Taiwan and both Taiwan and China have provided tea plants.
THE ROYAL PROJECT FAIR - Chiang Mai University
The Royal Project has been closely linked to the University of Chiang Mai, and when we visited the The Royal Project Fair at the CMU Convention Centre in December we were enthralled at the vastness of the Project, and the myriad of colourful displays and creative decorations using fruits, vegetables and many types of beautiful flowers.
Displays demonstrated the development, cultivation and promotion of coffee, strawberries, blueberries, golden kiwi fruit, yellow cherry tomatoes, purple sweet corn, Lingzhi royal mushroom, berry fruits, passion fruit, grape fruit and other small fruits. The food court served the usual delicious delicacies of Thai cuisine, like Green Papaya and Mango salad, chicken in all its culinary varieties, sticky rice and mango, coconut ice cream and more.
The Royal Project Fair also presented cooking competitions using its own products, beverage booths and a coffee corner serving aromatic Hill Tribe coffee and cultural performances from hill tribe people. There was also a great foot massage happening with village school students providing a therapeutic massage experience. Others were creating lotuses from palm and bamboo leaves for sale. Using visual displays and fresh produce, the fair highlighted the advanced studies in cultivation of crops, including mushroom plantations, organic egg farms, organic pest control products, soil and water conservation and organic fertilizers to enhance the soil. It was truly eye-opening!
We were delighted to find that the Project also included locally made feta, honey, coffee and yoghurt, so we stocked up on groceries while we were there, also including large, fresh avocadoes, brown rice, body soap and lotion and some fresh flowers to take home. The display of handcrafts was inspiring and the quality of the handmade jewellery, clothing and bags was excellent – also had to sample some of these …
Under the patronage of the late Princess Mother, Princess Srinagarindra, the Mae Fah Luang Foundation was founded to carry out development activities to improve the quality of life of Thailand’s ethnic minorities. These activities included reforestation of watershed areas, education and the development of social enterprises to benefit local people.
“For development to work, basic needs must be tackled first. Without adequate income, people have no choice but to deforest land through illegal logging and engage in other illegal activities such as opium cultivation and prostitution.” .... “to improve livelihoods, you must provide vocational training that is up to par and ensure that there are no financial losses incurred.” - From the address made by the late Princess Mother in 1988 when the handicraft training centre was launched alongside the reforestation project, as an alternative enterprise for people in the locality.
By building on the heritage, wisdom and skills of the local people, the Project helped them maximize their potential by hiring Thai and foreign experts to help with sophisticated designs that appeal to premium markets and assist with skill training in handicraft activities such as textile weaving and dyeing techniques. They also produce household furniture and baskets from bamboo and metal working that complements local traditional skills. The promotion of cottage industries comprises an important way for local farmers to earn supplementary income.
His Majesty King Bhumibhol Adulyadej and members of Thailand’s Royal Family have set up numerous village-based community development projects which are now open for small-scale tourism. They provide unique insights into the concept of a sufficiency economy and are models of alternative economic development.
Since its inception, more than 297 villages and 172,309 people have been supported by the 38 development centres established to research and develop agricultural products across northern Thailand.
The centres are in Chiangmai, Chiangrai, Meahongsorn, Lamphun, Lampang and Payao and many now also include eco tourism in the form of accommodation, agro tourism, handicraft and cultural displays and scenic tours. Visitors can learn about the culture of hill-tribes and buy hill-tribe handicrafts, enjoy tea plantations, bonsai gardens, bird watching, beautiful scenery and there are trekking trails to nearby waterfalls and landmarks.
Progress of the royal project
Recognising that the well-being of nature depends on human stability, The Project has business units in Food, Horticulture, Tourism, and Handicrafts. It went from being a crop substitution initiative, to providing various livelihood options with the end goal of empowering locals to become business savvy and able to cope with global market forces.
The Project itself has been financially self-sustaining since 2002 and the many benefits of the social improvements are profound. There are stand alone shops selling Royal Project Produce in many Thai cities and airports, with the produce also being well sought after by major restaurants and hotels for the consistent quality and organic nature.
Today, locals are being trained in everything from land cultivation, exotic crops, flower growing and landscape design to coffee roasting and are encouraged to set up their own enterprises.
For more on the history, implementation, and the species and varieties cultivated by Thailand‘s Royal Project, see https://www.tourismthailand.org