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1 August 2005 Life after Opium in the Hills of Thailand
Richard A. Crooker
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This article uses a case study to describe the human ecological crisis among Thailand's former opium-producing hill-tribe minorities. Development projects in the country's northern highlands replaced opium with alternative cash crops and reduced opium production to a trickle during the final decades of the 20th century. When they were cultivating the illicit drug, Thailand's hill tribes were a focus of strong interest by the international news media and foreign governments. The spotlight on the hill tribes dimmed quickly after opium production virtually ended and the various replacement projects closed. Now, the news media will occasionally report in glowing terms about hill-tribe farmers' successful cultivation of opium replacement crops. Nevertheless, to an informed observer visiting a hill-tribe village, it is clear that the new “opium-free” economy is barely functioning in Thailand's northern highlands. Additionally, hidden largely from view are poverty-related social problems such as drug trafficking, heroin addiction, prostitution, and AIDS.

Mae Sa Valley case study

Some researchers criticize opium replacement projects and point to them as primary reasons for poverty in the hills. The critics identify a range of possible causal factors, such as ecological inadequacies of a new monoculture, inattention to social problems, or debt accrued from costly production inputs (eg fertilizers and pesticides). Indeed, if opium replacement could have averted poverty anywhere, it would have done so in the hill-tribe villages of the Mae Sa Valley. The valley is located about 30 kilometers north of the city of Chiang Mai, Thailand's second largest city and the northern region's center for tourism. Situated in the northeast section of the Inthanon Range, the valley is in the Mae Rim District of Chiang Mai Province. Two tambons (administrative subdistricts) make up the valley—Pong Yaeng Nai and Mae Raem. A curved line of elevation stretching from the rim of the Mae Sa watershed, where hill-tribe villages are situated, to where the Mae Sa stream empties into the Mae Ping River, represents the hill tribes' isolation from Thais living in the valley bottom and adjoining lowland. In addition to isolation, the amount of this curvature of elevation also symbolizes differences in living conditions among the hill tribes and lowland Thais. If living conditions were to improve enough in the more isolated villages, the curve would “flatten out.” The hill tribes in the valley have received development assistance for about 30 years, a longer timeframe than any other group of hill-tribe villages in the country. Moreover, the valley enjoys a comparative advantage of location near lowland Thai markets, giving tribal people extraordinary opportunities for interaction with Thai lowlanders. The valley has also had access by road to lowland markets since 1974, including Chiang Mai, northern Thailand's largest economic center. What is more, at practically no cost to the farmers, the Thai government provides refrigerator truck transport of some hill-tribe crops from the valley to Bangkok, 650 kilometers distant. Despite these geographical and economic advantages, the Mae Sa Valley hill-tribe economy has been in a prolonged downward spiral. Household incomes reflect the magnitude of this decline; the average hill-tribe household income was 2.5 times greater than average income in northern Thailand in 1971, but it decreased to one-sixth the regional average in 2000.

Actually, the hill tribes' economic plight in northern Thailand probably has more to do with population pressure and environmental degradation than perceived failures of opium replacement programs. A closer examination of the hill-tribe ecology in Mae Sa Valley supports this argument. This study uses averages and percentages of population and land use to describe the causal linkage between population pressure, resource scarcity, and poverty in the Mae Sa Valley. Data for the early 1970s come from several primary sources. The Thailand government's Tribal Research Centre (now the Tribal Research Institute) conducted hill-tribe population censuses in the valley in 1971 and 1974. F.G.B. Keen gathered data there as well in 1971 and 1974. Keen's data are an exceptionally good find, as information is rare about early living conditions of former opium-producing villages. The 4 hill-tribe villages that he studied are Hmong villages that still exist today. The Hmong ethnic group makes up virtually the entire hill-tribe population of the Mae Sa Valley; therefore, one must assume that all former opium-growers in Thailand would adapt similarly to forces of change and opportunity costs. Data describing the present situation in the hills come from the Thai government and from the author's fieldwork in the Mae Sa Valley in 2002.

Pressures and responses

Hill-tribe population growth was widespread in northern Thailand, particularly from the late 1960s to the mid 1980s. The growth was due to immigration from Laos and Burma (now Myanmar) and a high natural increase (births minus deaths). Because of these two factors, the Mae Sa Valley's tribal population increased almost sixfold and outpaced the local Thai population by nearly 2:1 in 1971–2002. Compounding the pressure of a growing hill-tribe population was a large influx of Thais in the valley's bottomland and lower slopes. These immigrants were part of an inflow of migrants from lowland areas outside Mae Rim District; as a result, Mae Rim had the greatest increase in population density among all districts in Chiang Mai Province in 1970–2002, excluding the district in which the city of Chiang Mai is located. The valley's hill-tribe villages attempted to alleviate population pressure by expanding their cultivated land area. The land farmed increased by a factor of 3, but population density increased by nearly the same magnitude. Pressure on resources increased even more after the mid 1980s, when local forestry officials began enforcing a law against burning forestland and building hillside terraces for cultivation. Reforesting abandoned swiddens and declaring reforested land off limits to farmers also became part of forestry policy.

The hill tribes altered their farming methods in response to rising population pressures. Originally, they cultivated fields until soil fertility was depleted and then moved their villages to “pioneer” new areas. There was no intention of returning to previous sites. By the 1980s, the hill tribes had adopted conservative rotational swiddening under the guidance of crop replacement projects. This system allows a farmer to live in one place by burning less forest; the farmer clears a field in the forest, uses it for one or two years, and then clears another field nearby and so on. After a period of 7 to 10 years, plant growth returns fertility to the fallowed plot and the farmer cultivates it again. Less land is swidden land in the rotational system, as farmers use more land to grow capital-intensive crops (such as vegetables, root crops, beans, harvest fruits, and commercially cut flowers) in permanent fields (Figure 1). They must raise cash crops instead of traditional food crops in the permanent fields to pay for fertilizers and pesticides to assure sufficient crop yields. The villagers are usually able to pay for basic food staples, such as rice, from the profits. The new economy also diminishes the role of large livestock. The hill tribes used to raise cows and buffaloes to sell or barter; they also rented buffaloes to paddy rice cultivators. They ate the pigs and used the horses for conveying crops from fields to village. When times were difficult, they would sell the animals for cash or use them to barter for badly needed supplies. The present economy almost totally excludes raising large livestock, as there is virtually no forestland available for grazing animals.


After 30 years of development, the curve in living conditions between the Mae Sa Valley's hill tribes and lowland Thais has not flattened. The population of former opium-growers still has a pyramidal structure with a broad base of young, less productive people and gradually fewer people in the middle and old age groups. The total population has increased more than 5 times during this period. Despite the burgeoning growth in population, hill-tribe infant mortality is approximately twice that of lowland Thai infants. Common health problems among all age groups include diarrhea, colds, and flu. At the same time, lowland Thais are passing through a demographic transition to slower growth rates, smaller families, better health, and greater longevity.

In contrast to demography, the hill tribes' economy has undergone a revolution in land use from migratory shifting cultivation to permanent field agriculture. Nevertheless, ecological problems that were beginning to appear 30 years ago are now extreme. There is no longer new land to absorb the growing population. Swiddens, which farmers use mainly to supplement rice purchases, are tiny. Livestock husbandry has all but disappeared. What is more, there are no apparent safety valves to release the valley's ecological strain. Tourism is too competitive to be a solution; roads provide tourists with access to hundreds of other such villages. Hill-tribe people cannot compete with healthier and better-educated lowland Thais for off-farm employment. Lamentably, amphetamine and heroin trafficking, as well as AIDS, have moved stealthily into the valley as well. These latter problems drain income and other family resources and add to growing despair, nagging poverty, and loosening social bonds in villages.

There are some promising ongoing developments. The government is issuing more identity cards to enable hill-tribe people to travel more freely, have banking accounts, receive loans, own and sell property, attend secondary school, and use state-operated medical facilities. Three fourths of all couples of childbearing age use condoms now. Education is also improving, albeit at a slower rate than in Thai villages in the valley. Since the early 1970s, the ability to read and speak simple Thai has increased from 10% to 36%, and hill-tribe people are beginning to graduate from high school. Equally encouraging is the Thailand government's recent policy of including villagers in forestry conservation decisions. This development emphasizes the need for more education, if minority villagers are to meet the challenges of social and economic integration.

Regional context

Thailand deserves credit for nearly 30 years of steadfast commitment to a policy of opium reduction in areas like the Mae Sa Valley. The hill-tribe people of the valley no longer grow opium to sell to local warlords or lowland drug traffickers. They live in permanent settlements, grow legitimate cash crops, and have a stake in participating in Thai society. Nevertheless, environmental deterioration threatens hill-tribe livelihoods and tribal people constitute the poorest socioeconomic strata in the valley. Even more distressing are the hundreds of former opium villages that do not share the location advantages that the Mae Sa Valley has. Villages that are closer to the Myanmar border are in the worst condition. Their economies depend heavily on smuggling drugs and other contraband from Myanmar to lowland Thai towns and cities. The availability of cheap drugs fosters crime, addiction, and police raids. AIDS is a greater concern there than in the Mae Sa Valley, as many more young hill-tribe women are leaving border villages to work as prostitutes in the lowlands and returning with the disease. The world must give more attention to the crisis of resource scarcity and hill-tribe poverty in Thailand, particularly since this crisis is in a historically volatile borderland region and affects international security.


The National Geographic Society Committee for Research and Exploration supported this research. Parts of this article are based on the author's in-depth study of environmental deterioration and security in northern Thailand (see reference). A special thank you goes to the Asia–Pacific Center for Strategic Studies' transnational and environmental security specialist, Christopher Jasparro, for his helpful editorial comments and suggestions.



R. A. Crooker 2005. Environmental deterioration and security in northern Thailand. In: Jasparro C, editor. Environment and Security in the Asia-Pacific Region. Honolulu, HA: Asia-Pacific Center for Strategic Studies. Google Scholar


F. G. B. Keen 1971. Economic Survey of Four Meo [Hmong] Villages. Report submitted to the Tribal Research Centre, December 1971. [Chiang Mai, Thailand: mimeo]. Copy available from the author of the present article. Google Scholar


F. G. B. Keen 1974. Report of the Socio Economic Survey of Mae Sa River Catchment. [Chiang Mai, Thailand: mimeo]. Copy available from the author of the present article. Google Scholar


Hmong villagers in Nong Hoi washing recently harvested ginger. Ginger root was a traditional food collected in the forest; now it is a cash crop grown in permanent fields. (Photo by Richard A. Crooker)

Richard A. Crooker "Life after Opium in the Hills of Thailand," Mountain Research and Development 25(3), 289-292, (1 August 2005).[0289:LAOITH]2.0.CO;2
Published: 1 August 2005

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