More than 150 tons of raw opium is produced in the almost inaccessible mountain jungles of northern Thailand every year.
More than 150 tons of raw opium is produced in the almost inaccessible mountain jungles of northern Thailand every year. Most of it is grown by ethnic tribes as the basis of their simple economy. On the US black market the harvest from the opium poppies in the area would fetch millions of dollars, but the hill farmers are not rich. Few families earn more than an average of 300 US Dollars a year.
In an attempt to stem the flow of drugs to the outside world, the United Nations and the Thai government are cooperating in a five-year project to persuade the hill tribes to switch to other crops.
At Chang Khian, a remote jungle region 3,000 feet (1000 metres) above sea level, an agricultural training and experimental station has been set up. The area was once a major opium growing centre, but the villagers are new busy tending plots of beans, cabbages and tomatoes. If these crops succeed, the experiment will be extended to other outlying villages.
The village of Khun Wang is one of the thirty villages new being encouraged to grow alternative crops. It benefitted little from the enormous profits that are made by the drug traffickers and the men who refine the raw opium into morphine and heroin. At Khun Wang there is no shop, no dispensary, no school, no electricity and no running water. The cash that comes in from the poppy resin is only enough to buy rice, simple consumer goods and the silver necklets which both men and women wear as a measure of their wealth.
More than a thousand such villages are estimated to be producing opium in the Thai hills and the task of preventing its cultivation in such a remote region is enormous. Every acre of poppies produces two or three kilograms of opium and the entire year's output can be easily carried on one person's back. Often the drug traffickers travel into the hills to buy the farmers' harvest, eliminating the problems of distribution and marketing that are involved with alternative crops, and making detection difficult.
As well as vegetables, trial plots of fruit trees have been planted in some areas, and livestock breeds have also been imported to improve local breeds. United Nations officials admit it will take years to convince the hill tribes that it's just as profitable to rear sheep or grew vegetable as it is to produce opium, but they are optimistic about the progress that has already been made.