DOI TUNG, Thailand (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – Somchai Sophonsookpaiboon does not remember much about his younger years, except that they were spent in an opium haze.
It’s how all the men in his mountain village on the Thai-Myanmar border spent their time. Stateless, with little access to education, jobs or healthcare, their only options were trading opium or walking to the nearest town for odd jobs.
Somchai’s life turned around after the late Princess Srinagarindra, grandmother of Thailand’s current king, set up a development project in 1988 in Doi Tung in Chiang Rai, once part of Southeast Asia’s “Golden Triangle” notorious for trafficking of drugs, people and arms.
The Doi Tung Development Project ended opium cultivation in the area and set up a drug rehabilitation center and social enterprises to generate jobs. It trained residents to reforest vast swathes of the hillside and grow coffee and macadamia.
It also gave residents 30-year land-use titles for small plots on which they could live and farm.
“If the project had not started, I would not be alive today,” said Somchai, 62, a member of the Lahu ethnic tribe, who now grows strawberries, cabbage and lettuce on an organic farm as part of the project.
“We had nothing, and no hope. With the project, I got rid of my opium addiction, got citizenship, got land and work, and ensured that my children had better lives than me,” he said.
The Doi Tung Development Project, run by the Mae Fah Luang Foundation under Thai royal patronage, is held up by the United Nations as a model for ending narcotic drug cultivation and improving the lives of indigenous communities.
Yet in other parts of the country, indigenous people continue to live in poverty and face challenges in accessing land, livelihoods and citizenship, according to tribal rights groups.
Of an estimated 1 million highland indigenous people in Thailand, about a tenth are stateless, according to advocacy group Minority Rights Group International, and thousands have been evicted – or face eviction – from forests that have been declared national parks and protected areas.