Development and tribal agricultural economy in a Yao Mountain Village in northern Thailand

Development and tribal agricultural economy in a Yao Mountain Village in northern Thailand

Jian, Li

This paper examines the impact of development upon a tribal agricultural economy. Through an analysis of the major changes in agricultural orientation, production, and investment in “Greenhill,” a Yao mountain village in northern Thailand, it argues that development can both promote and retard a tribal economy, depending on its foci, orientation, methodology, implementation, and local circumstances. Using the Royal Hilltribe Development Program (RHDP) as an example, it demonstrates how development may positively contribute to a tribal people’s long-term well-being. The paper further illuminates the fact that ecological, economic, and social sustainability, the three major requirements of sustainable agriculture, often determine the outcomes of a development program. This case study contributes to the understanding of development issues in tribal societies in Thailand as well as in other parts of Southeast Asia.

Key words: development, sustainability, tribal agricultural economy, Thailand, Yao

Since the early 1960s, numerous governmental, nongovernmental, and international development programs have had a significant impact on over 3,000 tribal villages in northern Thailand. Early examples can be traced back to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Alternative Crop Project and the UN-Thai Program for Drug Abuse in Thailand in the 1960s and 1970s. More recent programs include the United States Agency for International Development (USAID)-Thai Mae Chaen Water Development Project, the Thai-Norwegian Church Aid Highland Development Project, and the Thai-German Highland Development Program in the 1980s and 1990s (Dirksen 1997:333; Elawat 1997:85; Tapp 1989:32). In terms of financial input, large development projects alone (excluding normal governmental services) have amounted to more than $170 million over the past 30 years (Kampe 1997:23). While these programs have deeply affected the tribal economy in the region, few indepth analyses are currently available. In this paper, I will draw upon my fieldwork in Greenhill,1 a Yao mountain village in northern Thailand, to provide a deeper understanding of how development has altered the tribal agricultural economy and what these changes mean to tribal people.

Fieldwork and Research Methodology

The fieldwork for this research was conducted between August 1997 and January 1998. Beginning in early August 1997, I surveyed the Yao region and traveled extensively in northern Thailand, visiting eight Yao villages in Chiang Mai, Chiang Rai, and Payao Provinces.

With the help of a number of Thai scholars, I finally selected Greenhill as my fieldwork site and moved into the village in early September 1997. In Greenhill, I was able to talk with most villagers in Yunnanese, of which I am a near– native speaker. This made it possible for me to interact directly with the villagers.

My fieldwork in Greenhill may be divided roughly into three five-week sessions. In the first session, I got acquainted with the villagers and collected general information. In the second session, I participated in village activities. I joined six families with their farm work in banana gardens, corn fields, dry and wet rice paddies, and litchi orchards, and helped them slash, weed, and harvest. These activities not only promoted my rapport with those families but also enabled me to gain firsthand knowledge of agricultural production in Greenhill. Through these activities, I learned the essential elements and procedures employed in Yao agriculture.

Also in the second session, I conducted in-depth interviews with eight key informants on the cultural and economic history of the village. I investigated several important phenomena of development in the village, including newly emerged cash crops, agricultural investment, and technological innovation.

In the last five weeks of my fieldwork, I focused on house-by-house visits and structured interviews. My structured interviews covered about one-third of the total households in Greenhill. The sample households were selected mainly on the basis of their socioeconomic status. Using the local standards, I selected 10 poor households (with less than 10 rai of land and no income other than farming), 10 rich households (with over 40 rai of land, sufficient farming equipment, and stable incomes from various sources), and 30 middle-income households (with between 20 and 30 rai of land and sufficient income to make household ends meet). Of the 50 households originally selected, 9 households were either unavailable or unwilling to participate. I was able to complete 41 interviews with 10 poor, 8 rich, and 23 middleincome households. I made short visits to the rest of the households and talked with the available household members and observed household conditions. The data obtained from these interviews provided an essential source of information for the analysis of the village economy.

My fieldwork methodology included participant observation, focus group studies, structured and unstructured interviews, census-taking, home visits, and collection of life histories. While these methods often overlapped, the first two need some explanation.

I used participant observation extensively to investigate Greenhill’s agricultural economy, making a special effort to gain firsthand data on issues under investigation. I incorporated Sol Tax’s (1960:17) idea of “learning while helping” into my data-collecting strategy. I often went beyond the role of an observer and worked side by side with the villagers in the fields, trying to “help people and learn something in the process” (Gearing, Netting, and Peattie 1960:379). My work in the fields helped me gain a good understanding of the Yao’s knowledge of farming, from sowing to harvesting. It also deepened my intimacy with the informants, and villagers gradually became more responsive to the questions I raised.

In addition, I organized two focus groups of eight standing members, according to age, economic and kinship circumstances. These groups held discussion meetings each week. In addition to data comparison and contrast, I also utilized focus groups to test and confirm the data I obtained from interviews, surveys, and other sources. Most of the data presented in this paper were evaluated and confirmed by focus groups.

The Setting: Greenhill

Greenhill is located on the southern edge of the Golden Triangle in the Thai-Myanmar-Lao border region. Like hundreds of other tribal villages found in the rugged mountains of northern Thailand, Greenhill’s economy has historically been based on shifting swidden cultivation, mainly of dry rice, corn, and chili peppers. While opium was never a major crop in Greenhill, the villagers grew it for medical use and for occasional trade with outsiders.

Greenhill began to have intensive contact with the Thai people in the early 1960s, a time when many development programs were launched in northern Thailand. In the past four decades or so, Greenhill experienced five important changes. The first involved ownership of land. Traditional Yao ideas of land ownership began to be replaced by a mercantile ideology. Traditionally, land in a Yao village belonged to the tribe, and households held none but the right of use (Chob 1986:47). In recent years, due to the change from shifting cultivation to sedentary farming, the villagers have come to extend their traditional right of use to land ownership. Although land ownership is still ambiguous, locally recognized land tenure has been established. For example, boundaries between the fields of different households continue to be vague, but villagers have a clear idea about land ownership and the sale and lease of land have begun to be conducted routinely.

At present, the village’s arable land, about 4,000 rain (1,580 acres), is unevenly distributed. Table 1 presents estimates of the land distribution among the villagers based on my survey, on-site observation, and the villagers’ self-reports.

Over half of the village farmland is owned by approximately one-third of the households, and there are 16 landless households. As land is the most important factor in production, its uneven distribution contributes to an income polarization. According to 1997 village records, 13 households did not have enough food and did not have money to buy cloth to make clothes for their household members. Five extremely poor households had to live on welfare loans from the government.

The second change involved population growth. Greenhill, like many other tribal villages, has experienced a rapid population increase in the past three decades. In 1973, according to the headman, Greenhill had about 400 people living in 40 households. In 1997, village records indicated that Greenhill’s population totaled 1,270 people in 124 households (extended families). This population increase has two significant consequences. First, it puts increasing pressure on the land and other resources available to the village. While available arable land was quite abundant in the 1970s, it has now declined to about three rai per person. Second, it suggests a strong potential for a continuous rapid growth in the coming decades. Based on the census I conducted jointly with the village school, 63 percent of the people in the village are presently under the age of 17. Unless efficient family planning support becomes available to the villagers, it is unlikely that the demographic pressure will be relieved in the near future.

The third important feature of the changed economy in Greenhill involves polarization and poverty. A wide gap between the rich and the poor has become more and more visible in recent years. Before the 1970s, few differences, if any, existed among the villagers in terms of their household income and accumulation of wealth. In today’s Greenhill, however, significant economic differences have emerged among the households. While the net income of the richest household was over 200,000 baht (approximately $4,200) in 1997; the poorest household made only about 10,000 baht (approximately $21 OV The differences are overwhelming in view of the distribution of income in the 1970s and the 1980s. While differences existed then, the highest household incomes were no more than two or three times the lowest household incomes; now the gap is more than 10 times greater.

Poverty is growing rapidly. Despite an increase in the amount of available cash, the majority of villagers live in poverty. In the 1970s, most households earned between 10,000 and 15,000 baht a year. Many households have now more than tripled their incomes, but we need to look at the villagers’ expenditures to understand the real meaning of their cash incomes. Table 2 provides an average household (10 persons) expenditure in 1997.

Expenditures vary according to specific household situations. Food costs can vary significantly, according to the amount of rice the household can produce and the amount it must purchase from the market. The estimated 24,000 baht for purchasing food is reasonable since all households buy nonstaple food on a daily basis and most households have to purchase at least one-third of the rice they need. The expenditure for clothes may easily exceed the estimated 700 baht, since a regular T-shirt costs about 100 baht and a pair of trousers costs about 300 baht. As the figures for household expenditures indicate, the majority of villagers were far from affluent. Pan Fugui, the head of one of the poorest households in the village, described his situation in this way:

We have to borrow money from whomever we can put our hands on…. What can we do? We have older people to take care of, and we have seven small children to feed. We don’t have enough land and don’t have enough labor. Only my wife and I are working; the others don’t bring even half a baht back home…. What do we eat? Most of the time just plain rice, and sometimes a few vegetables. We feel lucky when we can manage to do that. Meat? Meat is not available until we slaughter our pig before the Spring Festival.

The fourth change involved the emigration of wage laborers. With the opening of a new road to a small Thai border town, villagers began to go down to urban areas to work for wages. In the 1970s, according to the headman, labor emigration was limited to the northern provinces, and few villagers left the country for wage labor. In the late 1980s, some foreign companies came to the area to recruit unskilled laborers. In 1987, a Taiwanese construction company hired nine villagers. Two years later, another Taiwanese furniture factory hired two more groups of young villagers. The return of these wage laborers has rapidly “modernized” Greenhill. Some villagers have purchased color television sets, refrigerators, and mopeds, and several families have purchased used half-ton trucks. As of December 1997, village records indicated that 73 young men worked as wage laborers in Thai cities and in neighboring countries.

The fifth and final change has involved agriculture. Greenhill farmers, like thousands of farmers in tribal villages throughout northern Thailand, have been switching from subsistence crops to cash crops. Until the late 1980s, the cultivation strategy followed at Greenhill had basically been one of slash-and-burn. According to several elders’ recollections, the crops cultivated in the past included yellow corn, dry rice, sorghum, sweet potatoes, taro, garlic, green onions, peanuts, yellow beans, green beans, chili peppers, cabbages, pumpkins, gourds, watermelons, sweet oranges, mangos, bananas, papayas, and opium. The major subsistence crops, however, were dry rice, corn, and chili peppers.

Dry rice is still grown as a staple food. On average, a Yao adult eats up to 300 kilograms of rice per year. The cultivation of dry rice requires intensive care and sufficient fertilizer, which many Greenhill households have not been able to provide. Thus, the yields of dry rice have been low, with an output of no more than 150 kilograms per rai. In addition, prior to the 1970s, fields suitable for growing dry rice were not plentiful.

The Yao grew yellow corn, which yielded on average less than 200 kilograms per rai (Nuttonson 1963:192). While the villagers consumed a small portion of the corn in the form of gruel and cornbread, most was used to feed domestic animals, including pigs, ducks, and chickens. Corn was also used to make whiskey, and many households would use up to several hundred kilograms of corn annually for that purpose.

In decades past, dry chili peppers were an important exchange crop in Greenhill’s subsistence economy. After their harvest, the chili peppers were tied together and hung along the eaves of houses to dry. The villagers then carried the dry peppers to the nearby towns for sale. Money earned from selling chili peppers was used to purchase family necessities, such as rice, cloth, and farming tools.

In addition to swidden farming, the Greenhill villagers relied heavily on foraging. Hunting was limited to reptiles, migratory birds, and small animals such as rabbits and pangolins. They gathered wild vegetables from the forest, including mushrooms, wild celery, wild turnips, bamboo shoots, and wild melons. On average, according to several elders, gathering annually supplied over 200 kilograms of wild vegetables for each household. Foraging thus provided an important source of nonstaple food, particularly vegetables, for the Greenhill villagers.

While historically not a main crop, opium (Papaver somniferum) formed a part of Greenhill’s subsistence economy. The best opium is grown on sunny sites at an elevation of between 950 and 1,000 meters (Anderson 1993:119). Approximately one-fifth of Greenhill’s fields were suitable for the cultivation of high-quality opium. Prior to the 1970s, according to my informants, the household need for opium was constant. At that time, opium was among the few remedies tribal people had to treat various physical problems such as colds, cough, fever, insomnia, aches, and reportedly it was even applied to wounds and injuries, including snake bites (Geddes 1976:216).

Historically, opium production alleviated the problem of rice shortage in Greenhill. The cash earned from one rai of opium could purchase up to 300 kilograms of rice. To lure more villagers to produce opium, some dealers even arranged an opium-for-rice direct exchange in which one joi (approximately 1.6 kilograms) of raw opium could be exchanged for up to 400 kilograms of rice.

The villagers also produced many other items they needed in daily life. The women in each household were responsible for making two or three sets of clothes for each family member every year. Most households planted tobacco to meet the needs of the men. Both tobacco and homemade corn whiskey were produced for household consumption and intravillage exchange, but they were not for sale to outsiders.

Today, the villagers continue to grow dry rice for subsistence. With chemical fertilizers, the yields of dry rice have increased to around 200 kilograms per rai. Corn continues to play an important role in the village economy, but its economic function has changed. Corn is no longer grown for household use and livestock-over 95 percent is sold. Chili peppers, an exchange crop in the past, have disappeared in Greenhill. Opium gradually vanished from Greenhill’s fields, under increasing pressure from the opium eradication programs operated by the Thai government and international development agencies.

Development and Changes in Agricultural Production

Beginning in the early 1970s, the transformation of corn and the introduction of litchi as cash crops, the importation of high-yielding corn seed, and the use of modem farming components, such as the tractor, chemical fertilizers, insecticides, and herbicides, altered fundamentally the nature of Greenhill’s agricultural production.

Cash Crops: Corn and Litchi

To diminish opium production in northern Thailand, Thai and international development agencies began to introduce and promote various cash crops to tribal villages in the late 1960s. USDA’s Alternative Crops Project, in collaboration with the agricultural faculties of several Thai universities, in particular Kasesart University and Chiang Mai University, initiated this development. This effort continued in the 1970s and 1980s with the assistance of the Thai government, the United Nations, the Norwegian Church, the German government, and several other European development agencies (Anderson 1993:121; Tapp 1989:40). These programs donated seed, provided basic technical assistance, and, in the beginning, marketed the produce for farmers. While corn was widely promoted as a cash crop, the new crops included cotton, coffee, fruits, and various vegetables such as broccoli, kidney beans, and carrots. In Greenhill, corn and litchi offer two examples of alternative crops.

With a growing international and domestic market for animal feeds, corn experienced a golden age in Thailand in the 1970s. A variety of Guatemalan corn turned out to be particularly suited to conditions in Thailand and led to a rapid increase in corn output in Thailand-from 600,000 tons in 1961 to 5 million tons in 1985 (Cao 1989:158; Warr 1993:85). In northern Thailand, where most tribal people live, the total area devoted to the cultivation of corn rose from 127,790 rai in 1970 to close to 4 million rai by 1980 (Bello et al. 1998:179). The rise of corn production significantly increased the country’s revenue. It also signaled the beginning of a corn monoculture in the tribal regions of northern Thailand.

Ethnographic reports indicate that the Yao grew yellow corn as far back as the 1920s (Sebastian 1925:88). Several village elders still vividly recall the corn harvests they had in the Huile Mountains, some 40 years ago, before the establishment of Greenhill village. In the past, the villagers were not under pressure to produce high yields of corn, thanks to the availability of arable land, smaller population size, and minimum needs for cash. They grew what they needed for themselves and their domestic animals.

The transformation of corn from a subsistence crop to a cash crop began in the early 1980s. With technical assistance and commercial promotion provided by development agencies, such as the USAID Alternative Crops Program and the Thai Department of Public Welfare, and corn companies, corn yields increased and sales became stable. Under such conditions, corn gradually assumed a dominant role in Greenhill’s economy. By 1997, corn fields had expanded to nearly 3,000 rai and corn accounted for over 80 percent of the Greenhill villagers’ income. While a small number of farmers interplanted beans with corn, most villagers grew only corn in their fields. The main reason was that corn accounted for the bulk of cash income, and interplanting crops might lower corn yields.

Litchi (Litchi chinensis) is an evergreen tree that originated in southern China, where it has been cultivated for its red fruit for more than 2,000 years. Litchi grows best in subtropical areas in deep, well-drained soil, and depending on soil and fertility conditions, it takes about five to seven years for a tree to reach maturity. The litchi fruit is round and ranges from 1.3 to 1.8 centimeters in diameter; it has rough, papery, red skin and juicy, white flesh that contains a single brown seed. The fruit is rich in Vitamin C and is usually eaten fresh. A productive tree yields up to 80 kilograms of fruit each year during a life span of about 20 years (Ito 1996:350).

Litchi was introduced to Greenhill in the mid-1980s. Young litchi trees, together with information on cultivation techniques, were distributed to the villagers at a nominal cost. In 1986, a few Greenhill households, mostly rich ones, began to grow litchi. By 1993 over half of their litchi orchards began to produce. Litchi soon became popular among the local people. The sale of litchi was usually contracted between the villagers and a number of fruit companies even before the fruit ripened. In the beginning, litchi was priced up to 20 baht per kilogram, and the litchi pioneers were rewarded handsomely. In 1996, for example, Liu Jinzhu, a pioneering litchi farmer, earned about 70,000 baht from selling litchi alone. He told me his household expected an annual income of up to 100,000 baht per year when all their litchi trees begin to produce in about two or three years.

The pioneers’ success encouraged others to follow, and a “litchi heat”swept through Greenhill. Before 1985, litchi was unknown to the villagers. By the end of 1997, litchi orchards covered over 1,000 rai of land, or about one-fourth of the total cultivated land in the village. Most litchi orchards occupy the very best land-the flat, sunny, and fertile fields adjacent to water sources and the village. Although it is possible to interplant corn or beans in a litchi orchard, few villagers do so. Litchi requires ample water and fertilizer, and interplanted crops in the orchard may reduce litchi yields. In 1997, only about one-fourth of the litchi trees were mature. The majority of villagers intended to turn most of their fields into litchi orchards as quickly as they could. The pioneering households are trying to expand their orchards. To enhance their competitive advantage, some pioneers have recently purchased a new species of litchi from Taiwan called longyan, or “dragon’s eyes.” In today’s Greenhill, everyone is growing litchi, thinking about litchi, and counting on litchi to boost household income.

The transformation of corn and the introduction of litchi as cash crops have brought about a drastic switch from polyculture to monoculture. With a higher cash return, corn and litchi production has encouraged the rapid abandonment of Greenhill’s subsistence agriculture. Today, except for some newly developed wet rice paddies, only dry rice and bananas are visible in the marginal fields. Corn fields and litchi orchards occupy nearly all of the village’s cultivated land.

Monocultural production has its advantages over traditional polycultural farming. It encourages specialization in the techniques of production and promotes productivity (Yayock 1988:62). Asian farmers have been successfully growing wet rice as the sole crop year after year for millennia. Between 40 and 45 percent of the U.S. corn crop is grown in a continuous monoculture (National Research Council 1989:139). Accumulated knowledge and techniques of production serve as an important basis of high and stable yields. In Greenhill, along with the development of corn monoculture came increases in productivity. The yields of corn per rai are now nearly twice what they were in the past. Many households increased their cash income from about 15,000 baht in the 1970s to over 50,000 baht per household in 1997. Although the population grew by threefold, the increased productivity made it possible to provide enough income for the villagers to feed their families.

In addition, monoculture makes agricultural mechanization more affordable and applicable. In Greenhill, the use of the threshing machine provides an example. In the past, due to the large variety of crops, it was not feasible for any single household to purchase a threshing machine. Without such a machine, it took a long time and much labor for a household to thresh by hand. When all households in Greenhill began to grow corn, several households jointly purchased three used threshing machines. Mechanized corn threshing greatly reduced the duration of each household’s labor during harvest, from nearly a month to less than two weeks.

But monoculture also has a negative impact on agriculture. In terms of the ecology, monoculture has proven itself to be environmentally threatening. In rural Thailand, monoculture, represented by a single cash crop such as corn, pineapples, or bananas, often means the land will not be allowed to go fallow and that soil fertility levels will keep dropping. To ensure high yields, the land is kept bare of competing vegetation, thus greatly increasing the danger of soil erosion. The long-term practice of monoculture has already had a negative impact on the Thai agricultural environment. At present, 25 percent of the cropland in the kingdom has been affected by severe soil erosion (Bello et al. 1998:59). In northern Thailand, more than half of the tribal farmers Edward Anderson (1993:57) queried reported that soil erosion is a serious problem. Soil erosion has frequently caused natural disasters such as hill slides and floods, which are becoming all too frequent in Thailand as well as in other Southeast Asian countries. Soil erosion also severely disrupts irrigation systems. A well-known case of such disruption occurred in the Tap Salao Weir, a water distribution point for a 123,000rai irrigation project in Nong Chang and Tap Tan districts, where soil erosion has led to siltation (Hirsch 1990:76).

Monoculture increases the vulnerability of a country’s economy: the failure of a single crop at home or a drastic reduction of its price abroad can deal a death blow to an agricultural economy based on monoculture. Michael Moerman (1992) observed that the varieties of rice the Thai farmers grew in a village in Chiang Mai province decreased from 30 species to 2 or 3 in 30 years. In northeastern Thailand, land planted to corn, cassava, and other cash crops rose from 1.7 million rai in 1961 to 10.5 million rai in 1989 (Bello et al. 1998:187). New cash crops, particularly fruits, have rapidly dominated the country’s agriculture. In the 1990s, Thailand became the largest producer and exporter of pineapples in the world. In fact, one in every two cans of pineapples opened in the U.S. is produced in Thailand (Kulick and Wilson 1992:135). While fruit exportation brought cash to Thai farmers in the early 1990s, it has also deepened Thai farmers’ dependence on the overseas market.

Monoculture has had at least three negative effects on Greenhill. The first is on the villagers’ diet. In polycultural farming, despite lower yields, each household grew a variety of crops and enjoyed a diverse and nutritious diet. Squash and sweet potatoes were available nearly year-round, and villagers could eat fresh yellow beans and taro even in winter. Throughout the year, each household always had something fresh to harvest. Feng Simei, the sister of Greenhill’s headman, described the differences between the past and the present:

In the past we had fresh squash, wild vegetables, and other fresh foods all the time. I did not have to work in fields then. I stayed at home and did embroidery or sewed clothes for my husband and kids. Whenever it was time to cook, we always had fresh produce. Sometimes I went to get a pumpkin or some green beans for my family’s dinner. Sometimes I just harvested some taro roots from our pond and stewed them with dry yellow beans. If I didn’t want to go, my husband would bring home something from the fields. My husband and my eldest son also often got some wild game or some delicious mountain stuff. We never lacked food. Is it different now? It’s very different. Now we have more rice and corn in our house than we can eat. But we have to buy other things from the Thai peddler– that Thai couple, you know, who come here almost every day to sell vegetables and other things. That’s where we get our nonstaple food and other daily items now.

Monoculture also has a negative influence on Greenhill’s ecology. While crop mixtures minimize the spread of crop pests and diseases, monocropping generally encourages them to build up rapidly (Yayock 1988:62). Monoculture carries with it the risk of the loss of an entire crop due to certain pests or diseases. Since crops of the same species need the same nutrients, monoculture promotes soil erosion by creating an imbalance in nutrient removal from the soil. Evidence indicates that continuous monoculture or even short rotation may make soil more susceptible to erosion (National Research Council 1989:119). At present, such ecological consequences are not yet noticeable in Greenhill. However, if nothing is done to alleviate the problem, the long-term threat posed to the environment by monocropping corn and litchi is real.

Monoculture has hurt Greenhill’s pig industry. The Yao are well known for their skill in raising pigs (Young 1962:48). In the past, nearly every household raised at least seven or eight pigs, some even more. Corn, rice husks, beans, pumpkins, and sweet potatoes counted for the bulk of pig feed. In recent years, corn and litchi gradually replaced beans, squash, and other subsistence crops. More importantly, since corn is now sold for cash and represents the main source of the tribal farmers’ income, few villagers are willing to use corn to feed pigs. As a result, pigs began to lose their feed. In 1997, only 28 households maintained a pigpen of seven or eight pigs. Many households raised only one or two for the Spring Festival, and 15 households raised no pigs. Today, most villagers are unable to provide enough meat for their family’s needs.

In addition to monoculture, several other factors have contributed to the decline of the pig industry. The shortage of labor is one factor. Children now must go to school and women must help in the fields, so many households find it difficult to devote the necessary labor to raising pigs. The declining frequency of feasts, once an important avenue to household prestige among tribal people in Thailand, may also help explain the declining incentives to raise pigs (Durrenberger 1983:95,122).

Having been integrated into a cash economy, villagers are forced to give priority to the generation of cash over raising pigs for household consumption. In Thailand today, five pork companies control roughly 50 percent of the national pork industry (Dixon 1999:151). These companies dominate pork marketing and feed supplies and allow small farmers no more than marginal profits. According to Pan Fuguang, a 56-year-old corn farmer, raising pigs does not pay off:

You may raise pigs, but you then have to look at the cost. First of all, you have to buy piglets at a price of about 200 or 300 baht per head. Then, you have to feed each pig at least 200 kilograms of corn and rice husks, which can cost you up to 700 or 800 baht. You have to feed them at least twice a day, if not three meals. You have to have someone in your house all the time to take care of the pigs. In case they get sick, there will be a lot more cost. It takes more than a year for a piglet to become fat. You sell them at a couple thousand baht per head to the market people. You work a whole year, yet don’t make more than several hundred baht per head.

Above all, the decline of the pig industry has meant a reduction of pork in the villagers’ diet. It is more convenient to buy pork than raise pigs. Yet, to buy pork, villagers must have cash. This increases the villagers’ daily cash expenditures. In addition, pork prices fluctuate according to market situations and generally keep going up. For most Greenhill households, this has meant a further reduction in pork consumption, since income has not risen at the same pace as pork prices. In 1997, a middle-income household in Greenhill consumed no more than 5 kilograms of pork per week, or approximately 0.5 kilograms per person per week. Furthermore, due to poor meat preservation techniques, the pork brought to Greenhill by the meat peddler was often low in quality. Occasionally, even semirotten pork was sold to villagers at a discount price. As pork is the villagers’ major source of protein, this change has had a profound impact on the villagers’ health.

The vanishing pig industry has had a negative effect on Greenhill’s economy. Farmers frequently used pigs as a valueadding or value-transforming means of production. Pigs can be fed corn, plant residues, and otherwise unusable biomass, which they will convert into meat products that can be sold for cash or eaten. Pigs can also help reduce farmers’ economic risks by consuming damaged crops and crops that would otherwise be sold at an unfavorable market price. As such factors increase farmers’ control of production and add economic value to their products, pig-raising can help improve the sustainability of an agricultural economy.

The Greenhill farmers’ sale of corn in 1996 offers a case in point. As Greenhill farmers had no means to either add or transform the economic value of corn (making alcohol now requires a license which is seldom issued to small farmers), many households had to sell their corn at 2.8 baht per kilogram and suffered a loss that year of about 0.7 baht per kilogram.

In Asia, pigs traditionally have been an important element in agricultural production. They provide the bulk of organic fertilizers for crops such as corn and sorghum. An adult pig weighing 60 kilograms can produce about 2,000 kilograms of manure per year (Liu 1984:75). Such manure, after being piled up and decomposed, becomes an excellent organic fertilizer. On average, two adult pigs can supply enough fertilizer for one rai of corn. Using organic fertilizers is not only ecologically sound; it also benefits villagers economically by helping them reduce their dependence on chemical fertilizers. As slash-and-burn farmers, the Yao have not traditionally used animal manure. With the necessary technical assistance and cultural promotion, manure could play a crucial role in the Yao’s agricultural production. But with the decline in locally grown pigs, Greenhill has lost an opportunity to improve its strategy of fertilizer utilization.

High-Yielding Corn Seed

Corn is the main cash crop in Greenhill’s economy, and sustaining high corn yields is a priority of every farmer. To develop intensive agriculture in northern provinces, Thai development agencies, in cooperation with Thai seed companies, introduced high-yielding corn to the village in the early 1980s. To purchase corn seed each year they must go to Chiang Khong, a distance of approximately 30 kilometers. The price of corn seed varies according to the local market, and in 1997 corn seed sold at 80 baht per kilogram. On average, each rai needs two kilograms of seed. For his 30 rai of fields, Feng Chaiqing had to buy 60 kilograms of corn seed in 1997, which cost him 4,800 baht.

The development of high-yielding seed is an important part of agricultural development around the world, and seed breeding has become increasingly specialized, mechanized, standardized, monopolized, and, above all, commercialized. In this process, hybrid corn is “designed to hide the underlying identities of seeds from farmers” and promotes “a complex system of trade secrecy that limited competition” (Ziegenhorn 2000:136). Because of the requirements for sophisticated technology, heavy investments, and distribution systems, most seed companies are national monopolies in third world countries. Owing to their commercial orientation, seed companies find it most profitable to produce the seed of hybrids so that more can be sold on a yearly basis (Cromwell, Wiggins, and Wentzel 1993:22).

The use of high-yielding corn seed is an essential means of increasing yields, especially for marginal areas like Greenhill, where other techniques and technologies may not be affordable, available, or applicable. The high-yielding seed also frequently displays a greater immunity against disease than does local seed. By and large, high-yielding seed provides a reliable basis for yields that farmers can often count on each year. Thanks to high-yielding corn seed, Greenhill’s corn yields have increased from less than 200 kilograms per rai in the 1970s to between 250 and 350 kilograms per rai in the 1990s.

However, at least three problems are bred together with the high-yielding corn seed. First, it has placed a heavy economic burden on farmers. This includes not only the annual cost of purchasing the seed but also a whole “package” of extras that goes along with the planting of high-yielding seed. High-yielding corn is tailored to yield well under controlled conditions. The seed companies usually specify the input needed to achieve certain anticipated yields. To ensure the yields, farmers have to increase their production budget to purchase needed chemical fertilizers, herbicides, and pesticides. To do so, many have to depend on bank loans or other outside resources. The planting of high-yielding corn has thus created new production expenditures and a dependency by local farmers on national monopolies. In Greenhill, on average, this expenditure reduces a household’s annual income by about 12 percent.

Second, high-yielding corn promotes plant genetic erosion in local agricultural systems and puts local farmers in an unequal position in their interaction with outsiders. The dominance of high-yielding seed has led to a national control of local genetic varieties. Motivated by economic returns, seed companies have helped wipe out local farmers’ traditional crops.

Monocultural production is but one consequence of the loss of plant varieties. The wider implications of this phenomenon need to be noted. The predominance of the planting of high-yielding seed is apparent in the fields throughout Southeast Asia. In addition to genetic erosion, the extensive planting of high-yielding seed further devalues the local farming knowledge and tradition. For many Greenhill farmers, it is an embarrassing experience to talk about high-yielding corn seed. In a real sense, high-yielding corn seed imported from seed monopolies has eroded farmers’ control of an essential process in farming. In Greenhill and throughout northern Thailand, farmers have been using a hybrid Guatemalan corn (Dixon 1999:176). As a hybrid, it usually does not breed true the second generation. As Feng Chaiqing told me:

To grow the high-yielding corn seed ourselves? Sure, that would save a lot of money and avoid many inconveniences-you have to travel to Chiang Khong to buy the seed and carry it back! Yet, we don’t read and aren’t smart enough to learn the techniques of raising the seed in the right manner. My brother and I tried our own seed one year, and I know some others in Greenhill also tried a couple of times. We all failed. The seed we bred yielded poorly, and we lost money. I don’t really know why. Some elders say that it is because our weather conditions are unfavorable and cannot produce high-yielding corn seed. Some others say it is because of our soil. But I really don’t know why.

The last negative impact of high-yielding corn can be seen in the outside manipulation and exploitation of local agricultural production. With the intention of improving tribal peoples’ economies, Thai development agencies, often in association with seed companies, have used various means to promote intensive modes of production, of which the use of high-yielding seed plays an important role. However, these agencies often pay little attention to the sustainability of this agricultural development. An important factor is that local farmers have little control over the seed they use in terms of breeding techniques, prices, and required farming techniques and labor input. With such problems left unsolved, it is not possible for local farmers truly to benefit from this innovation. Instead, it creates a deeper dependence on outside power and resources and helps marginalize tribal farmers. As Cromwell, Wiggins, and Wentzel (1993:91) noted, adoption of innovations cannot be beneficial to local people unless their capacity to utilize those innovations is properly developed. This is the case in Greenhill. While the total output increases, so do the villagers’ expenditures. The analysis of agricultural income, presented below, indicates a decrease in income among many Greenhill households.

Changes in Farming Methods and Techniques

In Greenhill and in other tribal villages in northern Thailand, significant changes in farming techniques are highly visible. The tractor is replacing the buffalo as the major means of ploughing the fields. In the past, the Yao were swidden farmers and seldom ploughed their fields. In the early 1970s, the Royal Hilltribe Development Program introduced buffaloes to the village as part of a program to develop intensive farming in the region. The buffalo soon became a common sight in Greenhill, thanks to its affordable price, laborsaving characteristics, and fairly simple husbandry. While not a key village of Buffalo Bank,’ about one-third of the Greenhill households came to raise at least a pair of buffaloes. In 1997, only 21 households still owned one or two buffaloes, which they used for ploughing and transportation.

Beginning in the 1980s, Thai development agencies introduced tractors in many rural villages. The Farmers’ Bank offers loans to those who are interested in purchasing tractors, and they have become an icon of development. Today, in the central plains of Thailand, tractors and tillers have nearly replaced buffaloes for tilling and ploughing (Rigg 1997:247). In remote villages, ploughing by buffalo is still prominent, but power tillers are becoming increasingly common (Hirsch 1990:109). In the eight Yao villages I visited, six had at least one tractor and one had access to a rental tractor from a neighboring village. The tribal farmers are increasingly interested in using tractors for farm work.

In 1988, with information obtained from the District Farming Technology Center, the Lius, the richest household in the village, purchased a used medium-sized tractor to plough their fields. The tractor soon became popular in the village, and the Lius began to plough for other households. They charged a ploughing fee, which was decided by the price of diesel oil and the location, topography, and soil conditions of the fields. In 1997, it averaged around 150 baht per rai and varied from 120 to 200 baht per rai. Pan Wenguang, who owned 23 rai of corn, described his rationale for hiring the Lius to plough in this way:

I spent about 3,000 baht hiring them to plough last year. Why? If I hire someone to plough my fields with his buffaloes, it will have to be about 20 labor/days. You pay him 80 baht per day for labor and 40 baht per day for the animal. You pay him 2,400 baht, but you also have to worry about his lunch, and you have to wait for a couple of weeks to get started in your fields. But the tractor gets it done within just a day or two. There are no other hassles, and you can go to work in your fields quickly. Can you lower the cost in the older way? Sure, if you use your own manpower and raise your own buffaloes, but I’m way too old.

Despite the tractor’s efficiency and labor-saving features, the abandonment of the buffalo has had a significant impact upon the local agricultural ecology. With the disappearance of the buffalo, farmers are losing an excellent source of organic fertilizer. This, in turn, is deepening their dependence on chemical fertilizers and creating potential agro– environmental hazards. As most families gradually give up their buffaloes, they stop growing the buffalo’s feed in the winter fields. It should be noted that the need for animal feed often broadens the crop base to include species useful in conserving soil and water. In tropical regions, legumes are often planted to provide quality forage and serve to improve the nitrogen content of soils (National Research Council 1993:84). In the long run, the vanishing winter forage increases the likelihood of soil erosion in Greenhill.

In addition, purchasing and using a tractor negatively affects the rural household economy. The average price of a used, medium-sized tractor in 1997 was over 200,000 baht, or approximately the same price as 40 adult buffaloes. And the cost of hiring a village veterinarian to take care of a sick buffalo can never compare with the cost of towing a tractor to a mechanic in town for repair. While prices increase all the time for both buffaloes and tractors, tractors cannot reproduce themselves. Furthermore, the price of fossil fuels is beyond farmers’ control and creates an unpredictable economic burden. Furthermore, Thailand lacks sustainable oil reserves and relies heavily on oil importation (Office of the Prime Minister 1979:209; Dixon 1999:13).

Agricultural mechanization results in a significant shrinkage of household income. Philip Hirsch (1990:110) observed that, for the majority of upland farmers, the hiring of a tractor is the single most costly cash input. In the two Thai villages he studied, Hirsch noted that hiring a tractor to plow accounted for 38.1 percent of the villagers’ cash expenditures for agricultural production. Increased cash expenditures reduce a household’s income and put farmers in an economic quandary. Tawee Kanthong, a farmer in central Thailand, described the deteriorating village situation in this way:

In my grandfather’s days, natural food was still abundant. Land was ample. To pay debts we could always sell land and clear the forest further. Labor was also free under the traditional… system by which farmers took turns to help one another. Now the forests are no more. Food is scarce. Ploughing machines replace buffaloes. There is no free labor. Everything is money. Any interest is counted by the day. For tenant farmers it is a life of slavery. There is no chance to be free (Kulick and Wilson 1992:134).

In Greenhill, household incomes are also shrinking. The 23 middle-income households I surveyed in 1997 spent an average of 3,870 baht for tractor plowing. This amounted to almost 10 percent of their household incomes. Based on my observations and calculations, the average cost for plowing could have been reduced by at least 1,500 baht per household had buffaloes been used instead.

The second major change in Greenhill’s farming methods and techniques is the growing dependence on chemicals in agricultural production. As swidden farmers, Greenhill villagers planted their crops directly in the field, using only the ashes of the burnt vegetation as fertilizer. Today, under pressure to produce high yields, many Greenhill farmers find the use of chemical fertilizers to be an essential part of their production efforts.

Chemical fertilizers became popular in Greenhill in the 1990s. In 1997, Feng Chaiseng, a 49-year-old corn farmer, used 12 bags (50 kg each) of chemical fertilizer for his 30 rai of corn. He saw the effects of using chemical fertilizer in this way:

We never used chemical fertilizers in the past, because we didn’t have to-the land was plentiful and all we needed to do was to cut down the bushes and weeds and bum them for ashes. We planted as much as we needed to feed our families and animals, and it made no sense to produce more than you needed-you were not able to go to town to sell your produce and nobody in the village wanted to pay even half a baht for anything you grew. Now, we have to grow as much as we can because we need money. We have to buy many things these days. The only way to get higher yields is to use more chemical fertilizers…. Yes, they are expensive. I spent 4,200 baht buying chemical fertilizer last year for my 30 rai of fields. But you have to…. Once you get started using it, you have to if you want to maintain the yields.

In addition to chemical fertilizers, herbicides were also introduced to Greenhill in the early 1990s and are now widely sprayed in the fields. Before the introduction of herbicides, weeding was a major chore. With herbicides, each household now needs only a few days to spray herbicides around the base of each plant. In terms of cost, one bottle of herbicide, with a price of 500 baht in 1997, can be used for 7.5 rai of corn. If manual labor is used to weed, it requires approximately 6 labor/days to weed the same area. As an adult laborer costs 80 baht per day, the total expense can go up to around 480 baht. Most households prefer to use herbicides.

Agricultural chemicals have had positive effects upon production. Chemical fertilizers greatly increase the output per rai, and herbicides significantly reduce the intensity of labor. In swidden farming, there is no need to weed, since fields are burned prior to cultivation and the crops are sparsely planted. In intensive farming, however, weeds become a significant problem. Corn, for example, will yield poorly if the field is not weeded in a timely manner. In the past, most households had to spend over a month weeding. Now this is done in a week or two with the use of herbicides, and the labor saved can be used in other productive and social activities. However, recent agricultural studies have confirmed the potential hazards of using various chemical fertilizers, herbicides, and pesticides. According to the U.S. National Research Council (1993:75), the inappropriate use of high-productivity technologies is being implicated in various forms of natural resource degradation, including nutrient loading from chemical fertilizers, water contamination from insecticides and herbicides, and water logging and salinization of land. In addition, heavy, widespread use of chemical agents can have detrimental effects on nontarget organisms and can lead to pesticide resistance and chemical residues on food (ibid.,156).

Moreover, agricultural chemicals are seldom used in an optimal manner. Farmers are not sufficiently informed about the ecological and biological effects of the chemicals they use. Most farmers often know no more than the approximate amount they should use in their corn fields. The manufacturers usually tell the farmers little about the long-term environmental impact of the use of their products. Much of the information provided is about the wonderful benefits of using chemical fertilizers. Rarely do they instruct the farmers to use pesticides and herbicides only when necessary.

Finally, chemical fertilizers and herbicides create a vicious cycle in Greenhill’s agricultural production. The input of agricultural chemicals has altered the production cycle of the village. In the past, the fields were periodically allowed to lie fallow so that sufficient vegetation accumulated for burning into ash. In so doing, fields were allowed sufficient time to restore energy and regain fertility. Although farmers still continue to use ashes as fertilizer wherever available, chemical fertilizers have made it possible for Greenhill farmers to eliminate the fallow time. While increasing crop yields, the use of agricultural chemicals has created a drastic demand on soil productivity and fertility. According to most farmers I talked with, the amount of chemical fertilizers used per rai of land must keep increasing by at least two or three kilograms per rai per year to maintain yields. While the use of chemical fertilizers has enabled Greenhill farmers to gain some increases in their harvests, the farmers now have to pay an increasing amount of money just to maintain their yields. Purchasing fertilizer and herbicide has put a heavy economic burden on Greenhill farmers. Over 80 percent of Greenhill households are now unable to carry out their production without annual loans from the Farmers’ Bank.

Greenhill is not alone. At the national level, between 1980 and 1990 the use of chemical fertilizers in Thailand increased from 0.79 million tons per year to 2.65 million tons, with an increase in average application of almost 300 percent (Dixon 1999:166). The high cost of chemical fertilizers has put millions of farmers in debt. In Ban Mai, a farming village in central Thailand, Philip Hirsch (1990:105) found an average debt of 9,400 baht per person. The high cost of the agricultural chemicals has forced many to mortgage their lands to merchants and money lenders. Many farmers have ended up selling their land and becoming wage laborers (Bello et al. 1998:140).

The heavy chemical input also degrades the environment. Agriculturally related pollution has been worsening in recent years. Chemical fertilizers have resulted in the contamination of ground water. Pesticides, herbicides, and heavy metal pollutants have killed and contaminated aquatic life and brought about a decline in the productivity of fisheries in Thailand (Barrow 1990:99-103). Edward Anderson (1993:57) noted that one of the most serious ecological problems to arise with the expansion of the land devoted to cash crops within the mountains of northern Thailand is the extensive and often uncontrolled use of chemicals, both as fertilizers and as pesticides. At the national level, these problems have caused some public attention. Yet, in tribal villages such as Greenhill, the long-term impact of environmental degradation and its associated health hazards remain largely unknown to farmers.

Development and the Increase in Agricultural Investment

Technological changes brought about by development have resulted in a significant increase in agricultural investment in the past decade or so. This does not include the indirect costs of production, such as travel to purchase seed or hiring a technician to fix herbicide sprayers. I found five items that most Greenhill households usually invested in each year. While the richer households invested significantly more in their production, I found that Feng Chaiqing’s investment budget was fairly typical among the mid- to lower-income households. Table 3 presents Feng Chaiqing’s investment budget in 1997.

Table 3 contains an estimated budget plan for the cultivation of one rai of corn in Greenhill. In reality, the budget of each household can vary significantly. For example, some households might use less insecticide in a certain year, and some families might choose to use their own labor and buffaloes to plow some of their fields. Tractor fees vary according to the topography and other field conditions. Under normal conditions, the corn yield per rai is between 250 and 350 kilograms. In 1997, such a yield allowed a gross income of between 875 baht and 1,225 baht per rai. With 652 baht per rai as an investment, this meant a reduction of over 50 percent in gross income. It is important to note that labor and other indirect costs were not included. With the traditional mode of production in the 1970s, however, none of these costs existed.

The increase in agricultural investment has had major effects upon Greenhill’s economy. First, the growing need for cash drives the villagers to look for more ways to earn cash. Men have begun to work as wage laborers in Chiang Mai, Bangkok, or even in Taiwan. In many villages, labor emigration results in a manpower shortage, and some villages are even unable to harvest their crops. In some cases, the need for cash initiates drastic responses. For instance, despite the Thai government’s efforts at forest conservation, deforestation continues to be a problem. Some villagers have gone at night to the forest to cut timber for sale. The increase in agricultural investment is not the only indirect cause of deforestation, but it should not be ruled out as a contributing factor to the problem.

Second, the increase in agricultural investment makes villagers dependent on outside resources. A household with 30 rai, for example, needs at least 20,000 baht for corn production. The need for loans has negative social effects. Like all financial organizations, the Farmers’ Bank has various loan policies and regulations. The maximum amount available for each loan is 50,000 baht. To apply for a loan, the household head must belong to a household group and must be willing to provide a mutual guarantee for the other households’ timely repayment of their loans. In case one member household is unable to pay back its loan, the other member households can be held responsible.

The bulk of the loan must be used to purchase designated commodities, such as certain chemical fertilizers, herbicides, and insecticides. Sometimes, even the brands of the commodities are specified in the loan. In 1985, for example, the Bank for Agriculture and Agricultural Cooperatives even stipulated that clients take fertilizers directly as part of their loans (Hirsch 1990:109).

The need for loans reduces villagers’ personal dignity and their incentives to farm. Loans are granted only to a head of household under the age of 50. The policy ignores the fact that Yao life expectancy is reportedly 60 years and some heads of households are over 50 years of age and continue to engage in agricultural production. To apply for loans, some older villagers with adult sons have to retire unwillingly from household leadership. For those without adult children, the situation is worse. They have to apply for a loan through a relative.

Debt, caused by loans and growing agricultural investments, helps undermine the Greenhill villagers’ incentives to continue agricultural production. Take, for example, the experience of Pan Fuguang:

They don’t lend money to me because they say I am over 50. My two daughters have been married out to Mae Chan. My other children are still too young. So I have to ask Guoliang (a nephew) a favor and have him apply for a loan for me..we do that every year. Well, the other day Guoliang told me that he might go to work in Bangkok next year. I am worrying about what I should do then…. Look, what a shame, you have to borrow money each year at this time, and you work for a whole year just to pay back the money you borrowed. Then you have to borrow again, and then you work hard throughout the year to pay the money back again, and you’ve got to watch every baht in your hands.

The increased investment in agriculture contributes significantly to the growing poverty in the village. While not the poorest in the village, the plight of Pan Chaiguang’s family is typical. The Pans live with their six children in a shabby cottage. They depend mainly on some 20 rai of corn fields. In 1996, the Pans had a net income of about 22,000 baht. As they did not have rice paddies, they had to spend at least 10,000 baht to purchase rice. After that, all the money left for an eight-person family was about 12,000 baht ($250). Soon after the harvest, the Pans began to borrow money from other villagers. When I visited the Pans, both Pan Chaiguang and his wife begged me to help their oldest daughter (a 13year-old) find a job anywhere so she might help them a little bit in their struggle to “keep the wolf away from their door.”

In Thailand, the rural poor are the first to fall into debt. Eventually, they must sell their land and become landless peasants. Despite the nation’s “booming” economy in the 1980s and the Thai government’s efforts to eradicate poverty, the percentage of landless peasants in northeast Thailand alone increased by an astounding 56 percent between 1980 and 1991 (Bello et al. 1998:145). Although statistical data for tribal poverty are not available, the national data help shed light on the situation faced by tribal peoples, who are the poorest of the poor (Chayan 1996:82).

The government’s agricultural policies and the international markets have both had a significant impact on farmers. Much poverty derives from the rapidly increasing expenses involved in agricultural production: prices for agricultural products have been kept low, and farmers are being forced to spend more and more money each year on agricultural supplies. The combined effect of these two factors has drastically deepened poverty in rural Thailand, especially in the tribal regions.

In the long run, growing rural poverty will affect the Thai national economy. Considering the importance of agriculture to the Thai economy, this emerges as a real threat. The economic failures in agriculture and the increasing need for cash will eventually force farmers to abandon agriculture and switch to urban wage labor and be “too busy to farm,” adopting a phrase from Jonathan Rigg (1997:241). While this is not yet the case in Thailand, some Southeast Asian countries have begun to feel the impact of rural poverty. In 1989, for example, the Philippines, a historically self-sufficient agricultural country, became a net food importer. There were several reasons for the decline of Philippine agriculture, but a crucial one was the ever increasing costs of farming (Cromwell, Wiggins, and Wentzel 1993:75). Without being checked, what is emerging in Greenhill will probably soon be found throughout villages in Thailand.

The Royal Hilltribe Development Program and the Yao Subsistence Economy:

A Positive Example

In the past three decades or so, development programs have often had mixed results and have helped to undermine Greenhill’s subsistence economy. However, some development programs have focused on the villagers’ needs and have positively contributed to Greenhill’s subsistence economy. Over 30 years ago, the Royal Hilltribe Development Program (RHDP) set an excellent example.

Launched in 1969, the RHDP is an informal but enduring development program. King Bhumibol supervised and provided major funding for the program. Additional support came from USAID. Covering 67 villages in widely different locations, it included six study centers, each composed of hundreds of researchers, extension workers, and key farmers. Like most royal projects, the RHDP operated in an informal and nongovernmental manner. Its major goals were to help eradicate opium production and to improve the quality of life for tribal peoples. The program concentrated on introducing locally suitable crops and techniques to tribal farmers and providing them with moral and financial incentives to encourage them to end opium production and make the transition from shifting cultivation to sedentary farming (Anderson 1993; Office of Prime Minister 1979; Tapp 1986).

To achieve these goals, the RHDP was designed to serve as a bridge between development agencies, scientists, and tribal peoples. The program emphasized an intimate collaboration between developers and local people. To see firsthand the tribal peoples’ real needs, the king himself visited many northern villages each year by helicopter, jeep, or on foot. Greenhill, a nearly inaccessible village at the time, was visited twice by the king and his RHDP staff. During his trips to the villages, he showed tribal farmers how to breed stronger pigs and feed them better (Kulic and Wilson 1992:57). He not only consulted with local officials but also solicited firsthand information from local farmers concerning their common problems, needs, and hopes.

The king saw himself as a “consultant” or “royal advisor” to development programs (ibid., 58). While recognizing the importance of outside assistance in local development, he emphasized that the viability of development lies with self-help. He believed that development was to help farmers “make themselves self-supporting, to stand on their own feet. That is why it is important not to give too much …. You must give the minimum. The minimum amount” of direct financial support (Davies 1986:23).

Based on ideas and initiatives at the grassroots level, the RHDP launched three categories of pilot development projects. First, the program initiated and sponsored agricultural training centers throughout the tribal regions. Local farmers, who received their training at the program headquarters, often staffed these centers. At the king’s request, the Royal Thai Ministry of Agriculture later took over these centers and operated them as a permanent government service to the local people. Despite their varied quality and longevity, these centers have contributed to the improvement of the tribal farmers’ knowledge of modern farming techniques. The Greenhill agricultural center continued to function as a main source of information and innovation in 1997.

Second, the program introduced various new crops, including wet rice, soybeans, strawberries, grapes, peaches, apples, oranges, cotton, coffee, lettuce, chrysanthemums, and roses. The program also helped households interested in raising sheep, goats, or buffalo with needed finances and techniques. To increase the likelihood that new crops would be locally viable, the RHDP made sure that new crops were locally marketable and ecologically appropriate. For example, orange trees were introduced as an interval plant in corn fields. The growing of perishable vegetables and flowers such as lettuce and chrysanthemums was encouraged only in areas where such produce could be transported to major cities for sale in a timely fashion. For geographically more remote areas, cotton and coffee were recommended instead. Although the problems associated with crop substitutes are still visible and even serious in some tribal villages, the RHDP has helped to minimize those problems.

Third, the RHDP took the people’s day-to-day life as its priority and worked to foster a self-sufficient economy among tribal farmers. In this regard, the king emphasized a step-bystep development strategy and began with the basic needs of the villagers. Some development endeavors might have seemed trivial at first, but an important strength of the RHDP has been precisely its accumulation of these seemingly insignificant improvements. Through royal support, for example, Greenhill established a health care center, a kindergarten, and an elementary school. For the first time in Greenhill’s history, its villagers began to have access to education and health care. In terms of subsistence, Greenhill villagers have benefited directly from the RHDP in their cultivation of wet rice.

Although rice is the staple food of the Yao, the rice they cultivated in the past was often dry rice (Chob 1986:50). Through the village agricultural training center, the RHDP promoted the cultivation of wet rice and introduced innovative cultivation techniques and components to Greenhill farmers. After some initial experiments, wet rice turned out to be successful. In the 1990s, with the needed conditions (flat paddies and sufficient water), 26 households managed to grow at least some wet rice. Ten households reported being able to produce enough rice to feed their families in 1997.

Despite the differences in cultivation between wet and dry rice, essential procedures, such as weeding, harvesting, threshing, and preserving, are familiar to the Yao. Wet rice requires less care and a smaller investment than corn or dry rice. The construction of terraces and irrigation systems requires a large amount of labor and sufficient finances, but, once it is completed, the benefits are long-lasting. Rice paddies are usually plowed deep and the soil is flooded prior to planting, so the need for weeding is often minimal. In deep plowing, organic matter, such as weeds and rice stems, is turned upside down and buried deep in the wet soil. Such materials soon decay and improve the soil. As wet rice can absorb sufficient natural nutrients from the paddies, the need for chemical fertilizers is greatly reduced. In this respect, wet rice is more cost efficient and environmentally friendly than either corn or dry rice.

Wet rice has a higher yield and a greater economic return than either corn or dry rice. Properly managed, one rai of wet rice paddies in Greenhill could yield up to 350 kilograms of rice, with a market price in 1997 of 4,725 baht (the local procurement price that year was 13.5 baht per kilogram), which was two or three times that of corn or dry rice (1,2252,700 baht). Households without paddies had to purchase rice at a price of 950 baht per bag (50 kilograms) or 20 baht per kilogram in the same year. In addition, the husk residues produced in the threshing process provide an excellent feed for domestic animals and have a market value of about 1 baht per kilogram.

By and large, the RHDP achieved its designated goals. Alternative crops were introduced into the tribal regions, and some have become well established. These new crops helped Thailand reduce opium production from an annual output of over 100 metric tons in the 1960s to less than 20 metric tons in recent years (Dirksen 1997:330). For those villages included in the program areas, as well as for some others, income has improved (Anderson 1993:194). More importantly, technical assistance and education provided by the program have helped tribal farmers adapt to a market economy. In 1987, the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) praised the king’s development program for its insistence on the moderation of costs, use of natural energy, participation of farmers in construction and maintenance work, and education of farmers to enable them to gain the maximum benefit from development projects (Kulic and Wilson 1992:58). The RHDP offers an example of how development can contribute positively to a tribal agricultural economy.


The village of Greenhill illustrates just how complex development is: it can both promote and retard a tribal agricultural economy, depending on its foci, orientation, methodology, implementation, and local circumstances.

The negative impact of heavy chemical use in farming, for example, has long been recognized and is under conscious control in major Thai agricultural sectors (Anat et al. 1988:21,135). Yet, development programs in tribal regions often do not pay enough attention to lessons already learned. Beginning in the 1980s, Thai society has become increasingly aware of the negative results of the misuse of chemical agents in agriculture. This awareness has been strengthened by media and governmental reports. In 1985, for example, 1,400 pesticide-related accidents were reported, including 10 deaths (Tachai 1991:7-11). Still the use of agricultural chemicals remains problematic in Greenhill.

Development agencies should consider the impact of their programs both holistically and in the long term. While high-yielding corn has played a crucial role in Greenhill’s economy, its side effects are largely ignored. By focusing on the tribal people’s well-being in the long run, development agencies can promote appropriate innovations to diminish such negative effects. Revitalizing local crop varieties, providing villagers with technical assistance in plant breeding, and encouraging crop rotation are all means to help Greenhill’s agricultural practices as well as improve the villagers’ competency in the market economy.

Finally, the components of sustainable agriculture need to be fully integrated into the development programs in tribal regions. Sustainable agriculture is anchored in ecological, economic, and social sustainability (Carts and Reiche 1996; Kloppenburg et al. 2000; Muller 1996). Ecological sustainability requires that development be designed and implemented in such a way that it preserves features of the local environment essential to its long-term equilibrium. In Greenhill, reviving the tribal farmers’ tradition of polyculture, encouraging the use of organic fertilizers, and popularizing an optimal use of chemical agents are all initial steps toward ecological sustainability.

Economic sustainability requires that development help improve the productivity and profitability of agriculture so that farming continues as an attractive economic option for rural populations. Development agencies must take the growing poverty of tribal regions into account. Through technical assistance, development agencies can help tribal farmers increase the economic value of their products and decrease their cash expenditures. By promoting the cultivation of wet rice, the RHDP helped Greenhill villagers reduce their need for cash to purchase rice. The potential benefits of pork production highlight another area where development agencies may provide assistance.

Social sustainability requires recognition of the essential role of local people in perpetuating their own well-being. In Greenhill and elsewhere, development agencies can help diminish the outside control of local production by providing direct loans or needed agricultural supplies. Appropriate policies, technical assistance, and education are all means that can be used to help tribal farmers regain control of their own economy. The RHDP’s agricultural training center has offered a good example, but more still needs to be done.

While reflecting both the positive and the negative impact of development programs in the past three decades, Greenhill provides us with a crucial lesson about development in tribal societies. Ignoring ecological, economic, and social sustainability leads to the kinds of unfortunate consequences that have occurred in Greenhill and elsewhere. However, programs, such as the RHDP, that foster sustainable agriculture can bring about positive and viable changes.


1To ensure the villagers’ privacy, I have changed the name of the village in which my fieldwork was conducted. Villagers’ names used in this paper are pseudonyms.

2There has been no official measurement of the land in Greenhill up until 1998, at least. All figures given below are measurements provided by the villagers and by my estimation based on direct observations.

3During my fieldwork, the exchange rate between U.S. dollars and the Thai baht was about $1 = 48 baht. In May 2000, the exchange rate was $1 = 39 baht.

4Buffalo Bank is a village organization that promotes the raising and using of buffaloes through mutual assistance among participating households. For more details, see Philip Hirsch (1990).

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Li Jian is currently a lecturer in the Department of East Asian Languages and Cultures at the University of Kansas. This research was partially funded by the Department of Anthropology, University of Kansas, and Ubon Ratchathani University, Thailand. I am grateful to the above institutions for their support and to all those who supported my research both in Thailand and the U. S. I am indebted to the Yao people in northern Thailand, who kindly shared with me their food, shelter, and life stories. My deepest gratitude goes to Professor Donald D. Stull, my mentor at the University of Kansas, for his ever-lasting guidance, encouragement, and inspiration. All responsibility for errors of fact or interpretation remains my own.

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