For centuries Southeast Asia's diverse and independent
hill peoples lived well by "eating the forest," following the ancient
agricultural cycle of slashing, burning, and cultivating, and then moving on. As rising
pressure for land in modern times destroyed the natural equilibrium of shifting
cultivation, the forest began to die. This brought drought and floods to the plains and
poverty to the hills. Hard pressed, the hill people in northern Thailand and neighboring
Burma and Laos turned to the poppy. By the late 1960s northern Thailand alone was
producing 150 tons of opium a year.
In 1969 His Majesty King Bhumibol Adulyadej of Thailand hearkened to the crisis. He set in
motion a program to replace opium poppies with temperate climate cash crops and to arrest
the destruction of precious forests and watersheds. This became the ROYAL PROJECT.
His Majesty appointed Prince Bhisatej Rajani to supervise the PROJECT. For research and
essential administrative services, he called upon Kasetsart University, which soon set up
the PROJECT's pioneering experiment station at Ang Khang, in the highlands of Chiangmai
Today, in several mountain stations, researchers test hundreds of temperate climate fruit
trees and vegetables for their potential as cash crops. Volunteers from universities and
government agencies introduce the successful ones to villagers in demonstration centers
throughout the highlands.
Nearly three hundred upland villages beneflt directly from the ROYAL PROJECT, which is
also introducing schools, cooperatives, rice banks, and primary medical services.
In the ROYAL PROJECT's orchards and gardens, apricot trees donated by Japan grow alongside
peaches and plums from North America, pears and persimmons from Taiwan, apples from
Israel, and kiwis from New Zealand. Technicians from Taiwan have, for fifteen years,
volunteered their practical skills. For example, fruit tree expert Soong Ching-yun is so
well known in Ang Khang that villagers call him "Papa Soong." The United States
government and agencies of the United Nations have provided critical funding and
assistance. In ways large and small, so have dozens of other countries and international
The ROYAL PROJECT buys produce from hill farmers, then grades, packages, and markets it.
Once imported luxuries, many temperate climate fruits and vegetables are now readily
available to Thai consumers. The PROJECT also processes jams, canned vegetables, dried
fruits, and flowers for export.
These days when His Majesty the King makes his yearly visit to PROJECT sites, he sees a
transformation. One-time poppy farmers are turning to more profitable crops. They are
becoming vegetable, fruit, and coffee growers. Opium cultivation has declined by 85
In electing the ROYAL PROJECT to receive the 1988 Ramon Magsaysay Award for International
Understanding, the Board of Trustees recognizes its concerted national and international
effort to curtail opium growing by bringing worthy livelihoods to Thailand's hill tribes.