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Tribal Socio-Economic Change: What Is Wrong with Planned Socioeconomic Changes Among

the Hmong Of Thailand

By Gary Yia Lee, Ph.D.




  1. Acknowledgements

  2. Project Impact

  3. Persistent Patterns

  4. Constraints and Prospects

  5. Conclusion

  6. Footnotes

  7. References 




The research on which this paper is based was made possible by financial assistance from the Wenner-Gren Foundation, New York, U.S.A.; and from the Greenwell Bequest of the University of Sydney, Australia. My thanks go to all officials and the Hmong villagers in Thailand who helped me in various ways during the course of my field work, and to Professor W.R. Geddes, Department of Anthropology, Sydney University, for his comments on an early draft of this article.


During the last few years, there have been official attempts to reduce or eliminate poppy in the highlands of Thailand. The best known of these efforts is probably the Crop Replacement and Community Development project of the United Nations Programme for Drug Abuse Control (UNPDAC). This was established in September 1972, following an agreement signed between the Royal Thai Government and the U.N. Division of Narcotic Drugs in Geneva, Switzerland. The background to this project has been well documented elsewhere (Geddes, 1972: 224-233: United Nations Reports, 1967 and 1970; and UNPDAC First Progress Report, July 1973). Because of this, I will confine my discussion to the results of its implementation at Khun Wang, one of the project's "key" White Hmong villages where the research for this article was carried out in 1977.


Project Impact


Aiming to explore the feasibility of replacing opium with other crops and economic enterprises, the UN project was initiated at Khun Wang in April 1973, with the installation of a crop trial station, a team of 3 extension workers and a number of labourers to carry out its various activities. Since then, it has undertaken crop trials and demonstrations as well as community development in the forms of education and medical assistance. In its extension work between 1973 and 1977, the following items have been loaned or made available to the tribal people for experimentation in their farms: 16 litres of sesame seeds, 12 tangs [1] of castor beans, 54 tangs of red-kidney beans; 1,420 kilos of fertiliser for use with coffee trees and dry rice fields, 8,900 coffee seedlings: 64 kilos of onion and garlic seeds, 7 kilos of insecticide; and 66 apricot and persimmon trees. These are figures given by the villagers.


Official sources reveal: 2 tangs of castor beans, 514 kilos of seed potatoes; 15,350 coffee seedlings; 30 apricot and persimmon trees; 165 kilos of rice seeds, and 260 young peach trees. Land ploughed by the project's tractor for the farmers covers: 6.4 hectare for red-kidney beans in 1975; and 33.4 hectares for dry rice in 1975 and 1976 at the main village [2]. About 300 fish were also given to two families to breed in their fish ponds. At the end of 1977, the four households of Upper Khun Wang were loaned 40 cattle to graze of 16 hectares of improved pastures to encourage cattle raising and modern animal husbandry as an alternative to opium growing, with the village people being responsible for maintaining the pastures and cattle until the latter are all repaid to the project with offspring of the herd's cows over a number of years.


It can be seen that the figures maintained by project personnel and those obtained verbally from the farmers contradict one another. There is no way to verify this, because written records are not kept on every item handed out to the villagers. On the face of this, it is not possible to use these figures as accurate indication of aid extended to the opium growers. In any case, what is loaned or given does not always bring returns, and in the long run the success of the project can only be judged by the types and amounts of replacement crops or economic activities the Hmong have adopted profitably as viable alternatives to poppy, and the reduction of opium cultivation in the area.


The results of my survey with all 30 households in the Khun Wang complex show only one family to have earned any income from replacement crops introduced by the UN project. This consists of 2,000 Baht in 1976 and 3,200 Baht in 1977 from coffee, and 4,000 Baht for peaches in 1976, all sold with the assistance of project workers. Other households also experimented with various crops and fruit trees, but these failed or are abandoned through poor soil, heavy rains, lack of maintenance and knowledge, or insufficient official assistance. In the first two years of the project, households in the main village and Upper Khun Wang were eager to join in these crop experiments so much so that not enough seeds could be secured for them. Some were loaned sesame seeds on the understanding that these seeds would be returned to the project at 15% interest if the crop grew successfully. This condition also applied to other crop seeds. The yields of potatoes and castor beans were very good, but sesame and red-kidney beans failed due to heavy frost. However, the people could not sell any of the successful crops to the project, despite its original agreement to buy them and even to compensate the growers at the rate of 800 Baht per rai (1,600 square metres) in the event of failure from natural causes.


After many unsuccessful attempts to sell castor beans and potatoes to the UN project, the farmers became discouraged and gave up further experimentation. The project did not buy these crops to sell at the city markets on the pretext that the prices they would fetch were too low to compensate for the costs involved in their purchase and transportation. Between 1972 and 1978, the UN Crop Replacement Project absorbed US $3,447,800 in expenditures for all of Thailand, and it has reserved $40,000 annually specifically for the provision of incentives and guarantee for village farmers who agree to take part in the project. Yet, when it comes to buying the Hmong's experimental crops as part of its incentive scheme, the project has not lived up to its verbal promises to them and to its own written guidelines. Nearly all its expenditures have gone toward salaries and official liabilities, leaving only US $580,400 (or 18%) for general operations (Report to the 1978 Session, U.N. Commission on Narcotic Drugs : 21).


After five years of implementation, it is clear that as far as Khun Wang is concerned, United Nations substitute crops have made very little headway to replace opium. Few farmers are growing them on any significant level or have seen their potential as possible means of making a living in the highlands. A detailed counting and measurement in 1977 show only 14 households with a total of 1,445 coffee trees; 17 with 107 castor bean trees, 12 with a total of 4.710 square metres of red-kidney beans; 6 with 16 apricot trees and 33 persimmon trees; 3 with 511 peach trees; 1 with 401 square metres of strawberries, and 1 with 303 square metres of soya beans. Peach and coffee trees planted in 1973 have been giving fruit since 1976, and apricot trees flowered for the first time in 1977. Castor bean trees are now only maintained for shade or left to survive in the wild.


A more meaningful aspect of the problems encountered by the UNPDAC project is that opium land-use has remained more or less at the same level as in the years before the initiation of the project in 1973. The land under poppy at Khun Wang was reported as being 1.65 hectares per household in 1972 (Roth, 1974:.33). It still stood at 1.66 hectares in 1976. From my opinion survey of the Khun Wang villagers, 35% of all households agreed that the ploughing of dry rice fields for them by the project was the most significant undertaking, while 65% said that not much had been achieved, apart from assistance with medicine, educational facilities and the construction of the village piped water system.


These figures and opinions not withstanding, an evaluation team commissioned by the United Nations to review the project's progress in 1975 stated that since the project began, opium production in the key experimental villages "has been reduced by about one half, and in some cases by more" (UNPDAC, Sixth Progress Report, 1976: Annex I, p. 9). This impression of dedicated work and success has been repeated in later official UN reports as testimony of the project's fulfilment of its objective in replacing poppy with other cash crops (UN PDAC, Reports to the United Nations commission on Narcotic Drugs, 1977 and 1978 Sessions).


It is obvious that these claims must have been made in complete disregard to the project's lack of progress at Khun Wang and other villages. The mind boggles to think that project workers have been able to persuade the hill tribes to grow so much strawberries and kidney beans that opium farmers now earn two to three times more incomes per annum than when they cultivate poppy, as was once reported by the Thai Director of the UN project (Bangkok Post, 14/9/77, p. 3). Yet, it was recently estimated by some officials that opium growing in the hills of Northern Thailand had increased from previous years to 200,000 acres in 1976, and "the hill tribe economy remains as dependent on opium sales as the junkie is on his next heroin fix (Asian Wall Street Journal, 1/4/77, p. 1).


Persistent Patterns


The Hmong grow poppy not only for the cash they can earn from its sale, but also because they resort to it for many other uses. This fact has been well appreciated in Thailand and elsewhere. In the old days before cash has become common, opium used to be the main currency for exchange in remote areas, especially cash since they buy most of what they need from shops in the city.


Altogether, the socio-economic obligations of the Khun Wang villagers entailed an annual expenditure with a cash value of 434,241 Baht in 1976 and 254,927 Baht in 1977, of which 93,051 Baht (21-4%) and 32,365 Baht (12.7%) for both years involved opium as a means of exchange. The single biggest source of incomes is the sale of opium produced by the village people, amounting to 422,120 Baht (85.8%) out of a total income of 492,230 Baht for 1976, and 189,630 Baht (72%) of a total of 263,078 Baht in 1977. Taking away the total expenditures from the annual incomes for these years leaves a yearly surplus of 57,989 Baht for 1976 and 4,079 Baht for 1977, or 1,933 Baht and 136 Baht per household respectively. For each of the 30 households, the gross annual income from opium as well as other sources averages 16,407.6 Baht in 1976 and 8,769.3 Baht in 1977.


It can be inferred that these income figures are well above the annual wages of 5,200 Baht (at 20 Baht a day for 5 working days per week) for the lowest paid menial worker in Thailand. However, this is the earning of one person, whereas the Hmong's figure is for a household. For each of the 1212 Hmong workers involved in poppy cultivation at Khun Wang, the gross annual income would be 4,068 Baht in 1976 and 2,174.2 Baht in 1977. In addition, hired workers cost 58,846 Baht in cash terms in 1976 and 224,075 Baht in 1977. This gives us a net income from opium sale of 363,274 Baht and 165,555 Baht respectively or 3,002 Baht and 1,368.2 Baht per family worker for both these two years. It is evident that this is well below the annual wages of a Thai menial labourer. Even assuming that a Hmong spends only an average of 215 days fully occupied in agricultural activities each year, a daily income of 20 Baht would give him an annual gross of 4,300 Baht, which is still higher than what he actually obtains from his farm work. Therefore, it cannot be concluded that Hmong opium growers are comparatively better off than other low-income earners, especially when more than half of the households do not produce enough for their needs. In 1976, for instance, 14 of the 30 households in Khun Wang had a total deficit of 61,011 Baht or 4,358 Baht per household, and 18 of these households in 1977 overspent by 44,870 Baht or 2,493 Baht per household. This resulted in many of them being forced to borrow from relatives or traders in order to sustain themselves until the next crop harvest.


In general, the biggest need is rice, since it absorbs the highest expenditures with a total money value of 125,606 Baht in 1976 and 85,013 Baht in 1977, representing 28.9% and 33.3% of all expenditures respectively. This is despite the fact that rice production in Khun Wang totalled 40,359.2 kilos in 1967 in unmilled form and 42,219 kilos for these years. The amount of paddy purchased to supplement home-grown rice is 29.582.4 kilos in 1967 and 21,253.25 kilos in 1977. This means that 42% of rice consumed in 1976 and 33% in 1977 had to be bought to meet the villagers' requirements. This is because some of this rice was also used for domestic animals, due to insufficient maize production. In 1976, the maize yield was 13,050 kilograms for all 30 households, of which 1,000 kilos were sold for 1,600 Baht. The remaining 12,050 kilos were kept as animal feeds. With an average daily consumption of 60 kilos of maize by the village pigs and chickens, some households had enough maize to last till the following year while the majority had to substitute rice as fodder when their maize run out, often within 2 months following harvest.


With such demand made on rice by both domestic animals and people, it is not surprising that the Hmong cannot produce enough paddy to last a whole year. The situation is made worse by the lack of land for rice growing as Khun Wang is at too high an altitude for rice to grow well. To complicate matters further, the incomes of the opium farmers are always in a precarious position, depending on the fluctuation in opium price and their in times of low yields.


It has been said the one of the reasons for the continuing cultivation of poppy in the hills is the farmers' indebtedness to lowland or local shopkeepers. In times of economic hardship, a farmer is forced to seek loans which he will repay in opium that credit operators later sell at lucrative prices to heroin dealers. Interest on these loans is often at the rate of 200 per cent a year. If the farmer cannot settle his debts immediately, they are carried over to the following years for at least three years. This may tie him to his opium fields until he can produce enough to satisfy his creditors. In 1976, the Hmong of Khun Wang repaid debts totalling 39,316 Baht of which 27,516 (70%) were in opium. In 1977, their debt repayment amounted to 18,310 Baht of which 14,320 Baht (78.2%) were paid in opium (1). It is obvious that many farmers paid their credit agents with opium, either by choice or compulsion. However, as Geddes points out, it is probably exaggerating "to say that these ties to agents who are primarily interested in obtaining opium actually stimulate production, because there are other reasons why the people at present want to grow it, but they would tend to make it more difficult to abandon production" (Geddes, 1976; 225).


Another reason for the Hmong's opium cultivation is the need to provide for their family addicts. Without incomes, those who are dependent on opium for smoking cannot buy it from other growers so that they or their families have to produce it themselves. Khun Wang has 26 addicts of whom 19 (including 5 couples) have economically active household members who grow enough poppy for them to have opium for use throughout the year before the next harvest. Those without such labour resources do not have enough to smoke for a year and have to borrow or earn opium from hiring their labour to other households. Among the latter group, one has enough opium for 7 months, four (2 couples) for 6 months, and two (a very destitute couple) for 2 months. The opium reserved for smoking by village addicts or for home uses totals 137.16 kilograms worth 128,662 Baht in 1977 with a cash related expense for analgesic powder (used to mix with opium) of 2,776 Baht. The cash value of opium used by these addicts is so high as to be second only to the total expenditure on rice.

The average length of addiction for these 26 opium-dependent Hmong is 14.5 years, with an average daily consumption of 7-75 grams per addict or 73.55 kilos a year tor all addicts. This is well below the reserve figure of 137-16 kilos for the whole village, but some households usually keep more opium than they actually use in order to meet emergencies. Like their expenditures this amount of opium fluctuates according to the level of production: the more opium produced in any one year, the. more opium is used or reserved for smoking and home consumption.


It is clear that one of the main justification by the Hmong for their poppy cultivation is the need to provide opium for their addicts. They may give up growing poppy as a cash crop, but will not abandon it altogether because a limited supply will always be required until the time when they have no one dependent on it. At this stage, the tribal addicts are still too reluctant to join the government's modest detoxification scheme in the lowlands, explaining that it is difficult to give away their habit now after such a long time on the drug. They realize the futility of being successfully treated in the city only to return to their isolated villages in the hills where the lack of medical service will force many of them to take up opium smoking again as the only alternative to alleviating any sickness.


Many hill people can today buy medicine for their own use, supplemented by free medical assistance from government or voluntary health officers who visit a few tribal villages two or three times a year. However, this ad hoc visiting means that highlanders have to resort to opium in case of serious illness such as toothache, influenza and diarrhoea. This can be either in the form of raw opium taken orally, or opium smoke inhaled by the patients or blown at them under the cover of a blanket. In 1977, there were 147 incidences of diarrhoea in Khun Wang, 322 of influenza and 272 of toothache, with 568 instances of less serious stomach complaints for the total population of 254 persons. Cash used to buy modern medicine amounts to 3,432 Baht and another 3,307 Baht (much of it in opium) were spent on curing rites. Of the 26 existing addicts, 24 (92.3%) give a major sickness as the cause of their addiction. It is not possible to estimate the amount of opium used for pain-relief, but there is no doubt that it is still being resorted to widely among the highland villagers.

With some permanent health service available, it is unlikely that the Hmong will depend on opium in their illness to the extent of becoming addicted. The hill farmers do not always have the fares to go to the city hospitals, nor can they afford the time even when treatment for them is free. So long as they rely on opium as pain-killer and so long as their addicts are not rehabilitated, they will carry on producing opium, irrespective of the government's decisions on its legal standing. An integrated approach by many governments agencies providing major services which cater for the farmers' needs in all areas is required.


Constraints and Prospects


If the UNPDAC project has not done much to decrease the Hmong's opium production in Thailand, the Forestry Department of the Royal Thai Government certainly has made its presence increasingly felt in the highlands. In order to prevent erosion and further forest destruction by hill farmers, the Forestry Department through its Watershed Management Division has undertaken the reforestation of all denuded lands and fallows with no ongoing farming. In the Khun Wang area, 663.68 hectares had been planted with trees between 1975 and 1977, with 320 hectares planned for each subsequent year. A farmer can apply to use his own fallows for crop growing; but as soon as they are not under any crop, Forest Department labourers plant trees on them. This even includes fruit tree plantations which are not well maintained, and suspected of being abandoned by their owners. Since there is no virgin forest left to clear, all farming has to depend on fallows or old crop fields.


There is no doubt that the Hmong will not be able to grow crops or graze their cattle as reforestation gradually takes place on all uncultivated lands in the region. For the time being, they can still rely on about 320 hectares of poppy fallows recently abandoned by Northern Thai growers beyond the current boundaries of the reforestation project, although these will not last them for long.


One likely consequence of this lack of agricultural land is that tribal opium production may stop or diminish as the reforestation of the hills confines the farmers to their existing poppy fields with no possibility of expansion elsewhere. In a way, this is an indirect way of forcing the highland settlers to adopt permanent methods of cultivation and give up their traditional shifting agriculture or intermittent migration. The use of force through law enforcement to put an end to poppy growing has sometimes been suggested (UNPDAC, Sixth Progress Report, 1976: Annex I, p. 8). The direct application of force, however, has not so far been done by the Royal Thai Government as it may cause socio-economic hardship to tribal communities which have yet to be provided with viable alternatives to opium.


What has been attempted is the suppression of opium trafficking in the country by imposing harsh penalties and even death sentences on drug peddlers in the hope of depriving poppy farmers of their market. This is a cautious and politically expedient move, but it still does not prevent traders from finding means to buy tribal opium in one way or another. It merely changes the pattern: whereas before traders went together in larger groups with guards and horses, they now make contact with growers in small groups of two or four persons, usually working for a big lowland dealer.


Except for the occasional Hmong, the majority of opium traders are Northern Thai who are well acquainted with tribal people and who know that the latter will not inform the authorities on their illegal activities. In the course of my research, I observed no less than 9 groups of these traders totalling 32 persons travelling through Khun Wang at different times in search of opium to buy. There could have been others, because many only visited at night and could not be seen. Those who did come during the day seldom make casual conversation with anyone and do not take the trails frequently by ordinary travellers, preferring to use by-ways known only to them. Despite such precautious measures on their part, six Hmong traders were known to be apprehended in 1977 and given sentences ranging from 6 to 20 years in prison. However, no Northern Thai traders were heard to have shared this fate.


The severe punishment handed down to opium dealers may prove effective to a point in eliminating markets for opium farmers and may prevent them from producing more of the crop. Nevertheless, the use of the police to intercept traders and to deter growers in the hills is not effective when all the law-enforcement officers live in the lowlands and are only sent to tribal villages for very short reconnaissance missions. No surveillance has been undertaken on a permanent basis in accordance with the Royal Thai Government's informal policy of not to enforce the law to prohibit opium cultivation, as this may alienate villagers from the formal leadership of the country. In 1977, two groups of 18 policemen and members of the Thai border Patrol Police visited Khun Wang to survey the Hmong's opium fields and to look for traders. In order not to arouse suspicion, they informed the village people that they were only there to find insurgents and some of the policemen proceeded to search the Hmong's bedrooms for unregistered rifles. On both occasions, no insurgents or traders were found.


At present, it would appear that the opium economy of the hill settlers is in a precarious position. Many forces are exerting their influence directly or indirectly on its existence. The prospects for continuing dependence on poppy as a major agricultural undertaking are now dim, especially when reinforced by the scarcity of good quality lands and overpopulation. We have seen the importance of rice for the Hmong and their adoption of opium as a mean of exchange for rice. As pointed out by McKennon, for the highlanders "it is rice that is valued above all other crops... Rice is not only important as a food crop set about by ritual, good harvests provide a household's subsistence needs and grant an enviable degree of independence" (1977: 5). Without wet rice terraces to produce paddy on a permanent basis, the economy of the poppy farmers will greatly suffer unless it can rely on other crops to sustain the people. So far, crops introduced by the United Nations Crop Replacement Project have not adapted well to the highlands or are without marketing outlets on any meaningful scale. So long as this remains the case, opium seems to be the only alternative for survival, despite the many constraints against its production and the admission of the growers themselves that they wish to give it up.


Above all, what is most urgently called for is the improvement of the people's existing rice production and subsistence economy. As they are at present, tribal development projects seem to regard traditional highland agriculture as obsolete and ecologically destructive, thereby preferring to introduce commercial agriculture to the hill tribes whose access to modern marketing and agricultural methods need to be seriously questioned. Because they are often based on naive assumptions, official projects are mainly providing livelihood for bureaucrats and academics to try out their pet ideas. They rarely meet the farmers needs, with the result that the latter will continue with opium production as the only viable means of making a living when they have no other places to live.




Hill tribes people produce opium in order to have a means of obtaining sufficient food since they can only produce 60 per cent of their requirement, due to lack of rice land. Moreover, opium plays an important role in the alleviation of their illness. For these reasons, the Hmong have to depend on poppy cultivation as the most practical way of surviving in the highlands, despite their aversion to it. They would rather own wet rice fields so that they can settle permanently in one place than being forced to follow their present system of shifting agriculture. Hmong opium production is a problem of multiple dimensions, not only to governments but also to the growers themselves. The highlands of Northern Thailand have proved unsuitable for many crops introduced to replace poppy, and the lack of markets makes many farmers reluctant to commit themselves to the new crops. Unless means are found to increase their existing food production, they have little alternative but to produce opium for a living, especially when there is a scarcity of land for other crops. It is not the lack of market alone which prevents hill farmers from adopting legal cash crops in place of poppy, but also the problem of landlessness. These are the main issues which should preoccupy poppy replacement officials, instead of continuing doggedly with experimentation on alternative inedible/non-marketable crops and making wild claims about their success with the farmers as they do at present.




  1. One tang is the content of a kerosene drum with a capacity of 20 litres.

  2. Although the official figure reported is 33.44 hectares, I took measurement of these rice fields and found that they only amounted to 15,9185 hectares (see UNPDAC, Monthly Extension Report, March 1976).

  3. These figures refer only to debt repayments, and not the actual amounts of outstanding debts which are very difficult to obtain since the villagers would not disclose them in all cases.




  • Asian Wall Street Journal: 1977. "Poppycock: Thailand's Hill Tribes Reject Major Efforts to Stop Opium output", 1 April:1.

  • Bangkok Post: 1977. "Hill tribes Voluntarily Turning to 'Cash' Groups", 14 September : 3.

  • Geddes, W.R. : 1973. "The Opium Problem in Northern Thailand". in Ho, R.and Chapman, E.C. (eds.) Studies in Contemporary Thailand (Canberra: Research School of Pacific Studies of the Australian National University).

  • 1976. Migrants of the Mountains: the Cultural Ecology of the Blue Miao (Hmong Njua) of Thailand" (Oxford: Clarendon Press).

  • McKennon, J.: 1977. "The Jeremiab Incorporation? A Discursive Interpretation of Problems in Contemporary History in the Highlands of Northern Thailand" (Chiangmai: Tribal Research Centre).

  • Roth, A.: 1974. "Economic Survey Report on Eight Project Villages" (Chiangmai: U.N. Programme for Drug Abuse Control).

  • United Nations: 1967. "Report of the U.N. Survey Team on the Economic and Social Needs of the Opium- producing Areas in Thailand" (Bangkok: Government House Printing Office).

  • 1970. "Report of the U.N. Project Preparation Mission to Thailand in the Field of Narcotics Control" (New York: U.N Technical Assistance Programme). TAO/THA/18.

  • United Nations/Thai Programme for Drug Abuse Control (UNPDAC): 1973. "First Progress Report " September 1972 - June 1973" (July). 1976 "Sixth Progress Report " July - December 1975" (June). NAR/THA.

Project Impact
Persistent Patterns
Constraints & Prospects
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