Thais find substitute for opium crop

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

The Thai government and the United Nations are joining forces in a campaign to convince Thai farmers that they can grow rice and kidney beans just as profitably as opium poppies.

The traditional, but illegal, opium crop is used to produce heroin. An area lapping into Thailand, Burma, and Laos makes up the so- called golden triangle of Southeast Asia, the world's principal source of heroin. The region produces 60 tons of the illegal drug each year.

The crop substitution program -- along with some extreme weather conditions -- has succeeded in slowing the heroin production somewhat. But the triangle is still a potential source of large amounts of opium, and the UN has just invested another $2.5 million in the project.

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Thailand, a country with an estimated 400,000 drug addicts needing treatment, is eager to cooperate with the UN effort.

"By showing the farmers of the Thai highlands how they can grow other income-producing crops and by providing the credit and marketing techniques that they need to turn them to profit, the project seeks to reduce popply cultivation significantly," explains the UN's Development Forum here.

Experts in key villages initiated the program by testing and demonstrating alternative crops and modern farming techniques. They produced rice, kidney beans, high-grade coffee, off-season vegetables, fruit trees, and medicinal plants, hoping to prove that a combination of food and cash crops offered an attractive alternative to poppy cultivation.

Any local farmers wishing to take advantage of the new crops received financial credit through the project to purchase the requisite seeds, fertilizers, and tools.

Since the crops were new to the region and difficult for the farmers to market, the project established a special fund to buy from the farmers any surplus crops. This guaranteed a floor price for the new agricultural produce -- and enabled the fund to replenish itself by selling the produce to the private sector.

In an attempt to further improve the living standards of the highland population, the project has constructed schools, health centers, and water supply systems.

A treatment center for drug-dependent patients has been established, and there is a plan for printing special school textbooks to teach the hill people the Thai language.

The new $2.5 million investment raised by the UN Fund for Drug Abuse Control will enable the project to place more workers in the villages, and to increase the number of villages being offered financial assistance.

By 1982, the project is to be extended to 75 villages in a pocket of the Thai highlands where opium poppies are still being cultivated on some 12,000 acres.

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