|Food Chain No. 09 - July 1993 (ITDG, 1993, 16 p.)|
Desiree Chankun was a volunteer with Voluntary Service Overseas (VSO). She was involved with helping women's groups with small scale food processing in the northern regions of Thailand and tells us about initial problems of an opium substitution campaign. It must be emphasised however, that despite initial problems, the project has been highly praised for its success in providing a cash crop alternative to opium.
The project was set up fifteen years ago and supplies agricultural advice and training via extension workers to hilltribe villagers. The most successful crops have proved to be temperate crops and salad vegetables.
The hilltribe villagers do not have much experience of cash cropping and are traditionally forest gatherers. Some hilltribe groups hunt for their main source of protein. Those that are subsistence farmers may keep one or two animals. In certain periods of the year there is a shortage of food and families rely for food on the surplus cash crops.
There have been several problems caused by the introduction of cash crops which require fertilizers and pesticides. Cash is required or a long term loan needed. The revenue from the crop is essential to cover the growing costs. The crops may fail through water shortage or from adverse conditions.
Pesticides had been heavily used in the hope of crop success and lack of understanding had led to the misuse of pesticides and fungicides. If the spraying of the crops is not done properly it may lead to water contamination, and residues may be left on the crops if insufficient time is given between the last spray and harvesting.
IMPORTANCE OF CHOICE
The choice of crop is also very important. One example of lack of understanding of the local community and market can be seen by the introduction of kidney beans to the region. The main market of the crop is Thailand and kidney beans are not traditionally eaten in the Thai diet except sometimes as part of a dessert. In the season of low food supplies, many villagers boiled kidney beans unaware that insufficient cooking leaves behind toxins which cause sickness and vomiting. The effect was quite adverse, especially to young children who are already undernourished and susceptible to disease. It was important that the extension workers were shown how to boil the kidney beans sufficiently. This problem is still not resolved since cooking in the hilltribe villages takes place over an open wood fire and the time required for adequate cooking of the kidney beans under these conditions would require too much firewood.
The introduction of new and different crops should be planned and designed with consideration to the effect on the community. Agricultural extension projects in rural areas should consider factors such as the susceptibility of the crop, problems associated with intensive farming, whether the villagers are able to devote time cultivating such crops, and the reliance on pesticides and fertilizers. The wider implications for edible cash crops are that they should be both marketable and of nutritional value especially in areas of malnutrition. Complementary nutritional education and food preparation is also important if the agricultural project is to be of maximum benefit to the rural community.