Essays and Opinions

A Small Step – by Raymond Ketcham and Sabrina Henry

Too often we see stories of problems with little in direction or attention paid to the solution to those problems. Documentary storytellers thrive on showing the world what is in need of repair or change but not many search out the solutions. After all, it is difficult to make success look good in a documentary and we all know good news doesn’t sell. Change that has worked is often overlooked in the push to build an audience but examples of success do exist.

The current story on the New York Times Lens Blog covers a problem that has plagued the Golden Triangle for most of our lifetime. The narrative is one with which we are familiar, the connection between poverty and opium production. Without viable alternatives, people need to grow poppies to survive while being preyed upon from all sides by those with guns and authority.

There is another story.

Nearly thirty years ago on the Thai side of the Golden Triangle, HRH Princess Srinagarindra, the Princess Mother recognized the problem and also the damage done to the environment by opium production and set out to do something about it. After her very first visit to Doi Tung, an area in Northern Thailand bordering on Myanmar, she declared she would build her home there and devote her time to reforestation and development projects in Doi Tung. Together with Mom Rajawongse Disnadda Diskul, her then Principle Private Secretary, the Sustainable Alternative Living Development (SALD) Model was applied and has yielded permanent and continuing success nearly three decades later.

The Princess Mother believed in the people and in their ability and intelligence to solve their own problems. Bringing in outsiders to tell a group of people how to fix the problem leaves out the one essential ingredient for long term success: the involvement and leadership of those who know best what will work for their culture and specific needs. While NGO’s purport to do this, there seems to be little long-term change in their efforts compared to what we see in the Doi Tung model.

The search for answers isn’t just pointing out the problem; it is showing the wider picture of what works and more importantly, why. As storytellers, not only can we be part of broadening the conversation, it is our duty to include these stories.

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© Photo: Raymond Ketcham. Coffee plants are usually sold to workers employed by the Doi Tung Development Project. This is all part of the Sustainable Alternative Living Development model where 28 years ago the people were given employment in the reforestation of the area. Today many of the workers have become farmers themselves.

© Photo: Raymond Ketcham. The success of the Sustainable Alternative Living Development model has even helped independent farmers grow their own coffee and sell their beans through the Doi Tung infrastructure.

© Photo: Raymond Ketcham. The success of the Sustainable Alternative Living Development model has even helped independent farmers grow their own coffee and sell their beans through the Doi Tung infrastructure.

© Photo: Sabrina Henry. Less than a generation ago, farmers planted poppies and were part of the seemingly unbreakable cycle of poverty that relied on opium to put food on table. Today these farmers and their families work the land with a very different crop and are proud coffee plantation owners.

© Photo: Sabrina Henry. Less than a generation ago, farmers planted poppies and were part of the seemingly unbreakable cycle of poverty that relied on opium to put food on table. Today these farmers and their families work the land with a very different crop and are proud coffee plantation owners.

© Photo: Raymond Ketcham. Steady employment allows families to stay together and be present for important occasions like the one-year memorial of the passing of a loved one.

© Photo: Raymond Ketcham. Steady employment allows families to stay together and be present for important occasions like the one-year memorial of the passing of a loved one.

© Photo: Sabrina Henry. Each year villagers in the Doi Tung Development Project celebrate the Princess Mother’s birthday. Her vision saved the region from the oppression of poverty and opium.

© Photo: Sabrina Henry. Each year villagers in the Doi Tung Development Project celebrate the Princess Mother’s birthday. Her vision saved the region from the oppression of poverty and opium.

© Photo: Sabrina Henry. The Princess Mother recognized there was value in the skills used in traditional handicrafts. Japan is the biggest customer of pottery from one of the small industries created in the project to diversity incomes and provide jobs.

© Photo: Sabrina Henry. The Princess Mother recognized there was value in the skills used in traditional handicrafts. Japan is the biggest customer of pottery from one of the small industries created in the project to diversity incomes and provide jobs.

© Photo: Raymond Ketcham. Today the Doi Tung weaving factory harnesses those skills to create a sustainable living for a generation of women who were forced into prostitution just to feed their families.

© Photo: Raymond Ketcham. Today the Doi Tung weaving factory harnesses those skills to create a sustainable living for a generation of women who were forced into prostitution just to feed their families.

© Photo: Raymond Ketcham. Everyone in the region has work if they want including the elders who find value and company in the textile factory.

© Photo: Raymond Ketcham. Everyone in the region has work if they want including the elders who find value and company in the textile factory.

© Photo: Sabrina Henry. Handmade paper and design are a big part of the income diversity created in Doi Tung by Mae Fah Luang Foundation and the Princess Mother’s plan for self-sufficiency.

© Photo: Sabrina Henry. Handmade paper and design are a big part of the income diversity created in Doi Tung by Mae Fah Luang Foundation and the Princess Mother’s plan for self-sufficiency.

© Photo: Sabrina Henry. As the Doi Tung Development Project (DTDP) established nurseries to supply the formal gardens, they gave workers an education and a livelihood at the same time. That has been one of the keys to reducing poverty in the area. The world-renown plant nursery is also home to research and reforestation efforts led by the DTDP.

© Photo: Sabrina Henry. As the Doi Tung Development Project (DTDP) established nurseries to supply the formal gardens, they gave workers an education and a livelihood at the same time. That has been one of the keys to reducing poverty in the area. The world-renown plant nursery is also home to research and reforestation efforts led by the DTDP.

© Raymond Ketcham. In stark contrast to the past, families thrive under good living conditions with the opportunity for education and a real future. This will be the first generation to be raised out of the shadow of opium.

© Raymond Ketcham. In stark contrast to the past, families thrive under good living conditions with the opportunity for education and a real future. This will be the first generation to be raised out of the shadow of opium.

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Raymond Ketcham has a passion for human stories and is Editor-in-Chief of Rear Curtain and the founder of the Artist Round Table (ART) based in Port Townsend, Washington. You can follow his current project on Identity on his Boiler Room Tumblr blog here.

Sabrina Henry is the Managing Editor of Rear Curtain and an ART Alumni. Based in Richmond, British Columbia, she is currently working on a long-term project documenting village life in Steveston. You can view those stories here.

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