143rd Meeting – Tuesday, March 12th 1996


Problems in Setting up a UNDP Highland Development Project in Southeast Asia

A talk by Ron Renard

Present: Roxanna Brown, John Cadet, Hans Bänziger, Niels Mulder, Louis Gabaude, Michael Leming, Ron Clemmer, Ken Kampe, Jackie Vavra, Kaori Asano, Mika Toyota, Alain Mounier, Larry Ashmun, Marc Wetz, Sanit Wongsprasert, Paiboon Suthasupo, Virginia Loo, Ann Haze, Geoff Walton, Margery Lazarus, Mienke Parma. An audience of 21.

Summary of the talk:

Ron Renard, formerly of Payap University and now working with UNDP, spoke about his experience working on a Highland people’s development program with UNDP. He talked about the difficulties and challenges encountered in setting up the project and also provided background information about highland peoples in the region. The UNDP project’s aim is to establish development programs in Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam and Thailand. The objective of the program is to include highland dwellers’ active participation in the project and turn the project over to the people themselves within three years.

The project implementors are sharing Thailand’s experience with highland peoples’ development in order to find ways to solve problems in other areas.

In all four countries, highland people have traditionally lived in forested areas and have had trading relationships with people who live in the valleys. These relationships changed with the introduction of western imperialism. Furthermore, the idea of the forest changed because westerners at that time believed the forest was ‘a place where no one lives’. Drugs also became a problem with the introduced sale of opium to China by the west. Before this, opium was not a problem in the hill areas.

By 1959, when opium was made illegal, the highlanders were considered a threat to national security and the general welfare of the state. They were also believed to be responsible for the destruction of the forest and excessive opium production. In addition to this, they were outside the Thai educational system and were not considered Thai nationals.       

While development projects targeted opium growers, implementors realized nationality was a problem in integrating highlanders and making them Thai citizens. In addition, other types of development (roads) brought logging, mining, trekking, and prostitution to highland villages.

By using examples from the Thai experience, UNDP is sharing ideas with the governments of Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam. They are doing this in order to implement a successful participatory rural development project and to avoid many of the problems Thailand has encountered.