CHIANGRAI TIMES – A tea seed oil plantation in Chiangrai is helping a tribal community improve its lot. The sweet, herbal aroma of tea seed oil, with its wide variety of uses and healthy properties, offers a promising future for poverty-stricken tribal villagers in the far northern reaches of Thailand where families are often broken up in the effort to survive.
The tea oil, which is different to the better-known tea tree oil, is now starting to change the lives of the villagers in Ban Pang Mahan in tambon Terd Thai of Chiang Rai’s Mae Fa Luang district by helping them to make ends meet.
Their saviour is a special plantation project sponsored by the Siam Commercial Bank Foundation and the Mae Fa Luang Foundation, chaired by Her Royal Highness Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn.
The scheme, run by the Pang Mahan Reforestation for Poverty Alleviation Project, was launched six years ago to help improve the quality of life of all the people in the village.
HRH Princess Sirindhorn brought tea oil seeds from China and instructed the two foundations to help carry out the project. The princess visited the project site earlier this year to monitor its progress.
Tea seed oil is the main cooking oil in some of the southern provinces of China and can also be used to manufacture soap, hair oil, lubricants, paint and a rustproofing agent.
The Pang Mahan project is the first Thai outreach project to utilise and adapt the Mae Fa Luang Foundation’s Sustainable Alternative Livelihood Development (SALD) approach since the foundation undertook comprehensive developments in the mountainous area of Doi Tung in Chiang Rai 24 years ago and was able to improve the quality of life of hilltribe people there. Its projects are internationally recognised.
Ban Pang Mahan is home to about a thousand tribal villagers. The village is about 70km from the Doi Tung development project in the same district. It is located near the border with Myanmar’s Shan State.
Most of the villagers previously grew corn and rice, but it was subsistence living at its worst and did not generate enough money to support the families.
“The poverty forced many young people to drop out of school and leave the village to look for jobs in Bangkok and other cities, while many others were involved in the drug trade and trafficking,” said Ban Pang Mahan chief Piti Weiyu.
But after the tea plantation came along, Mr Piti said many villagers returned home and have been hired on a daily basis to take care of the trees, which are being grown on 1,049 rai of land.
“Each villager gets between 120 and 400 baht a day depending upon how hard they work,” he said.
The tea oil plantation is a pilot project which HRH Princess Sirindhorn is paying close attention to. The princess has played a major role in supporting tea oil plantations which are able to yield seeds after eight years.
If the pilot project is successful, villagers will be encouraged to grow more trees permanently.
In addition, the Mae Fa Luang Foundation plans to develop the village’s plantations in such a way that they become a tourist attraction.
Somnuek Saimua, 27, an Akha man from Ban Pang Mahan, said his family has been assigned to take care of 5 rai of trees on the plantation every day until the tea seed oil can be harvested.
Mr Somnuek said he and his parents now make enough money to cover their living costs and educational fees, earning about 6,000 baht a month. He said those working on the project can now make ends meet. “Now I spend money on further education. I am studying at the political science faculty of Mahachulalongkornrajavidyalaya University, which is in Chiang Rai, and will finish soon,” he said.
Mr Somnuek said he does not want to leave the village to find a job elsewhere after graduation as he wants to make use of his knowledge to help develop the quality of life of people in the area, especially in promoting education among hilltribe children.
Mr Somnuek said more than 70% of students in Ban Pang Mahan village still have no chance of pursuing further education.
They finish Mathayom 3 (Grade 9) and leave school to help their parents work. “If we do not help to encourage them to study, these young people will be vulnerable to drug addiction and can become drug traffickers and traders one day,” he said.
The Mae Fa Luang Foundation is also promoting the importance of education among hilltribe people. It has played a greater role in helping develop the quality of education at both primary and secondary schools in the Doi Tung area.
The foundation brought in the Montessori educational system for Ban Khayang Pattana School nine years ago.
The educational style originated in Italy and is fundamentally a model of human development to teach kindergarten and primary students to know how to rely on themselves so they can grow up naturally and adjust to their surroundings.
Anthony Herring, a British teacher who oversees Montessori education at the school, said teachers have been trained to apply the Italian model to stimulate school children to interact with their environment until they are able to choose and act freely within environments and surroundings.
“Students who pass the Montessori programme are able to solve immediate problems and deal with hard issues in daily life because they learned and were guided by their teachers into the discovery of problem-solving skills,” Mr Herring said.
Veerachit Varanchitkul, deputy chairman of the Mae Fa Luang Tambon Administration Organisation, said the TAO has worked closely with the Mae Fa Luang Foundation in educational promotion for hilltribe students.
Mr Veerachit said the organisation pays particular attention to teaching English and Chinese and hires native speakers at the tambon’s secondary school.
“We want to see our kids speak more than Thai and dialect languages so they will be able to use them to make a living in the future,” he said.
Writer: Anucha Charoenpo