Written by David J Constable

One of the main focuses of the Royal Project in Chiang Mai Province was the cultivation of the coffee bean, something the late King Bhumibol Adulyadej founded in 1969 and saw as more than a viable alternative to the opium crop that was initially being farmed in Northern Thailand, especially along the borderlands with neighbouring Laos and Myanmar. Today, Thailand has become a burgeoning producer of coffee on the global market, presently ranked in third place among Asia’s top coffee producers.

At the Coffee Research and Development Centre located inside the Chiang Mai University campus, Dr Pongsak Angkasith, Head of Coffee Research and Development Project Foundation, spoke about the ascent of Thailand’s coffee production, and with it, Royal Project Coffee.

Mountains in Chiang Mai

“We started replacing opium with fruit farming, such as peaches but moved on to vegetables and various temperate fruits. Coffee was also one of the promising crops, so we started to promote coffee to farmers. Coffee is a perennial, or what we call a permanent crop,” Dr Pongsak noted, adding that farmers started to realise they could earn a good living, achieving an even better income than farming the poppy had given them.

“Research was key, as setbacks often thwarted the cultivation of coffee,” Dr Pongsak recalled. “In the beginning, there was a rust disease, or coffee disease as we call it. This destroyed the coffee tree. If we couldn’t find a solution to this, the farmers would have to use more pesticides, and this would result in more costs for the farmers. We had to find a rust-resistant crop.

Rice Terraces, Royal Project, Chiang Mai

Unwavered by the challenge, Dr Pongsak and his team set about research ways in which they could combat the so-called coffee disease while appeasing farmers at the same time. Research continued, and they began working even closer with the farmers to study the land and the weather patterns, looking at ways to overcome current and future crop damage. “Our research continued, and we were able to produce a better standard of production,” Dr Pongsak proudly notes. Coffee production expanded from Chiang Mai to neighbouring Chiang Rai, and across Mae Hong Son, Nan and Lampang – highland areas at 800 m to 1,600 m elevation.

The Royal Project now encompasses 22 areas that produce Royal Project coffee. In all they produce about 500 tons annually, increasing year on year. The coffee is bought from the farmers and sold to roasting companies, but the Royal Project also roasts its own coffee, around 50 tons a year.

The growers of Doi Chang harvesting coffee cherries

One of the coffees grown by hill tribes in northern Thailand, within the Royal Project mountains, is Doi Tung; with farmers now planning to expand exportation to the United States market. “We are looking for partners who understand our role as a social enterprise and are flexible when doing business together,’” said ML Dispanadda Diskul, Chief Executive of the Mae Fah Luang Foundation, which developed the Royal Project that gave birth to Doi Tung coffee.

The project produces 250 tons of coffee beans a year from 800 coffee-growing hill tribe households and is already exporting between 30 tons and 50 tons a year to Japan. The coffee is found in most supermarkets in Thailand, and the project runs 11 Doi Tung cafes around the country that brought in $2.4 million in sales last year.

In total, there are around 4,500 Royal Project developments in Thailand, covering not just coffee cultivation, but also research centred around food and water resource management to tackle such things as malnutrition and poverty, a problem still present in Thailand, particularity across the northern provinces. This aligns with the late King Rama IX’s Sufficiency Economy theory, which not only focused on sustainable development but also encapsulated an almost epicurean philosophy which he hoped would be followed by the people of Thailand. The basis of this was to live within one’s means, and if the country practices sustainable development, then the people of Thailand would always have enough.

The Royal Project initiative also included healthcare and educational initiatives, all aimed at offering a better life for people in remote and rural areas. For this, and other work, King Rama IX was given the United Nations Development Programme’s first Human Development Lifetime Achievement Award in 2006.