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1. Introduction

1.1 Purpose of the research

Addressing the need for integrated approaches to improve the quality of life of rural populations is an important dimension of the assistance provided by FAO. Among the rural population of Thailand, hill tribes are a disadvantaged and vulnerable group of society, being largely dependent on agriculture for income and employment. Today, increasing attention is paid to the need to address a wide range of issues concerning hill tribe people, not only citizenship and land settlement issues but also quality of life and welfare. Accordingly, the role of education in improving socio-economic conditions through human resource development is well recognized.

Box 1: FAO and education

To expand access to education, FAO supports initiatives aimed at improving children's health and capacity to learn skills for life. Agricultural extension, which is an important channel to foster knowledge and skills, is one means to help alleviate poverty and improve food security. FAO assists rural people, through educational procedures, in improving farming methods and techniques, to increase production efficiency and income, to better their livelihood and to raise the social and educational standards of rural life. FAO focuses on strengthening the capacity of governmental and non-governmental organizations to help rural men, women and youth acquire the knowledge and skills they need to improve their productivity, income and quality of life, and manage in sustainable ways the natural resources on which they depend.

Source: Strengthening capacity through knowledge and information for sustainable rural development.

For FAO, education is a prerequisite to building a food-secure world, reducing poverty and conserving and enhancing natural resources1. In many instances a major proportion of the population struck by poverty is rural, illiterate and undernourished. Poor people are caught in the vicious cycle of being unable to access the very services and opportunities, such as education, gainful employment, adequate nutrition, infrastructure and communication, that might contribute to alleviate their poverty. While there is no single solution to the alleviation of rural poverty, education, whether formal or non-formal, is one of the most critical elements. With basic education people are better equipped to make more informed decisions for their lives and communities, while being active participants in promoting the economic, social and cultural dimensions of development. It is equally accepted that without basic literacy and numeracy, people face limited employment opportunities, except for basic wage labour. Promoting education and training opportunities is therefore essential for poverty alleviation and sustainable rural development2.

The focus on production agriculture in former times has now shifted to rural development. There is also a growing recognition of the diversification of the rural population. Contrary to the past when "rural" was synonymous with agriculture, those who live in rural areas now engage in various activities under various settings: some engage in agriculture in small villages; others earn income from off-farm occupations in larger market towns. What is needed today, therefore, is a broader education approach that corresponds to the needs of diversified rural people residing in "rural space".3

In reflection of the afore-mentioned development on the role of education in contributing to sustainable rural development, this research is an attempt to analyse the impact of support activities of the Royal Thai Government to promote education opportunities for hill tribe people. Particular emphasis is placed on how education, whether formal or non-formal, contributes to improve the livelihood of highland communities. A large number of governmental and non-governmental organizations, civilian and military, national and international, provide support to enhance educational opportunities for hill tribe people. In order to assess how enhanced education opportunities help improve agricultural production, as well as employment and income generation, thus contributing to sustainable rural development, the research will look at the activities of the Department of Non-formal Education of the Ministry of Education, the Department of Agricultural Extension of the Ministry of Agriculture and Cooperatives, and the Department of Public Welfare of the Ministry of Social Welfare and Labour.

1.2 Methodology

The information and analysis of this research are based on primary and secondary sources (including interviews with relevant organizations and hill tribe communities) collected at the national and local levels. The research was carried out in collaboration with the Northern Development Centre of the National Economic and Social Development Board (NESDB)4. In addition to interviews with government and NGO officers and staff members5, field surveys were conducted in Chiang Mai6 and Chiang Rai provinces of Northern Thailand (see Annex III for the location map). Along with Karen and Hmong communities (the two largest ethnic groups in Thailand), the survey was conducted in Akha, Lahu and Lua villages which receive assistance from either one or more of the government agencies mentioned above.

The introductory chapter provides background information on the hill tribes. Chapter Two describes the government policies and support programmes for hill tribes related to education. Chapter Three examines the implementation of these policies and programmes by focusing on crucial issues, including: (1) participation of and communication with hill tribe communities; (2) local curriculum development; (3) local capacity-building; and (4) inter-organizational collaboration. Based on the analysis, Chapter Four attempts to define the prospects for highland development. Particular emphasis is placed on the potential of education in contributing to improving the livelihood of highland communities.

Being published in the International Year of Mountains 2002, the research findings could serve for FAO as a basis for possible assistance in Thailand and as an example for future similar studies with follow-up action in Asia and the Pacific. For our research collaborator, NESDB, the research study could be a reference material to promote government actions on the subject.

Box 2: International Year of Mountains

FAO is designated as the lead agency in collaboration with governments, NGOs and UN agencies for the UN International Year of Mountains (IYM) in 2002. One of the goals of IYM is to make the world aware that the threat of hunger can be particularly severe in mountain communities, where transport and communications networks are limited and social services scarce. The FAO mandate "is to combat hunger wherever it is found, and as lead agency for the IYM, it has made a commitment to make sure that mountain communities receive the attention that they need"7.

IYM represents an important step in a long-term process since the Rio Earth Summit8. To raise awareness on mountain ecosystems, IYM would stimulate processes to ultimately advance mountain community development by: ensuring the wellbeing of mountain communities through mountain conservation and sustainable development; raising awareness of and knowledge on mountain ecosystems; promoting and defending cultural heritage of mountain communities; and promoting peace-making in those regions.

Source: IYM website (

1.3 Hill tribes in Thailand - general background

In Thailand, the term "hill tribes" designates ethnic minorities, most of whom live in the remote highland areas of the country9. There are in total 3 527 hill tribe villages in 20 provinces of Thailand, comprising 133 070 households and 751 886 persons. The largest tribal group is Karen (46.18 percent), followed by Hmong (16.32 percent) and Lahu (11.21 percent). Of all the provinces, Chiang Mai has the largest hill tribe population; i.e. 1 072 villages with 33 573 households and 190 795 persons. Hill tribe people are among the most disadvantaged groups of the country, due largely to a lack of infrastructure, limited access to Thai citizenship and delayed land settlement (partly because of their traditional way of living in small communities and migrating frequently). Living in relative cultural isolation and with distinctive linguistic and cultural backgrounds, hill tribe people lack a sense of national identity. Although the majority of the first-generation hill tribes have obtained Thai identification, the Ministry of Interior is cautious about granting Thai identity to newly immigrated hill tribes, because of their alleged involvement in illegal trafficking. With the variety of laws involved, the legal status of hill tribes fluctuates between "naturalized", "alien" and "illegal". Besides, aggravated by cultural misunderstandings, they have often been associated with political infiltration and insurgency10.

Hill tribe people face a higher degree of poverty than other groups in Thailand.11 The majority are engaged in agriculture as their main economic activity, and household-based handicraft production and wage employment as secondary sources of income. Production inputs are limited, they lack access to basic social services (including education and health) and they also lack opportunities for systematic skill development, income and employment. Population growth at an annual rate of 2.9 percent (compared with the national average of 1.2 percent)12 is also an issue of concern, in addition to natural resource and environmental degradation.

Box 3: Hill tribes in Thailand

Hill tribe people in Thailand originate from three linguistic stocks and can be categorized into two geographical groups, i.e. low hill (Karen, Lua, Khamu and H'tin tribes) and high hill (Meo, Yao, Lahu, Lisu and Akha tribes). They practise three principal forms of land use, i.e. pioneer swidden agriculture, land rotation and wet (paddy) rice. The former group tends to practise an ecologically informed mode of shifting cultivation based on, wherever possible, rice production. They are considered to be indigenous to Thailand and the adjoining areas of Myanmar and Laos. The high hill group, engaged in high-altitude agriculture, migrated to Thailand from Myanmar, Laos and Southern China within the last century.

Source: Hill Tribe Welfare and Development in Thailand, Hill Tribe Welfare Division, Department of Public Welfare

In the past, highland communities have often been associated with problems such as shifting cultivation, watershed forest destruction and opium cultivation. Government assistance to hill tribe people therefore mainly focused on such areas as forest destruction, narcotics, and national security. Land settlement and granting of national identity were also priority issues. Providing assistance to remote and scattered highland communities has been difficult, in addition to communication barriers with people speaking distinctive languages.

In recent years, in addition to citizenship and land settlement issues, promotion of quality of life and welfare in highland development has been drawing increasing attention13. Closely knit hill tribe communities holding traditional values and beliefs are breaking apart and losing their identity. It is partly due to factors as the changing pattern of economic activities, growing acceptance of Thai language instruction in schools, exposure to modern knowledge and other religions like Buddhism and Christianity. Their traditional ways of life do not always fit in with the present socio-economic and political conditions of the rest of the country, and a sense of individualism is growing among youngsters. Communication between the Thai-speaking younger generations and the "illiterate" older generations is thus sometimes hindered.14

There has been growing recognition of the role of education for children, youth and adults to contribute to sustainable rural development. While an increasing number of hill tribe children attend primary schools at the initiative of their communities and of the Thai government, access to higher education and to post-study employment are still limited. In terms of vocational knowledge and life skills learning, training programmes provided by various governmental and non-governmental organizations conventionally tend to be short-term in nature. Moreover, due to limited funds, non-correspondence with existing skills, and low market prospects, hill tribe people have difficulty in sustaining the skills acquired.

Lua women and children

1 Targeting the Rural Poor: The Role of Education and Training

2 Idem

3 Idem

4 NESDB, established in 1959 as the central planning authority of Thailand, is responsible for the formulation of the national economic and social development plans. Its scope of work includes formulation of five-year and annual development plans, study, analysis and recommendation of solutions of development problems and identification of development opportunities, appraisal, implementation coordination and monitoring and evaluation of development projects in line with the national plan.

5 In order to respect the wishes of the interviewees, specific references to interviewees will not be made in this case study.

6 Chiang Mai has the largest number of tribal people in Thailand.

7 "Global IYM launch highlights peace", IYM website (

8 Chapter 13 of Agenda 21, "Managing fragile ecosystems: sustainable mountain development", placed mountains on an equal footing with climate change, tropical deforestation and desertification as a key issue in the global debate on environment and development.

9 Tribal Population Summary in Thailand

10 Tribal Research Institute website at

11 It is reported that the annual per capita income for hill tribes was 2 500 baht (about US$100) in 1994 and in 1996, approximate income per family of 5 to 6 persons 14 000 baht (Hill Tribe Welfare and Development in Thailand). National averages in 1994 and 1996 were 61 903 baht and 76 804 baht respectively, and the northern region averages were 30 607 baht in 1994 and 38 228 baht in 1996 (The National Gross Domestic Product of Thailand, 1998 version)

12 Hill Tribe Welfare and Development in Thailand

13 Field interview, NESDB, 07/07/01

14 According to the survey conducted in 1996-1997 by the Tribal Research Institute under the Department of Public Welfare, 25 percent of those surveyed between the ages of 14 to 60 could not write their names in Thai and 11 percent of those surveyed between the ages of five to fourteen could not speak Thai. (Department of Non-formal Education, p.45)

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