High up in the beautiful mountains where Thailand, Burma and Laos meet, the landscape has been transformed in the years since the “Golden Triangle” produced practically all the world’s opium.
Afghanistan gradually took over the dubious mantle in the late 1990s and is now responsible for 90% of the world’s heroin. It is a figure which has gone up, rather than down since Britain and the rest of the international community took responsibility for reducing the illicit harvest.
Over the same timescale, the Golden Triangle has seen its opium crop plummet to just a fraction of world supply. One of the men who shares responsibility for the success story is now urging Afghanistan’s Western backers to listen to him.
“Our thinking is opium, the people involved in opium, that 99% of it is driven by poverty and lack of opportunity - this is the cause,” says MR Disnadda Diskul, secretary-general of the Mah Fah Luang Foundation.
The “MR” preceding his name indicates he is a descendant of the revered Thai royal family and has devoted the last two decades to helping a royal project bring an end to Thailand’s deadly harvest. In one area at least, that has been done through a combination of textiles, paper, coffee beans and macadamia nuts as money-making alternatives.
Just below the ridge that separates Thailand and Burma, the mountain slopes steeply down into the valley and clinging to its sides are row after row of coffee bushes.
You can hear the women giggling and gossiping as they pluck the red-ripe coffee beans from their stalks and drop them into small wicker baskets hanging round their necks, but the vegetation is so lush that you can’t see them.
Surveying the scene from the path is Wattana Chuenwirasup, who now grows coffee where he once grew opium and trafficked it to dealers.
Sweeping his hand across the landscape he shows me where his poppies once flourished, circling 360 degrees from the edge of the hill tribe village.
“There were no choices then but opium and rice,” he said.
“It was dangerous when the government started to crack down on growing opium and there was a good opportunity.”
His is the story of Thailand’s success - a combination of sometimes heavy-handed military force and years of persuading people to grow something other than opium. The Thai authorities say only 280 hectares of poppies were grown last year, and most of them were eradicated.
They may be remote, but fields in jungle clearings are relatively easy to spot from satellite images and aerial photographs, and heavily armed troops simply follow the maps and destroy the crops.
There is little resistance from local people. There is never any proof of who is growing the opium poppies, so although the fields are beaten down with sticks and irrigation pipes, there are no arrests.
Key to success
It is a lot more dangerous being part of an Afghan eradication force - they are regularly attacked and destroy just a fraction of the overall crop each year.
Disnadda Diskul from the Mah Fah Luang Foundation is advising the Afghan government on the way forward, but says there is too much emphasis on getting rid of the poppies and that more should be done to give people other options.
“I look at the British approach and they do try hard, but I don’t think they are doing it the right way because they spend so much money. The Americans also spend billions and billions of dollars and what do they get out of it? Nothing.
“At the moment they are pouring the money into Afghanistan but they are giving fish to the poor, but not giving them a fishing rod and teaching them how to fish, or to look after the ocean,” he says.
“That’s the difference between the Thai way and what they are doing in Afghanistan. The donor countries are using all their money for infrastructure - not into the mouths and stomachs of the people.”
He points out establishing what people can produce and then identifying a market and joining them up is the key to the project’s success.
The British Foreign Secretary, David Miliband, who has been in Afghanistan this week, insists they are on the right track with more Afghan provinces becoming opium free and the overall harvest being reduced a little last year.
“I don’t know which programme the Thai representative is talking about because we don’t do grand infrastructure projects,” he said.
“We build alternative livelihoods for farmers from the bottom up, through projects such as the wheat distribution programme in Helmand.” We are not interested in great projects - we are interested in steps forward for ordinary people.
“I think when you see the numbers coming out this year about poppy cultivation you will see them going down because security is getting better and because alternatives for farmers in the legal economy are getting better too.”
It has taken many years for the villagers in northern Thailand to be weaned off opium, both through the new opportunities given to them and the sometimes very heavy hand of a country with a strong military, and a determination to tackle the problem. That is still a long way off in Afghanistan, especially with war still raging in the south.