HM King Bhumibol’s commitment to sustainable development

Originally published at Asian Correspondent on 18th October 2016

HIS Majesty King Bhumibol Adulyadej, who passed away on Thursday Oct 13, was loved and revered across the kingdom of Thailand, and will always be remembered for his dedication to improving the lives of Thai people.

Long before sustainable development became a buzz word among non-government organisations (NGOs) and charitable foundations, King Bhumibol was implementing projects that would support the long-term development of Thailand’s rural population.

His Majesty’s given name, Bhumibol Adulyadej, translates to English as ‘Strength of the Land, Incomparable Power’, and it was his dedication and commitment to supporting those who toiled on the land – the country’s farmers and rural communities – that secured the monarchy’s place in the hearts of Thai people.

Furthermore, it is this aspect of King Bhumibol’s legacy that the country’s leaders will need to adhere to, if they are to successfully overcome the development challenges that Thailand faces in the 21st century.

Bhumibol returned to Thailand in 1951 upon completing his studies at the University of Lausanne, Switzerland. During the early years of his reign, the government of Plaek Phibunsongkhram (1951–1957) attempted to limit him to a ceremonial role. However, the young monarch, who had initially studied Science at university, was already busy working on farming, agriculture and other development projects within the grounds of Dusit Palace.

As ruler, Bhumibol’s first development initiative involved acquiring Tilapia fish through the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization, which were then bred in ponds at Dusit Palace. After further research, a Japanese variation of the species, locally named, Pla Nil, was selected, and distributed to rural communities throughout the country to improve the villagers’ diets by providing them with an additional source of high-quality protein. To this day, Pla Nil remains a popular source of protein across the country.

Following the rise of Sarit Dhanarajata’s government (1958), King Bhumibol began to travel the length and breadth of the country tirelessly, meeting with rural communities, learning about their daily lives and listening to the challenges they faced. Scenes of the king travelling to Thailand’s inaccessible rural regions and conversing with local communities captured the hearts of the Thai nation and earned him the endearing image of the nation’s “Development King”.

During the governments of General Prem Tinsulanond (1981–1987), there were high levels of cooperation between the Thai state and the monarch, with government budgets and resources allocated to support the development of large-scale irrigation projects to facilitate agriculture and better manage the country’s water resources.

Also during this period, The Office of the Royal Development Project Board (ORDPB) was established to manage and facilitate the growing number of development initiatives. Since it’s establishment, the ORDPB has approved over 4,600 development projects, the majority of which have focused on water resources development. Prior to the implementation of these projects, water shortages had often led to failed agricultural productivity, causing poverty and malnutrition in affected communities.

In 1988, the Chaiphattana Foundation was established within Chitralada Palace to focus on experimental development projects, often using King Bhumibol’s own funds. Research by the Chaiphattana Foundation has focused on soil, agricultural, forestry, fishing, nutrition, irrigation, integrated farming, water resource management and environmental conservation.

The Chaiphattana Foundation was also used to promote sustainable development theories including, the “New Theory” and “Sufficiency Economy”. The New Theory focused on agriculture land management and encouraged farmers to diversify by dividing their lands plots into four portions, 30 percent for a water source, 30 percent for rice framing field, 30 percent for mixed crops, and 10 percent for residence and barns.

The Sufficiency Economy theory first became popular “in the late 1990s, after the Asian Financial Crisis”, and as Tamara Loos, Associate Professor from Cornell University explains, “This philosophy basically promoted the idea of living within one’s means, at an individual level, and that Thailand should produce enough to meet its needs and promote economic sustainability in the long run.”

FILE - In this Feb. 16, 1981 file photo, Thailand's King Bhumibol, right, talks with Prime Minister Prem Tinsulanonda during their visit to an irrigation project in northern Thailand. Water has been a virtual obsession for the king for the past four decades. Pic: AP.

To implement Sufficiency Economy practices, Royal Projects initiated under the direction of King Bhumibol also focused on occupational development, social welfare, health and education. In Thailand’s mountainous northern provinces, crop substitution projects were implemented to stop opium cultivation, by supporting hill-tribe communities adopt cash crops, such as coffee beans and macadamia nuts. The Royal Projects have also supported occupational promotion, encouraging farming communities to produce handicrafts for supplementary income and by providing a platform for local communities to trade these products. Social welfare projects have included educational scholarships, distance learning initiatives and projects to encourage medics and educators to work in rural areas and improve education and healthcare standards for residents in these communities.

King Bhumibol’s commitment to sustainable development has been well recognised by the international community, and in May 2006, United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan presented the king with the United Nations Development Programme’s first Human Development Lifetime Achievement Award.

The following year, the UNDP Thailand Human Development Report documented how King Bhumibol’s Philosophy of Sufficiency Economy was “an efficient means towards sustainable development with a focus on human development”, which could be applied internationally.

As Thai people come to terms with the loss of their beloved king, the country faces new development challenges such as; the growing disparity between rich and poor, the middle income trap, environmental degradation, the depletion of natural resources, climate change, extreme weather and a cycle of flooding and drought.

For seven decades, His Majesty King Bhumibol Adulyadej provided exemplary examples and a clear vision on how to develop a sustainable and prosperous nation. To tackle Thailand’s 21st Century challenges successfully, the country’s leaders will need to wholeheartedly adopt King Bhumibol’s sustainable development theories, while following the example he set of applying innovative solutions using cost-effective technologies to overcome these new challenges, and ensure Thailand’s entire population can benefit from the country’s future economic growth.

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