Latex helps nip drug trade in bud

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      Getting enough water has always been a struggle in remote highland villages in Lampang’s Ngao district. But help is coming to the villagers in the form of liquid latex.

      Local residents, officials and experts examine one of the highland ponds in Ban Mae Kam La in tambon Ban Rong of Lampang. The ponds are built with a compound latex coating to prevent water being absorbed into the soil. It is designed to be an effective way of retaining water to battle drought and grow crops, including corn and rice. photos by Nauvarat Suksamran

      The area was once rife with drug trafficking. Drug couriers used to tread the rugged paths through the area, which connects to Wang Nua district in Lampang, Muang district in Phayao and neighbouring Chiang Rai.

      Technology is being introduced involving the use of compound latex to line the interiors of ponds to prevent water from seeping into the soil.

      The villagers had the idea of building concrete ponds but that proved costly.

      Instead, they felt their ponds needed to be reinforced on the inside using the new, less expensive latex material.

      Two ponds have now been built with latex lining in Ban Mae Kam La in tambon Ban Rong. One was built on Aug 3 and the other was completed on Nov 5. The two ponds are less than 50 metres apart.

      Adequate water is essential for the almost 100 households of Akha highlanders, whose houses are dotted across the hills and valleys. Most of the villagers grow corn and rice.

      Since efforts have been made to stabilise the area, many young people have returned to take up farming. A raft of state-sponsored developmental projects was launched to keep the villagers from being lured back into the drug trade.

      Past efforts to introduce new farming projects to fight the drug influence failed because of a lack of water. During the rainy season there is a plentiful supply, but most of it flows into the Ngao waterway system and little is retained for the highlands.

      Many villagers grew cassava, which uses less water. Still, there was not enough water to go around for consumption.

      With the latex lining technology, the two experimental ponds look set to change the villagers' lives. The villagers are pinning their hopes on the ponds as a sustainable source of livelihood.

      The villagers helped to build the ponds. After digging a large well, a sheet of plain fabric is spread out across the bottom and compound latex — made from a mixture of concentrated latex and chemicals — is poured over it to create a pond that is impervious to seepage.

      About one tonne of latex is needed to coat a 20 metre by 30 metre pond that is two metres deep.

      The project is the result of coordination between various agencies, including the Ban Rong Tambon Administrative Organisation, the army, the Tham Pha Thai National Park, the Office of the Rubber Replanting Aid Fund and the Thailand Research Fund (TRF), which supports research into latex-coated ponds.

      The assistance also has security implications. If crops grow well and the villagers have a stable income, they will not be so inclined to work as drug couriers and fall under the dominance of drug traffickers and influential figures.

      One man who has played a major role in the project is Gen Thanayot Pringthongfu, adviser to the Army Operation Centre’s civil affairs office. He said villagers in the past would be drawn into drug trafficking when corn prices tumbled.

      It was necessary to assist them and look after the area's natural resources, in the process creating knowledge among locals and helping them to keep up with the changing world, he said.

      The villagers directly benefit from the ponds through improvement to their lives and security. Gen Thanayot said villagers, researchers and Tham Pha Thai National Park officers work together to try and reduce corn farming which depletes the soil of its nutrients and grow other crops with the proper land zoning.

      “For example, in areas that are more than 800 metres above mean sea level, it is suitable to grow Arabica coffee and some fruits, such as peaches, as well as rice that uses minimal water," he said.

      “In areas between 800 to 500 metres high, certain tropical fruits can be grown, such as long lablae durian, mangosteen and longgong.”

      Pipat Kajitthanatheerawut, the village headman, said drought in the past had been very destructive. It limited job opportunities for villagers who would then turn to illegal activities such as drug peddling to make ends meet.

      Although most villagers make a living from farming now, they are still faced with water shortages, he said.

      “After building ponds coated with natural rubber to contain water, we formed a village committee to organise the allocation of supplies to each household,” Mr Pipat said.

      Ater or Maekin, an Akha hilltribe man, returned to the village from the city where he worked for several years to take care of his elderly parents. But he quickly found his income from growing corn was not stable.

      If rain was abundant, his crop yield earned him as much as 100,000 baht a year. But water shortages would reduce his income to a fraction of that.

      “If I can make use of water throughout the year, I think I will grow other fruit and earn more,” Mr Ater said. “Although I didn’t get much return from this season’s harvest, I will keep away from the drug trade.”

      Another villager, Mijoo, 38, said she helped dig the pond. The woman, who currently grows rice and black sesame, said she would use the water in the pond to cultivate chemical-free vegetables and plans to build small homestay huts for tourists who want to experience life in the highlands.

      Adisai Rungvichaniwat, a TRF researcher from Prince of Songkla University’s Pattani campus, who formulated the compound latex to reinforce water retention in the pond, said the latex coating costs only 250 baht per square metre, compared with concrete which is at least five times more expensive.

      The latex-coated ponds have strong potential to contain water and absorption is extremely low. The material can last for more than 10 years.

      It also helps relieve the glut in latex production, which has driven down the price of rubber, he said. If latex is used to coat ponds, it will augment domestic demand and help raise the price of rubber.

      Varaporn Kajornchaiyakul, an adviser to the TRF in rubber research, noted the project would help increase the use of rubber.

      The TRF has been in talks with the Agriculture and Cooperatives Ministry and several committees on turning around depressed rubber prices.

      The project adds value to rubber and responds to the government’s policy to assist farmers with water resources for consumption and farming in the dry season, Ms Varaporn said.

      Latex-coated ponds have also been built in Ngao district — the first at Ban Bo Si Liam in tambon Pong Tao and the second at Ban Santisuk in tambon Na Kae.

      Mr. Adisai said he expected similar latex-coated pond projects would soon be up and running in other areas of the country.

      However, the ponds require expertise and experience to build. For example, it is necessary to make sure that the site of the pond has sturdy soil to prevent landslides during construction. Work also must halt during heavy rain, gusty winds or high temperatures.

      Mr. Adisai said he estimated 80,000 latex-reinforced ponds could build in drought-prone or drought-stricken areas of the country in the next five years.

      A view of houses in the village where some residents used to peddle drugs because they could not farm due to water shortages.

      Latex coating technology is also adopted in building a communal pond in the village.

      Workers line the interior of an irrigation pond with compound latex. The process proves useful in preventing water escaping into the soil so much more can be retained for farming.


Kochakorn Sukjan Inthanuchit, Soohaila Samuso, Fateeha Ama and Rotjanalak Kuakoon
Faculty of Traditional Thai Medicine, Prince of Songkla University
E-mail: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.
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