KLON MAI, Thailand — Storm clouds approached from the northeast, piling up behind the mountains. The wood smoke from thatch-roofed kitchens blew horizontally, and banana trees flapped in the wind. Mothers stepped outside and called their children home from the rice fields below.
Klon Mai is perched in the remote mountains of far northern Thailand, less than a mile from the border with Burma, in the infamous Golden Triangle known more for its illicit drug trade than stability and self-reliance. Most of the 20 families in the village are members of the Luha ethnic group, who migrated from Burma before settling here two decades ago. When the first families arrived, there was no road, no water supply and no way to make a living. They survived largely on the corn and rice they grew.
Now, the main source of income for families in Klon Mai is tea. The Thai government planted a new variety of tea on the surrounding mountainsides and pays villagers to act as caretakers to the crop. Each family looks after about two acres and receives in return 15,000 bhat—about $500—a year.
A Heifer International project in Klon Mai is helping villagers supplement this meager income with gifts of livestock, seeds and training.
The Lahuna Family As the sky darkened, Yuri Lahuna climbed the mud-slick trail back to Klon Mai from her family's plot of tea, where she spent the morning clearing weeds.
Inside the corrugated metal door, her house was dark except for a bare fluorescent bulb and the light that filtered through the woven bamboo walls. Her 5-year-old son lay curled up on the sleeping platform in the corner.
Yuri and her husband, Asu, set up a small folding table and chairs on the pocked dirt floor. Over glasses of hot tea, they talked about their lives and involvement with the Heifer project in Klon Mai.
In 1993, Asu's mother died while visiting family in Thailand. Asu crossed from Burma for the funeral, met Yuri and settled here.
As the sky outside began to spit rain, he described their situation in those early years. The village was garbage-strewn. The few pigs villagers had were allowed to roam freely, rooting up gardens and sparking arguments between families.
There was little work and little food. "For my labor, I could only earn 25 that a day," said Asu. That's less than a dollar. To make it through the dry season, the family was forced to forage for food in the jungle. "Sometimes, it wasn't enough."
Heifer Brings a Better Future In April 2009, the Lahunas received five pigs and a water buffalo from Heifer International. Since then, their pigs have given them 12 offspring, and their water buffalo gave birth soon after they received it. They also received seeds for a vegetable garden and the supplies to build their own fishpond.
Now, say the Lahunas, they have enough food. "We can eat fish from our pond," said Asu, or sell piglets for income. Last year, they even had a surplus of vegetables from their garden and were able to sell some to nearby villages.
"Since we became project members, I can see that our health has improved," said Asu. "I think it's not only because of more food, but, because we are more secure, our mental health is better also."
Life is by no means easy for the Lahunas now. Yuri still has to rise at 5:30 every morning, cook breakfast and feed the animals before heading to the fields. But their life is improving as a result of the gifts of animals and training from Heifer International.
I believe if we keep raising animals, growing tea and saving, we will have a better future. Yuri, Thailand
Outside, the clouds passed and the relentless tropical sun returned. As the tea glasses were cleared and everyone prepared to return to work, Asu admitted that before joining the Heifer project, he didn't think much beyond the immediate situation. "But I believe if we keep raising animals, growing tea and saving, we will have a better future."
If they needed a sign of a promising future, the Lahunas have one: Their water buffalo will give birth again in December.