By Rick Burnette
On an overcast October morning, pickup trucks packed with representatives from Palaung, Lahu and Karen hilltribe communities located along the Thai-Myanmar border made their way to the demonstration farm of the Upland Holistic Development Project to help celebrate the organization’s 20th anniversary. Almost 300 gathered to fellowship, worship and remember two decades of service provided by UHDP.
Appointed by CBF in 1994 to serve the Palaung of northern Thailand, Ellen and I had little more than a notion as to how ministry should be implemented among mountain people that we had never met. But with CBF providing support toward our new life in Asia, we were empowered to acquire the Thai language, develop critical relationships and to grow an understanding of the Palaung story.
From the Palaung, we listened to accounts of their exodus to Thailand to escape strife in their homeland in Myanmar. We heard about their struggle to obtain homes, land and work in a new country where they were undocumented and vulnerable. We observed their farm livelihood innovations that enabled them to make do with much less, and we learned about their culture and Buddhist beliefs.
With CBF backing, Palaung participation and local support from the Thailand Baptist Missionary Fellowship, the Upland Holistic Development Project was launched in 1996. UHDP was to be operated from a proposed demonstration farm to provide outreach to nine Palaung communities with a total population of a few thousand people. Ellen and I were soon joined by a small team of hilltribe Christian coworkers to initiate the task.
Through CBF’s network, including Baptists from Texas, Florida, Georgia, Alabama, Tennessee, North Carolina, Virginia and Iowa, funds enabled the purchase of land for the demonstration farm and its development. More importantly, such support made UHDP’s community outreach possible, including the construction of village water systems and improved sanitation as well as sustainable upland farming and agroforestry. The work included backyard farming that focused on home gardens, pigs and chickens. And to improve access to social resources, we began to address the foundational issues of legal status, land tenure and women’s livelihoods.
Ellen and I stepped away from direct UHDP involvement in 2008 and the organization has thrived under Thai hilltribe leadership. Beyond the initial nine communities, according to UHDP’s current director, Bunsak Tongdi, efforts being carried out by a team of 14 have grown to include 34 communities made up of approximately 10,000 ethnic Kachin, Lahu, Karen and Akha, as well as Palaung.
Since 1994, UHDP has helped to establish 15 village savings and loan groups (VSLAs) with 242 members. Over 5000 cases have been handled concerning legal documentation and citizenship. Thousands of persons now have clean water and improved sanitation. And hundreds of families have improved farm livelihoods with more than 8,200 people reportedly eating healthier, nutritious meals.
UHDP is both a leader and resource in the local network of churches and engages 20 congregations within its focus communities to promote discipleship and to address community needs.
Currently, Plant With Purpose, a San Deigo-based Christian non-profit, plays a major role in supporting UHDP’s technical and financial capacities. And while additional support comes from Sweden, the UK and Hong Kong, some of UHDP’s funding is derived from selling seedlings and other products from the demonstration farm as well as training fees.
CBF congregations continue to partner with UHDP as well, with significant involvement from First Baptist Church Decatur, Ga., and Second Baptist Liberty, Missouri.
Of course we’re biased, but Ellen and I believe that UHDP is evidence of CBF’s approach of being a missions facilitator, equipper and partner as opposed to the usual owner/operator model. And the UHDP team remains grateful for the CBF investment that began more than 20 years ago.
Rick Burnette is a former CBF field personnel and currently serves as the director of agriculture for ECHO International.