Hta: How Karen Farming Saved a Forest in Thailand and its Poetry Changed International Policy
Text by Viveca Mellegård | Photos by Pernilla Malmer
With words & lived experience of members of the Karen Community of Hin Lad Nai and input from Pernilla Malmer
“Live with the water, care for the river, live with trees, care for the forest. Live with the fish, care for the spawning grounds, live with the frog, care for the cliff.” ―Karen proverb
When Prasert Trakansuphakon talks about rotational farming, he uses the language of hta: the poetry, stories, and songs told by the Indigenous Karen people of northern Thailand. Wrapped into the rhymes and tales of the hta is a collective knowledge system that incorporates memories and observations based on everyday life experiences. In particular, hta reflect the rich knowledge that Karen people have of their surrounding environment, especially of the variety of wild and domesticated plants and animals.
A hta about gibbons characterizes them as gentle animals, in the local tongue of the Hin Lad Nai community:
Cu t’ hpiv hkauf t’ maz, htif pgaz taj kwaj blav.
“Hand won’t pick up, the foot doesn’t work: when seeing others’ things, just watching.” (By contrast, monkeys will pinch and pilfer belongings, given half the chance.)
The language of hta and the knowledge system expressed in it have also helped the Karen people to protect not only their ways of living and livelihoods but also the forest they rely upon at international, national, and local levels.
Trakansuphakon goes to international conferences to tell hta of a Karen tribe called the Pgakenyaw to scientists and policy makers. His stories focus on one small Pgakenyaw community of twenty-five households, called Hin Lad Nai, nestled in the lush forest of Chiang Rai Province.
This community follows the rituals embedded in the hta at each stage of the village’s rotational farming system. The practices of rotational farming and indeed all of everyday life are imbued with Karen cultural and spiritual values, knowledge, and wisdom, all of which find expression in their songs, poems, and stories.
But what the Karen are doing is illegal in Thailand. For many decades, they were accused of using what was seen as a primitive, destructive, “slash-and-burn” form of agriculture. National policies divided the Thai landscape into either forest or permanent agriculture and classified rotational farmers as “ethnic minorities,” whose traditional practices were prohibited. At the same time, in the 1960s and 1970s, other pressures were building, pushing the farmers to leave their lands: logging concessions, commercial plantations, conservation projects, dam- and road-building, and waves of resettlement — both of farmers forced out and of others moving in.
But the Hin Lad Nai villagers and many other Karen communities displayed unshakable faith in their culture, which is intimately linked to their rotational farming system. Determined to prove that their system was sustainable and resilient for both people and ecosystems, they and other communities reliant on the forest for home, food, and spiritual practices spent decades protesting logging concessions issued by the Thai government. In spite of their protests, the Hin Lad Nai community saw their forest cut down in the 1980s. Finally, however, in 1989 the Thai government decided to stop granting logging concessions in their area.
Underpinning the hta is an understanding that land and people are entwined and interdependent throughout time.
Immediately, the villagers of Hin Lad Nai decided to start regenerating their destroyed forest in the only way they knew how: by practicing the Karen rotational farming system. Within that system, they would protect their land against wildfires and illegal hunting and let the trees grow and the wild animals return and thrive again.
“The Hin Lad Nai community was so genuinely strong and committed in mobilizing their traditional knowledge,” says Pernilla Malmer, senior advisor on agriculture and biodiversity for SwedBio, a program working as a knowledge interface between science, policy, and practice for resilience and development at the Stockholm Resilience Centre.
Malmer met Trakansuphakon for the first time in 2012, during a unique dialogue in Guna Yala, Panama that brought together scientists and Indigenous communities to share their different kinds of knowledge. This dialogue took place directly before the meeting in Panama City that established the Intergovernmental Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES), an international body that, as a part of its mandate, acknowledges and respects Indigenous and local knowledge.
Htof loo auf seifsaf, pgazk’nyau loo auf buwa.
“Birds find fruits, humans find white rice.”
As practiced in Hin Lad Nai, rotational farming involves starting a new field of rice mixed with vegetable crops that is cultivated for a short period of one year. The field is then allowed to fallow for a long period, with nothing sown or added to the land for between seven and ten years.
During the first- and second-year fallows, grasses and tree saplings take hold, among which animals like wild boar and barking deer can hide. Also hidden among the grasses and young trees are taro, yam, chili, eggplant, rattan shoots, sweet potato, cassava, lemongrass, ginger, galangal — plenty for both animals and humans to eat. By the seventh-year fallow, when the trees have grown tall and the grasses no longer provide enough shelter, wild boar and barking deer are replaced by monkeys and macaques, which take residence in the trees. An abundance of plants that the Karen harvest for medicinal uses — such as ya kaiv muj to treat diabetes and hpau pgaj laj to help women with post-partum recovery — also grow during the seventh fallow.
All the while, farmers and other community members walk through the fallows and harvest what they need. Year in and year out, they live with the shifting cycles of growth.
N’mei yuj yaz laiz soo quv, cau av k’laz htof lwij bu.
“Whenever you miss me, go to the swidden field and you will see the wood pigeon who is my spirit.”
When the farmers select the fallow area they want to cultivate next, they perform rituals based on customary laws or taboos. They believe that, after letting the field regenerate as fallow, the land belongs to the spirits of the goddess of the doo lax, land that has been fallow for a full cycle of seven to ten years and is ready for cultivation. They must ask the goddess for permission. Bad omens may be the sighting or sound of inauspicious birds or the barking sound of deer. Or one of the farmers may have a nightmare about fire or flooding the night before selecting the plot, which means the goddess refuses permission to cultivate the land. If there is no sign from the goddess that she refuses, that means that the spirits of that fallow give the farmer the right to cultivate the plot that year.
Underpinning the hta is an understanding that land and people are entwined and interdependent throughout time. The hta contain lessons that foster not only food security and sustainable livelihoods, but also biodiversity conservation. Social–ecological knowledge, practices, and advice are carried by songs that the elders pass down through the generations.
“Land and forest never end if we know how to take care of and use them,” says Chai Prasert Phokha, Hin Lad Nai’s current community leader, quoting what his grandfather told him. It is not enough to preserve and protect the forest, he explains. You also need to know how to use it to get food and income from it, while conserving it for your own children and grandchildren.
Today, the lush forest around Hin Lad Nai makes it nearly impossible to imagine how completely it was destroyed by loggers in the 1970s and 1980s.
At that time, what was left of the forest was sparse and silent. Frequent wildfires raged through the few remaining patches of vegetation. The inhabitants of Hin Lad Nai came together to decide on next steps. They agreed to create a firebreak all around their community area and took turns keeping watch. They also started protecting their territories against illegal loggers and hunters and formulated their community rules for forest management.
Slowly, the forest recovered. In 1992, however, the Thai government decided to make the entire area into a park (now named Khun Jae National Park and standing at 270 square kilometres). The government ordered the communities in the planned park area to leave.
Instead, the Karen people drew strength from their philosophy and banded together with other affected ethnic groups in the country to fight for their rights to live in the forest. They staged protests under the banner of the Northern Farmers Network and as part of the national-level Assembly of the Poor network. The Hin Lad Nai community won the right to stay on their land. Their area would become a border area to the park.
Meanwhile, in 1994 Thailand ratified the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). In signing on, the government committed to protecting its forests, but it also had to begin to recognize what Indigenous Peoples do to protect their forests and how they adapt to and contribute to countering climate change.
Encouraged by the government’s new obligations towards its Indigenous Peoples under the UNFCCC, Hin Lad Nai villagers joined other civil society organizations to initiate a study to measure their carbon footprint. The research reported that their consumption levels and emissions of carbon dioxide were far below the carrying capacity of their natural resources.
Crucially, whereas Thai law banned rotational farming, the report highlighted the benefits of the Karen knowledge system and worldview, centrally including rotational farming and the spiritual and cultural beliefs that are deeply embedded in it. In so doing, the report confirmed that Karen practices are beneficial to biodiversity, prevent wildfires and soil erosion, and contribute to developing new sources of income and to sparking innovation.
Malmer points out that Hin Lad Nai is a prime example of how Indigenous organizations wage on-the-ground battles by harnessing global developments. By following international processes, such as the UNFCCC, IPBES, or the Convention on Biological Diversity, communities can bring the outcomes back home and demand that their local, regional, and national governments implement them.
In 2010, Hin Lad Nai achieved another victory when it became one of four Thai villages identified as a Special Cultural Zone. In effect, this classification overturned the national government’s criminalization of rotational farming by recognizing that the system works in beneficial ways. The practice is now protected under Thailand’s Ministry of Culture’s list of Cultural Heritage.
N’mei yuj yaz kwaj seif klauz; seif klauz cau cu lauj of htau.
“Whenever you miss me, look at the pruned trees; they are the mark of the work of my hand.”
Only three decades after logging decimated the forest, eighty percent of the forested area (some 3,000 hectares) has regenerated. The villagers cultivate several hundred hectares within the forest and can choose from more than two hundred edible plant species that are abundant. In addition to being close to complete self-sufficiency, the community also has cash income from harvesting honey and tea from the now flourishing forest.
And yet, ironically, their very success in restoring the forest and reinvigorating their community through interventions that have enhanced the whole social–ecological system might come back to haunt them. A new threat has arisen from an effort to extend stronger levels of national park protection to Hin Lad Nai, including the regenerated forest area. The community faces strict regulation of rotational farming, still considered illegal by some of Thailand’s government agencies — for example, the Ministry of Environment — and possible eviction from their land.
This time, there are strong foundations for Indigenous Peoples to support one another in pushing back and negotiating with governmental authorities. Both IPBES and the Convention on Biological Diversity embody the value of the knowledge, practices, and beliefs of these groups. The UN Rapporteur on Human Rights and Environment published a report in March 2017 on human rights and biodiversity, affirming that they are mutually supportive. Global platforms and instruments, such as the UN resolution, that validate the way Hin Lad Nai, and communities like it, manage ecosystems will serve as powerful allies in the new battle to stay on their land.
Crossing borders and scales, voices that might not be heard when speaking close to home come through sounding loud and clear on the international stage and echo back — this time at a higher volume and with greater force — into the ears of government. Will the government listen?
Viveca Mellegård started her career at the BBC, training to become a documentary director. At the Stockholm Resilience Centre, she uses film and photography to investigate the tacit knowledge and skills embedded in craftsmanship. She realizes creative projects that help capture and make visible the complexities of a resilience approach to development.
Pernilla Malmer is Senior Advisor with SwedBio at the Stockholm Resilience Centre, Stockholm University, Sweden. She holds an MSc in Agricultural Economics.
AIPP, IWGIA, NDF, & NORAD. (2012). Climate Change, Trees and Livelihood: A Case Study on the Carbon Footprint of a Karen Community in Northern Thailand. Retrieved from http://unfccc.int/resource/docs/2012/smsn/ngo/240.pdf
Community of Hin Lad Nai, Thailand, & SwedBoi. (2016). Mobilizing Traditional Knowledge, Innovations and Practices in Rotational Farming for Sustainable Development. Stockholm Resilience Centre Report. Retrieved from http://swed.bio/reports/report/mobilizing-traditional-knowledge-innovations-and-practices-in-rotational-farming-for-sustainable-development/
SwedBio. (2017). Indigenous Community Research Contributes to Policy Development and Enhanced Ecosystem Governance. Retrieved from http://swed.bio/news/indigenous-community-research-contributes-to-policy-development-and-enhanced-ecosystem-governance/
Tengö, M., Hill, R., Malmer, P., Raymond, C. M., Spierenburg, M., Danielsen, F., … & Folke, C. (2017). Weaving knowledge systems in IPBES, CBD and beyond: Lessons learned for sustainability. Current Opinion in Environmental Sustainability, 26–27, 17–25. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cosust.2016.12.005
Virus Film [Screen name]. (2016, October 1). The making of rotational farming workshop: Host by Hin Lad Nai Village [Video file]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5BRqR1m8jL0&feature=youtu.be
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