In harmony with the landscape: A trip to Northern Thailand to explore traditional farming and land management
In this article we will take you to Northern Thailand to explore an ancestral land management and cultural practice known as rotational farming. Also called shifting cultivation or swidden agriculture, rotational farming is a system in which forest plots are cleared, burned, cropped, and then allowed to remain fallow.
During the fallow period, which lasts for several years, perennial crops continue to be managed and harvested as the forest regrows. This system is an ancient practice of the Karen (or Pgakenyaw) indigenous people in Hin Lad Nai community, Chiang Rai, Northern Thailand, and with it we have protected the forest and provided food for our community for centuries. Nowadays, twenty households take care of some 3,250 hectares of forests and fields around the village. The territory was declared a Special Cultural Zone by the Thailand Ministry of Culture, which, in 2010, granted legitimacy to the Karen peoples’ customary rights and practices, and gave back to us the authority to manage our own resources using traditional, sustainable methods.
Unfortunately, youth are becoming less interested in learning the traditional practice of rotational farming and many Thai are unaware of its existence. This is why we have organized educational workshops with the Hin Lad Nai community, the Thailand Slow Food Youth Network (SFYN), the Indigenous Terra Madre network (ITM), and the Pgakenyaw Association for Sustainable Development (PASD), with support from the Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn Anthropology Centre (SAC). Last November we held a workshop that sought to address the question: How can we encourage indigenous youth to get involved in, and take pride in, the revival, promotion, and maintenance of traditional knowledge for local food innovation based on rotational farming and agroforestry? We invited people from the Thailand SFYN and ITM to host the workshop and share their expertise as chefs, designers, artists, coffee farmers, organic growers, etc. Members of the SFYN facilitated the workshop, and participants from a range of backgrounds and professions attended. We also created space for local community members—especially young people—to exchange ideas with, and learn from, the participants so that they could develop innovations based on their own cultural knowledge and practices.
Community leader Mr. Chaiprasert Phokha welcomed the participants, and traditional and official village leaders described the history of the community and their methods for managing local natural resources, explaining that, for at least four generations, the community forests, agroforests, and rotational fields around Hin Lad Nai have been cared for according to Karen customary law and traditional practices. We separated into three groups, each of which included elders or knowledgeable persons from the community, and went into the community forest and agroforests, where not only elders but also young people from the village shared their knowledge with the participants, and local experts described the classification of different forest types.
There is no clear boundary between the community forests and agroforests around Hin Lad Nai: Both contain a great diversity of trees, plants, insects, and other animals, and many of these species can be used for food, medicine, and other purposes. Some of the most important crops for earning income are tea, a local fruit called makhom, lemon, pomelo, and other tree fruits. Beekeeping is another important activity: The people of Hin Lad Nai make wooden hives and line them with beeswax to attract wild bees, which then colonize the hives and start producing honey. The participants saw firsthand that the productivity and diversity of the forests result not simply from allowing the forest to grow naturally, but from careful management. Through replanting important trees and plants, the community has transformed certain areas into agroforest. Due to these management practices, the forest provides the community with products for subsistence and opportunities to earn income.
On the evening of the first day we tasted special foods from the forest. Chefs from SFYN presented the story of the community through the food that they prepared. After the meal we opened the floor for sharing and discussion related to the day’s activities. November is harvest time in Hin Lad Nai village so, on the second day, we took the participants into three rotational fields so that they could see, touch, and collect products grown in different phases of the rotation. They saw that, even after the main harvest, the fields are not exhausted and many food plants remain. The participants used the products that they had collected to prepare a meal in the field, and we discussed traditions and knowledge related to Karen rotational farming and cooking. Many Karen practices, including a simple approach to cooking based on organic vegetables, are shared by the neighboring Akha indigenous people. Though the Karen and Akha speak different languages, their way of life is similar in many ways.
In the evening we had a big meal to celebrate the Slow Food Menu for Change campaign. Chefs from SFYN were joined by local chefs as well as the workshop participants, who were very excited to work with, and learn from, professionals. Chefs and participants divided into groups and prepared food using only ingredients from the rotational fields. This gave the participants a wonderful opportunity to share ideas with local experts, and to put some of their new knowledge into practice. The whole village came to share the meal, and each group described the dishes they had prepared.
On morning of the final day we held a workshop on the flavors of rotational farming, in which the participants got to taste more of the raw materials from the landscape. We sampled honeys from three different forests and coffees from three indigenous villages, and finished the tasting with a coffee flower tisane from Maejantai Akha indigenous community, and a tisane of black tea leaves and tea blossoms from Hin Lad Nai village. This experience allowed the participants to develop their taste buds and, more importantly, absorb the richness of our region’s natural resources and valuable heritage. After the tasting workshop and a final meal, the shaman and elders prayed for each of the participants and led a Karen ritual known as Kij Cu. This ritual called back and strengthened the spirits of participants so that they could return home safely, with happiness and good memories.
Globalization presents tricky challenges to our way of life. Sometimes it brings us joy, new experiences, and the chance to enhance our knowledge, but it also creates uncertainty about the future of our culture and traditions. Our generation has the privilege to explore and connected to a multicultural society, but we also need to remain connected to our roots. The ancestors showed us that it is possible to live harmoniously, in a way that doesn’t harm others. Our rich landscape, if properly cared for, provides us with food and habitation. Clean soil and water nourish us and the creatures with whom we share the land. The forest protects not only living things, but also our heritage. These are the reasons why we respect our forebears and thank them for leaving us with so many valuable resources. As indigenous societies become more connected to each other and to global society as a whole, we will learn to exchange the beauty of our traditions, just like the young Karen in Hin Lad Nai are doing. Multicultural living is an option for our time, a way to honor our roots without ignoring or neglecting other cultures and ways of life.
by Lee Ayu Chuepa and Nutdanai Trakansuphakon, youth leaders from the Indigenous Terra Madre network of Thailand
photography by Chalit Saphaphak (Realframe)