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Thailand's Karen rotational farmers seek recognition as stewards of biodiversity

Ordinary rice paddies are supplemented with rotational plots, which will have many years to disappear into the forest before their next use (Paul Bordoni/PAR)
Ordinary rice paddies are supplemented with rotational plots, which will have many years to disappear into the forest before their next use
Paul Bordoni/PAR

Far inland in the mountains of Thailand, the indigenous Karen people are returning to their unique methods of rotational farming, utilising biodiversity and a library's worth of local knowledge to cultivate food while allowing the forest to flourish. Their system, which balances the clearing and burning of land with long fallows lasting many years has long been maligned as "slash and burn" farming. Now communities are working to revive their identity as stewards of the forest, with help from some new allies.

A suspended tradition

The complex Karen system was interrupted in the 1980s when, concerned about countrywide deforestation, the Thai government charged the Royal Forestry Department (RFD) with increasing forest cover. Authorities viewed rotational farmers as a national problem, slash-and-burn renegades who destroyed forests. The RFD turned important mountain watersheds into forest reserves, banning rotational farming. They then replanted large expanses with fast-growing eucalyptus and pine trees. Karen farmers, deprived of their communal land, were encouraged to intensify their more "modern" efforts at establishing paddy rice and other cash crops. These required constant inputs such as fertiliser and pesticides, driving many into debt.

As Karen livelihoods declined under the RFD's enforcement, a deeper appreciation of rotational systems began to emerge around the world. Researchers and activists increasingly saw these practices as a form of stewardship, tending carefully to natural biodiversity and using this diversity as a buffer against uncertainties such as climate change. Rotation may even help to mitigate climate change, as recovering patches of forest are more effective carbon sinks than other vegetation. Regulated by community oversight and tradition, Karen rotational farming is remarkably knowledge intensive, requiring farmers to analyse a plot's topography, soil, water availability and local environment to plan the most productive and least damaging agricultural use. For example, tradition dictates that land cannot be cleared along both banks of a stream, as fish will not swim up the river to spawn if there are no trees overhead to shelter them from predatory birds.

Cultivating legitimacy

Rotational farming is only one component of Karen livelihoods alongside paddy farming and other activities, but it is one that does not force a reliance on markets, and it allows for more options and greater biodiversity. While rice is the primary crop, farmers actually plant dozens of grains and vegetables in carefully selected parts of the same field. After harvest, the succession of wild plants sprouting back up provide years of edible and medicinal supplies, available for anyone to harvest. The system binds communities together with a shared recognition of common property, and perhaps most importantly, embodies the Karen people's identity as stewards of the forest.

Women are particularly involved in cultivating a diverse range of vegetables and grains within rotational rice fields (Paul Bordoni/PAR)
Women are particularly involved in cultivating a diverse range of vegetables and grains within rotational rice fields
Paul Bordoni/PAR

Aware that this image of the Karen was not accepted by the RFD or the Ministry of Agriculture, community leaders enlisted their cultural heritage as a tool of resistance. Through poetry and storytelling they shared their traditions of stewardship and reverence for their environment to counter the more negative deforestation narrative. These efforts found international support from sources ranging from the Indigenous Knowledge and Peoples Network (IKAP) to the Platform for Agrobiodiversity Research (PAR). Such involvement brought farmers new tools like GIS mapping, helping them share their classifications of land and the locations of sacred protected forests. Recognition and aid has finally come to the Karen from within Thailand, though not from the Ministry of Agriculture, but the Ministry of Culture. In recognition of the unique Karen way of life, the Culture ministry has set up a Committee of Direct Integration for Recovering the Life of Karen People in Thailand to lobby for official acknowledgement of the group's rights to land.

Ending the fallow

To date, the government has not legislated to recognise rotational farming or land rights. Says Prasert Trakansuphakon of IKAP and the Committee, "Rotation is only practised in communities which have strong organisations who can negotiate with the government and can show good management of their natural resources. As these communities have become stronger, the government has backed off, and people have gone back to their normal lives and continued farming in six to seven year cycles. Government plantations have stopped because they have seen how well farmers care for the forest." Though the RFD's stands of eucalyptus trees leave the soil depleted of nutrients, the natural forest ecosystem returns after the first rotation and fertility can be restored.

Until advocates such as the Ministry of Culture's committee can write legitimacy for indigenous peoples into law, this delicate balance of power is the only choice for many communities who practise rotational farming. Concepts of communal land and shifting use will always be difficult to work into national policy, which hinges on clear ownership. But, with a changing image of rotation as a culturally and ecologically enriching tradition of stewardship, and with concerted organisation and self-regulation, the Karen have demonstrated that indigenous communities can still carve out a spot for themselves in the agricultural landscape.

Written by: T. Paul Cox

Date published: March 2010


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