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Shifting cultivation as a self-sufficient system. Learning from Karen people in Thailand

Report from the Learning Route: Managing Forests, Sustaining Lives, Improving Livelihoods of Indigenous Peoples and Ethnic Groups in the Mekong Region


Everything depends on us. It’s not about borrowing somebody else’s nose to breath”, is the answer of Huay Hin Lad Nai community’s chief when we ask about self-reliance.  Huay Hin Lad Nai is a Karen village located in a hilly forest between the National Forest Reservation Area and the Khun Jae National Park of Chiang Rai province, Northern Thailand. On the 17th of November, escaping from the traffic jam of Chiang Mai city, 26 people took the Route of the forest to improve their Learning.

The first thing that called Learning Route’ participants attention was the peace of the place and the richness of its natural resources. Through the years, Huay Hin Lad Nai has become a model of self-sufficiency for other indigenous and local communities in the country. Their sustainable and self-sufficient system based on shifting cultivation, a long-term NRM practice carried out by many indigenous peoples worldwide, demonstrated to be crucial to ensure food security and to sustain indigenous culture. Being deeply embedded into the cultural context, in fact, traditional natural resource management practices have guaranteed the protection and transmission of the local spiritual and cultural patrimony over centuries. In the course of the last years, Huay Hin Lad Nai has become a “learning centre” for those people that want to improve knowledge and skills in the sustainable management of forest resources. As its representatives affirm “we offer sustainable solutions for self-sufficient people”.

In Thai, the Karen system of shifting cultivation is called “Rai Mun Wian” (“rotating upland fields”). The Rai Mun Wian farming system focuses on upland rice cultivation combined with a multiple vegetable cropping system that ensures high biodiversity within the agricultural and fallow fields. Traditionally, the Karen shifting cultivation cycle consists of 1-2 years of cultivation, and swidden plots are circulated between different land parcels after long fallow periods. In Huay Hin Lad Nai, during one cycle, villages can collect up to 60 different varieties of crops; these, together with the 4 varies of sticky rice and the 2 of paddy rice they planted ensure food security for the whole year. Along with rice and crops, the community also produces honey and wild tea, whose sell constitute the main source of income for the families. The 10% of the families’ incomes are then invested into a community fund.

The intimate connection between environmental, spiritual and cultural practices is key for sustainability and the community very committed to preserve their environment as well as their traditional knowledge”, Learning Route participants stressed out during the field visit. Indeed, the active participation of the community in the forestry management, the strong attachment to the territory and the inter-generational transmission of indigenous knowledge between elders and youth are among the main lessons we have learned from Huay Hin Lad Nai people.

They share a common vision and collaborate together in such a way to make this vision tangible and real in the everyday life.  To those that recommend Huay Hin Lad Nai people to take more advantage from their natural resources in order to increase their incomes and open up to new markets, or to improve the educational system in the community, they frankly reply: “in terms of self-reliance we have enough, we can secure our food for the whole year and the whole community. In terms of education, in our perspective formal education is not necessary linked to the sustainment of our livelihoods.Degree in formal education does not necessarily equip one with the capacity to live in harmony in a community or address the issue of livelihood security. Our major objective is to build upon the new generations, though our traditional knowledge and livelihoods”.

After spending a day walking in the forest and appreciating the excellent cuisine, we are all convinced that Huay Hin Lad Nai people are walking the right trek for self-development.
The Route is coming to an end soon, so it´s already time for all to share our innovation plans.