Friday, May 29, 2009

Control = Surrender?

As we came back to our guesthouse on Ko Mook from snorkelling off Ko Chu-ah, the tide was very low, exposing the extensive mud flats offshore of Ko Mook. Our boats went in as far as they could and we walked the rest of the way in to the island. While a long pier juts out a little ways down along the road to remedy (partially) this problem, it is not used much by local residents. Instead, they walk and haul their catch sometimes 150 yards, preferring to leave their boats cradled in the soft intertidal zone. Thinking about another extreme, NYC, where every shoreline has been extended with landfill and concrete piers, it seems in many ways the villagers on Ko Mook have got it right.

The night before, students reflected on how people here seem to have stronger relationships with natural cycles and phenomena than we do in the U.S. This has been a recurring theme throughout my time here in Thailand. In part because of the favorable climate, folks are able to incorporate a lot of outdoor space into their primary living area and seem to like this set-up despite the bugs and rain and critters passing through. Nature still has the upper hand in the local community on Ko Mook, as well. Low season for the tourism industry occurs during the monsoon season when the channel is too choppy for the island's small boats to safely transport visitors. On a stormy day, the fishermen stay on shore and talk with their friends or do chores around the house rather than brave the elements as larger trawlers are able to do. Women follow the tides out and collect clams on the mud flats, only one example of how intimately their lives are tied to the moon cycle.

I thought about the 2004 tsunami in terms of this flexibility people exhibit in their relationships with non-human cycles. While the tsunami did cause considerable damage up and down the Andaman coast, imagine the scale of damage that would have occurred if the massive waves had hit D.C. or NYC instead. From a view of the global economy, the destruction of property and productivity on the American east coast would be much higher (monetarily). In non-monetary terms, a natural disaster might be just as devastating to an island community in Thailand as to downtown NYC. But in this case, might flexibility in relationship with nature mean more control, more resilience, more power?

When learning tai chi last semester, my instructor told the class how what is often seen as weakness can be strength. She mentioned a tai chi master who uses "yielding" in brilliant ways to outdo an opponent during a martial arts competition. Often, a display of force can be outdone by yielding, and the opponent falls. Transferring this idea to natural disaster preparedness and the ability of communities to bounce back after a disturbance, perhaps yielding to non-human nature is a good path. Allowing some of those resorts to revert back to mangrove swamps, rehabilitating the wetlands around NYC-- in short, seeking to work in concert with nature rather than impose our every will on it-- will result in stronger, healthier communities.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

The Intertidal Zone

In only two days-- once on the beach of the peninsula where we camped the first night and again on Mook Island-- I was mesmerized by the surprises that the intertidal zone holds. I explored the limestone formations of the peninsula at low tide and found brain corals, sea cucumbers, clams, barnacles, and fish all holding on for a few hours until the sea would cover them again. On Mook Island, the expansive mudflats were a veritable traffic jam of crabs, starfish, clams, and creatures of all kinds. Walking out at low tide was not at all the peaceful exploration I imagined-- sea creatures crunch beneath your every step and the clacking and tapping of the clams and crabs is quite loud. I have never seen such productivity (in terms of animal life) in the wild. It was surprising in part because I expected the intertidal zone to be a stressful zone and therefore sparsely populated. For example, holes dug by the crabs during low tide are quickly filled in at high tide. But day after day the millions of crabs of all sizes continue to rebuild their shelters in the moist sand.

It was not only the ecology of the intertidal zone that impressed me, but the way the local people used it, as well. At low tide on the peninsula, several women appeared on the beach with buckets and digging/scraping tools to harvest clams. A man with them was stringing gill nets between the limestone formations. As we pulled up to Mook Island with our pod of kayaks (endearingly named "Pad See-U"), a group of women had already assembled, tools and buckets in hand, to follow the tide out and collect the bounty that low tide affords. Anna and Rebecca went out to make friends and see if they could help harvest, while I took pictures of them digging in the sand for clams. I don't know how much local people rely on this resource for their daily lives, but the intertidal zone seemed to be an extension of their world every 12 hours-- women harvest, children play, men haul things to and from their beached boats, even motorcycles navigate through areas of compacted sand.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

"An Evening Rainstorm"

Paw has started a fire in the road
Just as the wind begins to gust and growl.
Flames are leaping up,
Licking the wooden fenceposts.
Molten gold climbing vines
Flutter violently as the fire
Screams higher and higher.
Great billowing smoke
Relieves itself from the road
And hurries off across the valley.
Fingers of the dark clouds
Grip the sky above,
As if tearing at the fabric,
Pleading with that great expanse
"let out what weights me."
Something like acquiescence leaks out,
The fingers retract,
Form fists of concentration instead.

The fire is out.

Community Based Tourism

CBT is tourism that takes environmental, social, and cultural sustainability into account. It is managed and owned by the community, for the communities, with the purpose of enabling visitors to increase their awareness about the community and local ways of life. -- Thailand Community Based Tourism Institute
CBT sounds great on paper. It sounds like one of the best ways to keep communities developing in a way that is non-extractive and still gives them the power. At the same time, it can protect the environment and foster cross-cultural awareness. But is it really a good or bad thing? Our first village stay in Baan Hua Nam, was not in a CBT village, but the headman mentioned at the community meeting that they would like to become one. In one sense, CBT allows communities to enter the global economy without doing too much damage to the forest like growing cash crops or logging might. It also means they don't have to leave the village to find work in the city so they can afford to send their kids to school (compulsory in Thailand). But in another sense, what does it mean for the people living here? The more they engage with the global economy, the more likely it is that consumer goods will change their way of life. And while I don't necessarily think it is right to deny anyone the kind of junk that everyone else around the world is clamoring for, this more simple and biodegradable way of life that keeps communities here quite self-reliant seems so cozy.

Also, because tourists would be so interwoven into day-to-day life-- sleeping in homes with families, eating their food-- they are so much more likely to change the culture on fundamental levels. For example, the villagers may cook and eat different food. Pi Carrie already mentioned that the villagers use a lot more eggs now that they ever did because they were told it is what farang like to eat when they come. Or maybe they will start dressing certain ways ("authentically") to please the tourists, like the Long Necks have done for the most part.

Then, this question of "is culture static or evolving" takes on a new shape. Some things will evolve and some will stay the same, but tourists make things change/stagnate in different ways than would happen without them. And the power lies with the tourists because they have the money. The tourists, in today's market-based economy, have no obligation to return if they are not satisfied and so in some ways the community is stuck having to please the tourists for their livelihood. However, Hua Nam is a very economically diverse community and so their engagement in CBT would be only as for supplementary income. My host family grows many things, gathers from the forests, and raises animals for their own subsistence. They also sell a little bit of each fruit, vegetables, and pigs.

In the village of Huai Hee, villagers expressed satisfaction with many of the foreigners they have hosted from around the world, though they described students as the best guests because they tend to be more respectful and interested in learning about the Karen way of life. The international clientele has allowed some of the Karen to learn Korean, Japanese, English, and Thai.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009


More than any of the other students, I know roads. I went to the hospital in town three times during the Forests course, one time each from Nam Hu, Huai Hee, and Huai Tong Gow. Huay Tong Gow is three hours away from town at the end of the road (dead ends there), but the most paved sections are between there and Huai Hee. For some reason, I would have expected that the closer to town, the better the road would be be. This is patently not the case. In fact, the section I thought most likely to be paved, from the checkpoint near town up to the 3-million-Baht viewpoint area, is one of the worst sections of the entire road.

In some ways, I thought that paving the road entirely would be a great investment for the villages of Huai Poo Ling sub-district. Children would have a much easier time getting to school, their vehicles would be in better shape, and farang would have an easier time getting to the hospital (ha). A quicker way to town affords the community a whole host of new opportunities.

But in every community meeting so far, elder villagers have voiced concern about the road contributing to the loss of Karen culture. Some of the younger generation do seem to be returning to live in the villages, even after experiencing all of the pleasures of town life. But some do not.

In other ways, having roads at all seems more trouble that they are worth. Living in the US, I have completely taken for granted the existence of quality roads, without much thought for the massive amount of maintenance they require. The road to Huai Tong Gow has many sections that are unpaved and each year the villages may decide to pave another stretch. But many of the sections that have already been paved are in need of repair, too. The roads worsen flooding issues in the rainy season, for example, and many are cracked and broken with deep potholes. The villages have money from the government, but the more they put towards roads, the faster their culture may be eroded by external forces and the less money will be going toward the community's other goals, like health care, watershed protection, and education.

The current condition of the roads serves as a buffer between the villages and destructive outsiders. On my last trip to town, the pattee who so kindly drove us in his truck said that he once met a group from Bangkok driving up to see the view from Doi Pui, but when they heard about the condition of the road ahead and that they would have to park and walk up the mountain, they turned around and went back to Mae Hong Son. If the road were paved like the road to Doi Suthep, you can be sure Huai Hee would have a lot of unwanted traffic through their quiet village.

I certainly don't fault the villagers for wanting a better road (or, in the case of Huai Goong, wanting any kind they can get) because it is apparent that they could not really survive in today's context, with the central Thai state grabbing more and more power, without a road. Still, I mourn for what has been and will be lost because of it.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

From Alice to Naessa [Missive 5]

Dear people of my heart,

Stunning: the only word to describe the jungles of northern Thailand. The light is incredible-- darkest dark and brightest light; rock canyons curving down like protecting arms to nurse clear mountain streams; forests of magical proportions brimming with life and leafiness and corkscrew vines; expansive views onto sunlit ridges that bleed with limestone cliff faces down into deep valleys; boulders seized by desperate tree roots that seem to want to suck the soul out of the rock in their desire to thrive. Soul-eating trees... who knew?

For the past 2 1/2 weeks I have been in Mae Hong Son province, hiking through the mountains to Karen villages that in some cases were accessible only on foot. We lived for several days in each of four villages, learning about the Karen way of life, their connection to the forest, and the political struggle between preservationists and forest-dwelling communities.

Our journey began on a long ride into the mountains... instead of the usual vans we traveled via public transportation, which meant a bright orange bus I expected to rattle to pieces as soon as we left the bus station. Imagine embarking on a 7-hour journey into the mountains in what resembled a trolley car from the 50s. The highlights of this bus ride included roadkill, racial profiling, and near-death experiences. Read the tale HERE.

Luckily enough, our trip was preceded and accompanied by bouts of rain so the rice fields were ready to plant. The Karen communities we visited rely mostly on upland rotational farming, or "swidden" agriculture, though some communities also plant paddy fields (a recent development). Swidden agriculture is common in many subsistence cultures around the world where farming is done in places with poor soil quality or steep, erosion-prone land. In the case of the Karen, the community allocates each family a plot of land large enough to feed them for one year. A typical family needs about four rai, or 1.5 acres. The family will clear the forest and plant for only one year. They will then allow that field to return to the jungle to gather nutrients and build up soil until they come back 7 to 10 years later to farm the same plot again. Key words: short cultivation, long fallow. The upland rice field, once you get over the initial shock of what resembles "slash and burn," is a truly magical place. The two-week planting cycle, where each family helps the others, is an important courtship opportunity. Women follow behind, dropping rice seeds into the holes poked by men wielding long bamboo poles. A woman might follow closely behind a man who has shown interest in her. The rai feeds the families physically, builds community as a group activity and a courtship ritual, and protects the mountains that might otherwise be denuded by permanent agriculture. Look into a seed bag in the rai and you will find that rice, peas, papaya, mustard greens, herbs, beans, and over 20 other kinds of plants are being sown in the same field. An explosion of biodiversity, to be sure. The students were able to follow along and help plant, but when we started sliding around and falling all over the place on the steep slopes our families relegated us to the sala.

This style of farming, though in many ways the best option for subsistence communities in mountainous areas, is viewed by uninformed government officials as forest destruction similar to pioneer farming in the Amazon. In fact, the tiny communities we visited have been in the same location for over 200 years, farming the same rotational plots that their ancestors farmed. These communities do not have titles to their land and many inhabit areas that have been declared National Parks or other types of protected areas. The villages we visited have managed to retain use of their land through creative, sophisticated measures including prudent political action, community-based tourism, and counter-mapping. The struggle of forest-dwelling communities to stay on their land is too involved for this email... read my longer description HERE.

Despite the increasing intrusion of roads, the central Thai state, and the global economy into this part of the world, the villagers in Huai Poo Ling subdistrict are greatly self-sufficient. They make their own clothing, farm their own food, build their houses out of materials found locally, and use solar panels for the little energy needed for their lifestyle; 95% of their ecological footprint is in the few acres they farm and materials collected on foot from the surrounding forest. The community is strong, affectionate, and joyous. Houses are thinly constructed and incorporate a great deal of outdoor space-- neighbors can walk by on the road and chat with the people inside, friends and family are constantly helping with cooking or building a new shed or watching the children.

On love: One day, as I sat in the bamboo kitchen with my family from Huai Hee village, I witnessed something beautiful. My host brother had a toothache and had been crying quietly under a blanket on the floor for a good part of the day. His mother came over and sat cross-legged, putting his head on her lap and stroking his hair. My host father walked up the steps and immediately came over to sit with them, his arms wrapped around them both and his wife's head on his shoulder. The family stayed like this, quiet and cocooned together, for something like 20 minutes. This kind of confident, snug affection was on display throughout the village-- men giving each other massages in community meetings, children constantly cuddled, women sitting close together to rub each others aching hands. To accompany this physical closeness was the strongest sense of social accountability I have ever witnessed. The villagers laughed at us in a community meeting when we asked how they dealt with crime. Apparently they don't have crime, and the minor disputes that do arise are mediated by the village headman. American communities have broken down so much in this respect... I'm searching for ways to bring this sense of community back to America, but I'm not sure it can even translate. What is "community"?

In the last village, and our longest homestay, I was given a nickname. I have never really had a nickname before, but my host mom insisted. We came up with Sapbalot, which means "pineapple" in Thai. Sapbalot then morphed into Naessa, the Karen word for pineapple. In some ways, having a nickname makes me feel like my true identity is somehow hidden. Names are powerful. But this time the name fits... like a pineapple, I may still be green on the outside and quite rough, but I feel increasingly more mellow and mature on the inside. The experience calmed me in many ways, showed me that beauty and resilience and creativity and community are strong in many parts of the world... there are solutions, there are ways of relating to one another and the Earth that are productive and sustainable. In terms of my education, I don't think I have thought or discussed so much ever in my entire education. You Barnard women know-- NYC is a crazy, overwhelming place and we are all so independent and busy. I feel like I'm re-learning how to engage with the act of studying, even how to write.

Power: The headman of Huai Tong Gow village queried the students, "do you have headmen in your country?" We attempted to explain the role of government in the United States with mixed success, emphasizing the fact that public officials are not as intimately connected to their communities as Karen headmen. Then, he asked, "do any of you want to become a headman?" Before I could even think, my hand went up. I was the only one, and many of the students nodded and smiled, some saying that I would make a good headman. Both my own spontaneous reaction to the question and that of the the other students surprised me. Since coming to Thailand I have been thinking more and more seriously about going into politics on the local level in Arkansas. A friend of mine here told me that when she listens to me talk she sees a whole bright future for America spinning out 50 years from now. So look out-- you may have an aspiring public servant in your midst!


Moo-sah-toh Recipe:
The Karen eat this stuff with everything... it can be spooned over plain white rice, or made into a soup with chicken and vegetables, or used as a sauce for something... basically, it is a tasty wonderfood. It can be incredibly spicy, though, so you may want to experiment with the number of chili peppers you can handle. My Karen family in Huai Tong Gow often used over 20!

15 small, dried chili peppers
6 small red shallots
1 medium tomato
2 t. sea salt
handful of cilantro/other herbs to taste
hot water

1. Slice shallots
2. Roast tomato over fire on a skewer, or in the coals
3. Roast dried chili peppers until puffy and black
4. Grind salt with chili peppers (use a mortar and pestle if you want to be super legit)
5. Add hot roasted tomato to salt and chili peppers, then mash
6. Spoon the paste into a bowl, add sliced shallots and chopped cilantro
7. Add a dollop and a half of water

Monday, May 18, 2009


Biodiversity is often a term applied in the study of ecology, not culture, but in the case of the Karen way of life and relationship to natural resources it seems the only really appropriate description. What I noticed above all during the first week in Mae Hong Son is the commitment to (bio)diversity of all kinds. I put "bio" in parentheses because the emphasis on diversity sustains both the people themselves and their environment. The Karen thrive in a location with a variety of forest types, land uses, food sources, forest products, colors of dye, income sources, and languages. All this richness, however, is housed within small, isolated communities of interrelated, ethnically-homogeneous people. I think a focus on (bio)diversity in every form should also be the goal of the society in which I grew up and intend to return.

Before coming to Mae Hong Son and after spending a week reading and discussing the Karen and political ecology, I assumed that the attitude of the Karen toward natural resources would be born of subsistence necessity and utilitarianism. Now, I see that the situation is much more complex. Outside forces, such as the central Thai state, world religions, and the global economy have caused reactions from these mountain communities that have moved them away from traditional relationships with the natural world and toward a redefined culture-ecology connection. For example, increasing state control in conservation areas that are also home to Karen villages have caused the villages to systematically classify and distinguish their lands into different use areas in order to show that they are not pillaging the landscape as is commonly portrayed and also to lay claim to lands that might otherwise be taken away. Community members in Nam Hu described their forest classification system as having four categories: conservation forest (logging prohibited, but some forest collection allowed), use/utility forest (logging for non-commercial use in village, forest collection allowed), rice fields (trees cut for rotational farming), and burial land (a new development since the spread of Christianity). Another example is the Orchid Preservation Zone on the way to Doi Pui summit. The orchids do not serve a specific subsistence purpose for villagers, but are instead preserved for their beauty and the cultural connection the Karen have with this particular plant. This connection is manifested in part by naming daughters after different types of orchids.

Observing and participating in the Karen way of life has certainly made me reflect on my own perspective on the environment and cultural norms, but I have had a hard time reconciling my own opinions about the way my society/community should operate with the reality of the cultural norms that exist. Such things as the overconsumption of material objects as a status symbol are prevalent in my culture, but do not resonate with my personal norms. Certainly, the above cultural norm has no place in Karen society. These communities are not conspicuous consumers, but instead have a much simpler, low consumption lifestyle. In this sense, my own lifestyle and perspective are much more in line with Karen cultural norms than American cultural norms. I strive for modesty, frugality, creativity, and simplicity. Sure, my Karen family in Nam Hu had a TV and two motorcycles, but they also made their own clothing, ate all of the leftovers, and built their house out of sustainable, renewable materials. But (bio)diversity is much of what American cultural norms and my own personal lifestyle lack. We may embrace ethnic/cultural/racial diversity in a way that the Karen do not, but we also get our food from monoculture factory farms, our fashionable colors from the season's latest styles, our income from preferably one source, etc. Committing time to one hobby is more desirable than dabbling in many. We box ourselves in and homogenize ourselves to fit in with all the others. Just as our American farms MUST embrace biodiversity to move into a healthy 21st century, our identical suburban neighborhoods should, as well. Human creativity and an expansive mind are beautiful things that the Karen have managed to retain.

Granted, I have observed many inconsistencies and contradictions in the Karen way of life, as well. For example, their attitude about trash and nonbiodegradable items does not seem to fit with the image of efficient resource users that I have come to know. While plastic bags might be superior to banana leaves for containing liquids and lasting a very long time, they are often not reused and end up in mini-landfills like that on the hill about Baan Hua Nam, or worse- burned. So, while a (bio)diverse lifestyle has originated from the Karen's close ties to the land and in turn sustains their communities and the environment, not all of their modes of operation are in line with this. There are ways these communities could be more sustainable. I truly hope that future generations of Karen continue to see the value in such a lifestyle and are not unduly influenced by the destructive ways that the western world has propagated around the globe.

What is "community"?

I have been struggling with this question an awful lot since the Forests course began. When the students got together to discuss the gender meeting (women met with women and men met with men) in Huai Tong Gow, the guys described a discussion that emerged concerning the issue of divorce. When the village men heard how high the divorce rate was in America, they were very curious to know why and what that meant for American families. They explained that divorce does not exist in their community and concluded that America must not be as "developed" as everyone says if they can't even keep their marriages together. Family integrity and intactness seems to be one of the top values in this community because kinship and friendship networks are the binding fabric of the village life. Perhaps divorce is so unfathomable to the men because a lot less pressure is put on spouses to fulfill each other's emotional and physical needs since there are so many members of the community who all help to fulfill individual and group needs. It's not that Karen men are necessarily any happier with their marriages than Americans (in fact, bad marriages was another big topic of conversation at the guys' gender meeting), but the integrity of the whole group seems to often trump the individual.

I don't want to defend divorce, but it was interesting to me that not one of the men expressed even an inkling of curiosity about whether divorce might be desirable in some way. They just condemned it outright as a destroyer of families and communities. Luke seemed to think that divorce was another manifestation of our wasteful, disposable, self-centered society in which we can just throw something away and get a new one at any time. I think there is some truth in this, but I wonder if it has more to do with our unwillingness to suffer individually for a greater common good. That idea of a greater common good and the closeness of our communities, seems to have eroded terribly in America. It's almost BAD now to be generous and giving because there are so many "takers" who will take advantage. Only in some situations, usually a small community that agrees to abide by a strict set of values (a family, church community, commune, intentional community, etc), can you still see glimmers of individual sacrifice for a common goal. Many religions teach self-sacrifice as something that is true and right, but while this may have served an important social purpose years ago, it may be a disservice now to Americans living in a society where social accountability is lacking and trust has gone down the drain.

In so many ways, Huai Tong Gow could be a model for healthy communities, but does it translate to America? This village apparently has no crime, no divorce, very little out-migration... by many standards it is calm, stable, and whole. Could Americans stand the utter openness and generosity required for a lifestyle like this, or is a lonely, disconnected existence in which family and community can be chosen based on individual preference most desirable?

One of the biggest problems with the American paradigm of "individualism" is that it does not reflect reality. None of us is an island. We can't extricate ourselves from the societal processes that shaped us or the effects our actions have on others. If we could live in utter awareness of those around us, our dependence on them and their dependence on us, maybe divorce would be as unfathomable in our society as it is in theirs.

Political Struggle in the Forest

The environmental movement in Thailand is, like the country's myriad ethnic groups, ever-changing. Government agencies, NGOs, citizens, corporate entities, and international actors constantly vie to shape environmental decision-making. Forest conservation in northern Thailand is an ideal case study to describe the implications of the environmental movement and seek a more socially-neutral forum for conservation.

Increasing state control over the periphery has been characteristic of Southeast Asian forestry (Hirsch 1998). The Thai state latched onto its rich natural resources base as a form of nation-building, a tool to gain legitimacy in a world dominated by a western view of modernity. Forests, and national parks in particular, are seen as "a landmark of modern civilization, a key element of the modern Thai nation-state, rendering forest destruction equivalent to destroying the nation" (Laungaramsri 2002). Actions to protect natural resources, in addition to building a positive international image, have been used by a succession of relatively weak Thai governments to gain popularity with the urban elite who are the repository of the country's wealth and much political power. There is little incentive to consider the needs of peripheral hill tribes, many of whose members are not even Thai citizens. In fact, it could be political suicide to support hill tribe claims and risk inciting the ire of the nation's most politically-savvy, well-connected folks. The goals of the urban elite have been furthered by such actions as the 1989 ban on logging and goals to put 15% of all Thai land under conservation plans. Watershed and wildlife have been main priorities for decades, but the benefits of conservation to the global climate crisis are beginning to top the list, as well.

The wilderness ethic perpetuated by the central government has had dire implications for rural communities, especially the poor and marginalized minority groups living in upland forests. A growing "civil society" in Thailand has reacted against this conception of nature and many grassroots activists have combined social and environmental concerns-- greens who bleed red. Some argue that removing agrarian communities from lands deemed Protected Areas (PAs) is fundamentally wrongheaded because it causes more environmental degradation outside of park boundaries and give displaced communities no incentive to protect the land. Instead, many activists argue that park officials should empower and harness the energy of communities to remain sustainably on and protect the land. Because of this counter-current, community forestry has gained recent legitimacy despite its "decentralized, grassroots, vernacular approach" (Hirsch 1998). The King has played another significant role in supporting the plight of subsistence communities living in proposed PAs.

Despite a popular movement towards rights-based sustainable development and human-inclusive conservation regimes, hill tribes face prejudice because they are often portrayed as forest destroyers. For ethnic Karen, the creation of PAs around their traditional lands has resulted in political and social pressure, forcing them to mobilize in order to protect rights to land use and livelihood. Traditionally, the Karen practiced upland rotational agriculture, also known as "swidden" agriculture or rai mun wian. Rai cultivation had cultural significance as the main form of subsistence and an integral part of courtship rituals, and ecological significance as a richly biodiverse planting system with long fallow periods for the regeneration of soil. Current pressures forced this ethnic minority to set out the "Karen consensus," a narrative of an economy based on self-sufficiency, sustainable land use, and communal land management. Walker, however, argues that this consensus, while going a long way toward establishing legitimacy for resource use of upland communities, ultimately boxes the culture in with certain "primordial attributes" and may prove problematic for Karen communities or individuals "seeking modest (re)engagement with... commercial networks" (Walker 2001). For example, the increasing importance of paddy fields (na) has been downplayed in order to emphasize the traditional rai cultivation, even though paddy fields have proved just an environmentally benign and their acknowledgment in the consensus might entitle communities to needed irrigation water.

However limiting the consensus might be, there is no denying that the image of the Karen has changed in their favor. They are now viewed by many in Thailand and around the world as forest guardians, in contrast to other hill tribes like the Hmong. But image only goes so far. In cases where an unstable government seeks land for political and national economic gain, legal protection is also necessary. To this end, a Community Forestry Bill was proposed in 1990 to codify the rights and responsibilities of communities dwelling in PAs. A people's version of the bill was submitted along with 50,000 petition signatures, but the final version signed into law in 2007 had none of the provisions of the people's version. NGO workers and upland communities viewed the final version as a failure (Walker 2007).

Government is not the only source of authority in Thai society, however. The Karen have developed creative ways of protecting their rights, most notably through Community Based Tourism (CBT) and working with NGOs. The Karen in Huai Poo Long subdistrict aim to develop people-to-people interactions and build awareness worldwide about their way of life through CBT. Communities host groups of students and international tourists throughout the year. Outsiders form relationships with villagers and are transformed into powerful stakeholders. Measures of success might be an ongoing relationship with an organization like ISDSI, or Mackenzie returning multiple times to bring other people or donate money to the temple construction. Working with NGOs has benefited communities through the development of maps and land use zoning, making of documentaries, gaining media attention, etc (Huai Tong Gow Community Meeting). Communities and NGOs often work together to "counter-map" a village's traditional lands and set aside plots for use of forest resources, agriculture, conservation, and other classifications. The skills for this type of data organization are taught to villagers, who them possess tools and knowledge to negotiate with government officials (Forsyth and Walker 2008). Like the "Karen consensus," however, mapping can also box in "claims whose very strength had previously lain in their flexibility, dynamism, and lack of restriction by territorialization" (Hirsch 1998). Villages in Huai Poo Ling not only have maps, but also have 10 years plans which can be supplied to authorities quickly and describe exactly which land will be used by which family for which purpose (Huai Tong Gow COmmunity Meeting).

Huai Poo Ling subdistrict is not perhaps the best example of a struggling upland community. To be sure, they have had their share of hardship and uncertainty, but the villages in the sub-district have been established for several centuries on the same (or nearly the same) sites. The big question of "how does one define a 'community'" is less of an issue because it is clear that the villages are both "an identifiable group of settlers with a common interest" and "a defined territory to be managed by those who happen to live there" (Hirsch 1998). Real conflicts arise in areas where little to no commonalities exist between resource users, or a community has been on a piece of land for a relatively short amount of time. The residents of Huai Poo Long enjoy a solid, established community with power and rapport at the sub-district level. Notably, they even seem to have veto power as the communities have been successful in preventing both a development scheme on Doi Pui summit and a superhighway tunnel through the mountains nearby.

Both the Doi Pui scheme and the the tunnel are examples of the government's penchant for projects in favor of upper classes, with burdens falling on the shoulders of the lower classes. Of course, the government is not all bad. Looking beyond the rampant corruption, the government has taken increasing interest in caring for peripheral communities like the hill tribes by providing education, health care, and many other services. Villagers seem to be happy with the budget allocation for the subdistrict. Whether this new wave of care is due to the perceived security threat posed by peripheral communities or because of the genuine feeling that civil rights should be extended to all within Thai borders, one cannot be sure. It is clear that the central Thai state has a bigger role than ever before in Huai Poo Ling. The latest development deals with the tenure of village headmen. Headmen were originally elected to 4-year terms, but the law was recently changed to state that once a headman is elected, he/she will remain in that position until retirement at the age of 60. Villagers view this law as a way for the government to have more control at the village level by setting the stage for community leaders who serve more as officials carrying out orders from above than politicians responding directly to the needs of the local community (Huai Tong Gow Community Meeting). But just as increasing access to town has had minimal effect on the main lifestyle of the Karen villages, this new law has been got around by at least two resilient communities. The headman in Huai Hee resigned after a 5 year term because he did not make a good headman. The headman at Huai Tong Gow expressed plans to hold a formal reflection and evaluation of his performance after 5 years to be sure that his community is happy with his leadership. If not, he indicated that he would be happy to step down. Systems designed for societies that lack internal trust just don't make sense in societies that operate on such a high level of social accountability. If the resilient villages in Huai Poo Ling can retain their agency despite the designs of the central state, there is certainly hope.

A better policy than top-down development might be what Hirsch calls the "co-management approach." Local control is supported by an NGO or government agency with access to a wider scope of information and tools. Community ownership and agency in development is retained. Huai Tong Gow has been successful in using a co-management approach, of sorts. Community members and the Thai-German Project teamed up several years ago to develop a map system for the village lands that is in active use today.

If these Karen communities are as resilient as they seem to be, perhaps drawing them closer into the national fold will ultimately be positive for maintaining or even legalizing their use of the land. National recognition might mean a seat the table and more legitimacy. Yet, danger lurks in this idea, too, because the intrusion of the state is changing Karen culture in visible ways that may eventually undermine the traditional way of life the Karen have worked so hard to protect.

Cultures should be preserved and respected, but the reality of our changing planet means that compromises will have to be made on international and local scales. Some might say that it is part of the American Dream for every citizen to drive a 4WD, gas-guzzling SUV, but in light of the global climate crisis it may be necessary to curb this particular attribute of our culture. On an increasingly crowded planet with growing problems, the burdens and benefits of life on Earth should be shared equally among all inhabitants.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Bus Ride for the Books

Our journey began with a long ride into the mountains... instead of the usual vans we traveled via public transportation, which meant a bright orange bus I expected to rattle to pieces as soon as we left the bus station. Imagine embarking on a 7-hour journey into the mountains in what resembled a trolley car from the 50s.

The doors and windows were permanently ajar, and the three monks (appropriately, also dressed in bright orange) sitting on a giant tire in the cargo area in front of me were in grave danger of being flung out into the depths of some steep ravine every time we swerved around a hairpin curve at 5,000 feet above sea level. The cargo area, in addition to the monks and the tire, held a mound of mail bound for a post office along the route. Brown-paper packages and huge bags of rice slid around at our feet, also in danger of an off-road plunge.

The bus had seats for 28, but at one point there were 39 passengers aboard, sitting in doorways and standing in the aisle. Three times during the trip, soldiers or police boarded the bus and asked for identification. They skipped over the farang with hardly a glance and beelined instead to harangue ethnic-looking passengers. IDs and papers were scrutinized, but no one was arrested. We were informed that racial profiling of this sort would occur. Especially in provinces along the Burmese border, the military makes a big show of carting off illegal immigrants and drug mules. The problem with this is that many hill tribe people do not have papers, even though their families may have lived within Thai borders for centuries. And if it's really about the drugs, the farang could be carrying them just as well as the Thais.

After the third or fourth major town, most of the passengers disembarked and we had the cargo area to ourselves. Some of the students were lying there, attempting to nap. The ticket guy, who for several hours had been standing dangerously in the stairwell to the open door, took a seat near us and struck up a conversation. Jeremy and I soon discovered that we could watch the road go by under our feet through holes in the sheet metal floor. I also found that the windowsills weren't exactly attached to the bus after attempting to use them as a brace around a particularly sharp curve.

Just as we were settling in comfortably, the driver brought the bus to a screeching halt in the middle of the road. Packages and rice bags careened forward, wedging under seats and sliding down the aisle. We pressed our noses to the back window, wondering aloud whether we had hit an animal. Cars were coming around the curve, swerving at the last minute to maneuver around our motionless bus. We could not have guessed what would happen next. The driver was talking excitedly to the ticket guy as he put the bus in reverse and screeched backward. We saw a snake, guts spilling out on the pavement, slowly grow clearer through the dusty window. The driver bounded out, bagged up the snake, and deposited it near his seat. We queried the ticket guy--"cow geen dai mai?" Yes, dinner!

Friday, May 15, 2009

Back on a Burma Binge

Today about half of the ISDSI students took advantage of an opportunity to spend the day with some Burmese youth activists. We spent the morning sharing information about our studies and travels, and then in the afternoon each of the farang was assigned to two or three Burmese students to discuss issues in their country and learn about their lives. The students ranged in age from 15 to 25. They are in Thailand without papers, living for one year in a compound that they can leave just once a month on a scheduled group outing... all this to be trained as activists and sent back across the border.

It was strange to meet with people my own age who are learning many of the same things I am learning (they just finished a section on dams and river ecology) and have the same dreams of changing the world, but as Pi Carrie said, where "we have a window, they have a wall." These students are going back to a country where protests, petitions, and other forms of political engagement do not work because they live in a military dictatorship, not a democracy. This sad truth became clear as soon as we began talking about the political struggle of the Karen and the tactics they have used to protect their way of life... it was apparent that everything we said was irrelevant to them. I tried to explain the concept of a petition to a couple of students and they seemed incredulous that such a thing as a list of signatures could bring about change.

Our trip to visit with these students was well-timed as we were able to ask them about the recent situation with Aung San Suu Kyi. The students think that the situation is awfully strange and probably a conspiracy to keep her out of power by locking her away in time for the upcoming "elections." A demoralizing blow for these pro-democracy youth, for sure.

Here are a few of the things the students described as problems in Burma, or issues they have faced directly in their lives:
  • Two of the students I talked with spent large chunks of their childhood living with grandparents because their parents were forced into slave labor on railroads and other construction projects. Forced labor is apparently a common practice by the military in Burma.
  • There are military checkpoints between nearly every village in the Shan state where soldiers demand money in order to pass through, so traveling is difficult for those without money.
  • One girl described how she left public health work in Burma because she was required to give AIDS patients lethal injections if they came into the clinic.
  • As i described in another post, the Burma Army routinely burns down villages in the mountains of Shan state in order to cripple the armed insurgency there. Farmers in the mountains are known for harboring and supporting the rebels. Often, bombs are planted in upland rice fields so villagers cannot harvest their crops. Many villagers become internally displaced people, or cross into Thailand to populate the UN-run refugee camps or work illegally.
  • When students leave Burma for their year in Thailand, they often must sever communication with their families completely for that time. Their families do not have internet or phones, and mail is not a possibility.
How are these students still so seemingly happy and well-adjusted? They are full of life and warmth... it is so inspiring.