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.

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