A few weeks ago, I had the privilege of spending a couple of days with an Indigenous hillside tribe here in Thailand called Hin Lad Nai, and I wanted to share some of that story with you today. It’s the story of a small community who, when faced with a multitude of challenges to their land and food sovereignty, held steadfast to their culture and their traditional land management practices. Through years of resistance and advocacy, they have managed to not only stay on their land, but have significantly influenced both domestic and foreign policy on forest management biodiversity.
Hin Lad Nai is an Indigenous community of Pgakenyaw people living in Northern Thailand. They’re made up of about twenty households living in a forest village which was first constructed in the 1960s (although the Hin Lad Nai people have lived throughout the region for much longer). Their way of life is deeply connected with the forest, as they sustain themselves almost entirely from the plants they cultivate within it.
In the 1970s and 80s, the Thai government gave companies permission to carry out mass logging throughout regions in Northern Thailand, including where the villagers lived. They destroyed sacred areas of the forest, water systems, and the community’s cemetery. Species loss and flooding soon followed. By 1989, little remained of the lush forests that once characterized the land. Further, the area where Hin Lad Nai lived was designated as a National Reserve Forest in 1982, prohibiting human settlement in the forest. In 1992, villagers were told to vacate.
They didn’t. This move was met with fierce and coordinated resistance – Hin Lad Nai formed an alliance with ten other groups facing the same issue, forming the Northern Farmer’s Network to advocate for their rights to live on the land.
They fought back using many means: protests throughout the country, appeals to organizations like UNESCO, and joining the National Assembly for the Poor, all of which strengthened their position to advocate for land rights with the government.
But the most powerful tool they employed was continually demonstrating the evidence of the impacts of their forest management practices. Just thirty years after the forest was completely decimated by logging, eighty percent of the affected area has been fully regenerated by the community, who now live almost completely off the bounty of the forest.
There are over two hundred edible varieties amongst the trees, and rotational farming plots provide rice and other staple crops. The community also cultivates tea and honey, which they sell to make shared income. They now manage over 3,000 hectares of forest surrounding the village, which is thriving with a multitude of plant and animal species.
In 2003, the village was officially recognized by the Thai government. In 2010, Hin Lad Nai achieved the status of a Special Cultural Zone, which protects their practice of shifting cultivation under UNESCO’s cultural heritage list.
Ongoing Challenges: Destigmatizing Shifting Cultivation
But even with these official designations, their challenges are far from over. The type of rotational farming Hin Lad Nai practices is still deeply stigmatized both in Thailand and internationally. In many circles, this technique is pejoratively called “slash-and-burn” agriculture, carrying with it the stigma of unsustainability, backwardness, and illegality.
But this perception is borne of ignorance of how the practice exists in context. Hin Lad Nai’s version of this practice is one that has existed for thousands of years. They start a small set of new fields each year, carefully burning the area to clear it, remove pests and weeds, and naturally fertilize the area, removing the need for any kind of additional fertilization. After a short growing season of rice and vegetables, the area is left alone for a minimum of seven years to regenerate. In this region, the practice has been going on for more than four hundred years, leaving a thriving ecosystem in its wake.
Selecting and clearing the plots is no simple operation. These processes are deeply embedded in Hin Lad Nai’s culture, cosmology, and knowledge systems. Before the burns, villagers build fire breaks, carefully consider weather patterns, and construct a system of fire-watching to ensure that everything goes according to plan. Their system considers the humans, animals, plants, and spirits that inhabit the land in the past, present, and future. As such, their approach focuses on ensuring that natural resources remain abundant for future generations.
Hin Lad Nai has been open to merging different systems of knowledge to show the world the potential of properly managed shifting cultivation. Collaborating with researcher Prayong Doklamyai in 2010, they produced a study carried out over multiple years, which found that shifting cultivation absorbs significantly more carbon dioxide than it emits through controlled burns.
Roughly 480 tons of carbon are emitted in a burn, while 17,348 are sequestered in the fallow period that follows. Moreover, more than 85 percent of the land they steward contains forest cover; only one percent is dedicated to shifting cultivation, an amount that secures the entire community’s food needs for the whole year. Only about ten percent of the land around the village is burned each year, and then it is allowed to rest for the next seven to fourteen years, absorbing huge amounts of carbon in the soil and trees that regrow there.
The Hin Lad Nai community is continuing to fight, both locally and internationally, to shift the perception of shifting cultivation. Many people still see shifting cultivation as unilaterally destructive, backwards, and something that should remain illegal. The evidence arising from the community shows how differently the story unfolds when the practice is carried out by those with a deep, reciprocal relationship with the land – when it’s embedded in context. There’s clearly a difference between the type of agriculture Hin Lad Nai practices and the kind of slashing-and-burning that corporations or farmers carry out to permanently transform the land into a plantation or pasture. But too often, especially at policymaking levels, this distinction is not made.
It also shows the absurdity of the view that many powerful development actors hold, that forest should either be “untouched” wilderness or used for industry, leaving no room for humans to engage in reciprocal relationships with the land (which is, ironically, how these “untouched” ecosystems were formed in the first place).
Rotational farming has been practiced for thousands of years, and plays an important role in conserving biodiversity when it’s accompanied by tenure rights and people who have deep knowledge of – and relationship with – the land.
We don’t need novel, capitalist solutions. The solutions are already here. The question is how we create the conditions for these resistance movements to take root and thrive around the globe.
It is my hope that learning about these stories will help to reframe the way we are approaching solutions-making in agriculture (and climate change more broadly). We are so focused on technology, agreements, pledges and promises to save us, to somehow allow us to continue living the way that we have been, resisting deep transformation. Examples like these show that returning land to the stewardship of Indigenous peoples, genuinely supporting their contributions, and learning from their knowledge and cosmologies is not only the most effective path forward – it may be our only path.
This post was written by Thea Walmsley for Offshoot, the newsletter of A Growing Culture.
Photo by Thea Walmsley, “Rice Harvest at Hin Lad Nai.”