Dispute over rotational agriculture involving burning as park threatens community
KAREN VILLAGERS in Tak are fighting to maintain their traditional rotational farming practices as Mae Ngao National Park officials plan to expand into their home territory and apply stricter laws that could prevent them from earning their livelihoods in the forest.
In the mountainous area near the border with Myanmar in Tak’s Tha Song Yang district, one of the last communities practising Karen traditional rotational farming calls Mae Por Kli village home. The area under cultivation occupies an entire slope of a mountain, which is readily identifiable as the area has just been cleared of vegetation, leaving only burnt remains, to prepare for a new crop this month.
To the eyes of outsiders, this kind of farming may look very harmful to the forest and far from sustainable. However, local farmer Korn Suesudsaeng said rotational farming was actually the most sustainable kind of farming despite the appearance of the terrain.
“The area of cleared and burnt forest is a new field for farming this year. We normally cut down trees and clear grass in April, so we can start growing upland rice and vegetables when the first rain comes in May,” Korn said.
“We do not get rid of the tree stumps, because when we harvest our crop at the end of the year, this plot will be abandoned, so nature will take the land back and the area will be a forest again. We normally let the land rest for five to seven years and then we will use this plot again for farming.”
He said farmers traditionally had shifted the land under cultivation at least seven times before returning to a plot, but now the people in Mae Porkli village had reduced the rotational period to only five to six years due to a land shortage.
After the harvest, the area will gradually become a forest again as vegetation flourishes in the cleared land.
Suwichan Pattanapriwan, a lecturer on Karen ethnic issues at Bodhivijjalaya College, said that compared to the other kinds of farming, rotational farming was sustainable because there was no need to use fertiliser or pesticides. The soil was already fertilised from the forest, Suwichan said, adding that farmers also used local varieties of plants that were resistant to pests and weeds.
“Karen people have a strict pattern for land use and land distribution in their community. Apart from their small living quarters, around 30 to 40 per cent of the land is used for rotational farming, while the other 60 per cent is spared as a community forest,” Suwichan said.
“People grow rice and vegetables at their farms, while they collect other products such as mushrooms and bamboo shoots, which can be sold. They can live harmoniously with nature by this traditional farming.”
However, this way of life has been challenged by a plan to extend the area of Mae Ngao National Park to cover the entire village, which would result in strict land-use laws covering the national park, which could affect the traditional rotational farming.
Suwichan said that from the examples of land management in other national parks, it could be seen that local Karen people had been forced to use land continuously, while rotation was forbidden, which ended up in a shift towards single-crop cultivation.
“When people are forbidden to do rotational farming, they will shift to maize plantations, which require a lot of fertiliser and pesticides. This will not only drag people into a spiral of debt, but the environment will also be damaged by the extensive use of chemicals,” he said.
He said authorities normally do not understand the traditions of Karen people and have different views of land ownership.
“The Karen people do not believe that the land belongs to individuals, but to the gods of nature, so before they use the land, they will perform a ceremony to ask for permission from the gods to use the land and then after harvesting the crop, they will return the land to nature,” he said. “While authorities and people in the city see the land as an asset owned by individuals or the state, that conflicts with the Karen people’s way of thought.”
However, Nonn Panitvong, an expert on forest ecosystems, said rotational farming had many benefits compared to maize plantations, but in terms of land-use efficiency, the traditional method was not a good choice.
Nonn said rotational farming still required burning to clear the ground, which caused air pollution and damaged the soil. Most rotational farms are on the slopes of mountains, where the top soil is washed away by the rain.
“People can live with the forest, but in order to let both people and the forest gain benefits together, we must find new farming techniques to increase the land-use efficiency, such as paddy-field terraces,” Nonn said.