Hundreds of Years Dear Nature: The Soil Is Our Land
“Hello? Hello? Do you hear me there?”
Somporn, do you hear me? Would you like me to call again?
“Yes, yes. I do. The signal is not so good here. What’s the matter?”
Where are you? In the forest?
“There would be no signal in the forest. I came to the city.”
I see. I would like to ask you about the way of life of the ethnic people in the forest, could you tell me about that?
“Our community lives in Sangkhlaburi, Kanchanaburi. It is west of Naresuan-Huai Kha Khaeng Wildlife Sanctuary, along the Myanmar border. There are six Karen villages, seven communities. Mine is the nearest so we have some signal, still it’s not good enough. I had to come to the city to make a phone call with you.”
Is it a difficult way of life living in a wildlife sanctuary?
“Now it is. To live our way of life is getting harder and harder, especially with this new law amendment. According to our way, our rotational farming takes up to twenty years until we turn to use the same land again. Think about how much the forest will be revived during that length of time. But the new law gives us only two years, with a piece of 20-rai land allocated by the authority per family, according to residence registration. This will ruin our way of life, this will ruin Karen’s land that we use to make a living. The length of a rotation farming should be at least seven years. Not to mention other wildlife sanctuary regulations imposed on us, which has greatly impacted us.
Rotational Farming: Local agriculture belongs to many cultures, especially the ethnic people in the highland. It is a short production which leaves the forest and the soil to recover for a long time until they get back to producing again. It is a sustainable agriculture that preserves biodiversity and fertility of the soil. Some misunderstand that it is shifting cultivation which just slashes and burns then relocates to another area after the land loses fertility, which it is not.
The new law: National Reserved Forest Act, amended B.E. 2564 states that one can do the rotational farming not longer than two years in the designated area. This affects the local way of life since rotational farming takes up to 7-20 years. With the law, the trees cannot reach their full growth. The right to the land also belongs to the person who signs the deed, after that it will belong to their heirs up until the time frame left in the decree.
Are they forcing the community to leave somehow?
“We were exiled once in 1993 back when they came up with so many projects to kick us out. Just three succeeded. We insist that our way of life has been protecting the forest. This became a world heritage because we have always protected it. From the elder’s words, we’ve been here at least 300 years, and from tangible evidence, we’ve been here for a thousand years. We alway move with….”
(Toot …. toot… toot…the call got cut off. I called again and again. I took a while for him to pick up)
“All right. Okay. We always move. When there was a war with Burma, we moved to another mountain, when there was a pandemic, we moved to another corner. This is our way. It is recently that the country was mapped out that we’ve had it hard. The cartographers never even glanced at us. Never. And the new laws keep destroying our lives.
Why do you think the government has to do all this?
“They think that we destroy the forest and they follow through with the national strategy, which sees things from that of a map. The map can only be traced back to 1997. And they don’t stop to consider that we’ve done a lot to this land. They only see us as a threat to the forest. If we’re out, they’ll get more forest back, that’s what they think.
How has the community been adjusting?
“We rarely get any effects from the pandemic. Only some youth who went to study outside. Here we do farming to feed our own stomachs. But the online classes here don’t work at all. Some had to stop studying or went to live with their relatives whose village is closer. But the signal still isn’t stable.”
Do you think we need to create understanding with outsiders?
“I think creating understanding inside the community is more important. We built this school for children to understand the importance of their way of life. The authority doesn’t get this so we have to do this. If a child has to go study far away from home, it might trouble them. They might see another way of life, people who are better in another way and feel bad about themselves. How can they be proud of their way of life then?”
So you built this school. How did it start?
“A foundation worked together with our Office of the SAO. Back in the old days, the children had to go study far away from home since we didn’t have a school around here. So the private sector came to help. We set up our own learning center and now we teach up to grade 12, at first we could only teach up to grade 9. Now the students don’t have to go so far away, still, students from other villages travel up to 80 km to study here. But this is the best we can do. The authorities just don’t care.”
What do the students get to learn?
“In compliance with the compulsory education subjects, students get to learn Thai, math, and English. Besides that, they can learn anything, especially something they are interested in. Say a student wants to study about a variety of rice in rotational farming, we then design the curriculum according to the student’s interests and the compulsory subjects, rice in math, rice in health education, for instance. It is really difficult to design the curriculum this way, but we want the students to know that our community has up to 30-40 varieties of rice. This is our legacy. We have rice to eat without having to buy for hundreds of years.”
And things are going well?
“Now I reduce my own salary to pay for a new graduate to help teach here.”
(We didn’t know what to say, neither did Somporn, there was silence for a short while.)
“My main responsibility now is to protect and seek fundings. It is very important. Not only has it been harder, but it is exhausting. Our regular funders are all gone. Now there is only one left, and if they leave us then it’s the end for us. Now we only have the money to pay for teachers and we have 150 baht per meal for 30 students and seven teachers. More students can access education, but if their parents are comfortable, they won’t let their kids eat this scanty meal, do they?”
Will it help if the community has other means of making a living, like selling their agricultural products?
“We’ve always done that. But governmental structure is hardening things. They call for me to attend meetings every month, so I can’t teach full-time. I have to write reports, via this and that program. Because of this, the learning center lost a staff member. I once said in a meeting, if you want us to do this and that, just let us hire another staff to help. We’re not against development but we want to have been a part in designing the structure of development. The authorities never come to us with this goal, they only care about the land, but they don’t see that what we’ve been doing helps preserve varieties of plants. They don’t implement the laws for people to breathe, it’s like they give us some tubes, but not the oxygen tanks.”
After you have built the learning center, how has it been?
“Now we have 24 students in the learning center. Three are studying in universities outside. Three are working in companies. And another came back to work here after finishing high school. Our students learn to read and write without having to go study in the city.”
If you can say something to the authorities, what would you like to say?
“You cannot impose the same law everywhere. You can have a different law for different places like you have the special laws for Chonburi. And in every committee there must be the locals as part of decision-making. The law enforcement has completely impacted us and this is excessive use of power. They need to let us participate in the decision-making. ”
I would like to say please keep going and don’t give up.
“I do. I never give up from the start. Now more than 80% of Karens have national ID. Things are better because we keep going.”
He told me at the end of our call that if I need something from him, I should tell him in advance because he will have to come to the city to talk to us like this. (And I contacted him again for his photos to be featured in this article, thank you P’Somporn.)
Somporn’s story is a story of one who fights peacefully for change, and does make change. In the middle of the forest, the community fights to have a learning center to preserve their varieties of plants and their culture so as not to be lost with the older generations. Somporn hopes that the children in his community will not be ‘forgotten’ that they are a force which drives this country forward. They are the ones who preserve and heal nature.
How much better would it be if they had more chances? The chance to make a living, to learn, and to just live peacefully, at home.
Notes: The second paragraph of the decree states that the objective must be to assist those without the land to make a living and they must be able to live and make a living in the national park openly under the time frame specified in a Cabinet Resolution on 30 June B.E. 2551 on resolving problems in the forest or according to NCPO Announcement No. 66/ B.E.2557 on additionals for agencies that prevent deforestation and policies, dated 17 June B.E. 2557. The order states that there must be a map that shows the area of the land by geoinformatics system or the like. The time frame must not exceed twenty years and its content should be about criteria and qualities of people living or making a living in the area on how one should preserve, recover, and care for the nature, ecosystem and biodiversity in the area. Criteria, implementation, conditions, termination, measures and evaluation are included.