Living with the Forest: Huay Hin Lad Nai’s successful rotational farming

In 2013, Huay Hin Lad Nai, a small traditional Karen village received the Forest Hero Award from the United Nations Forum on Forests (UNFF).

By | Sun 1 Jul 2018

In 2013, Huay Hin Lad Nai a small traditional Karen village of about 20 households nestled at the seam between Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai, received the Forest Hero Award from the United Nations Forum on Forests (UNFF). Preecha Siri who was the community leader at the time accepted the award personally in Istanbul.

Death and Rebirth. Photo by Bancha Muhae at Ban Pa Pae

This Karen community’s ancestors first settled in this area in the early 1900s. Like any other Karen village, their lives had always been deeply rooted in harmony with nature. The important Hin Lad stream which runs through the village, comes from 14 different water sources in the surrounding forest and was the lifeblood of the village. But then between the 1970s and 1980s the government’s mass logging concessions of surrounding forests led to devastating deforestation and the stream atrophied to a mere trickle. By the time the logging policy ended in 1989, all that remained of the lush surrounding forest were barren stumps. Instead of turning their backs to the dying land, like many other villagers faced with the same predicament throughout Northern Thailand, the village of a little bit over a hundred people, led by Preecha, took it as their duty to resurrect the forest back to its previous conditions. By the time they received the Forest Hero Award in 2013, the small population of Huay Hin Lad Nai were managing the reforestation of over 19,000 rai of land.

Karen culture is uniquely embedded in nature. Countless rituals, proverbs, poems and pearls of wisdom that have been passed down for generations revolve around the forest and all the abundance within her. When a baby is born, for example, the umbilical cord is planted along with a sapling, regarded as the tree of the soul, binding the baby to the welfare of that tree for life. At the heart of these beliefs is the deep understanding of the Karen people of how much their survival — their very lives — are reliant on nature.

“When we venture out into the forest, we only need to take salt and chili because along the way we can pick this and that and cook it right away. If we need water, we will drink from the stream,” stated Dr. Prasert Trakansuphakon, a researcher and president of Pgakenyaw Association for Sustainable Development, during a recent Cooking in the Rotational Farming book launch. Prasert, who is from Huay Hin Lad Nai himself, explained that it was rotational farming which was at the heart of the success behind the village’s forestry management.

Rotational farming is not to be confused with shifting cultivation. The only similarity between the two is that they are not permanent cultivation. That’s about it. “The Karen’s rotational farming is a form of cultivation that balances human needs with wildlife and the forest. It is a self-sustaining system that enhances food security, the ecosystem and agrodiversity,” explained Dr. Prasert. While shifting cultivation forces farmers to abandon the land after it has been exploited to the level that crops cannot grow any more, moving on to the proverbial greener pasture, rotational farming is clearly more sustainable. The farming season starts around January and February when the farmers choose the land for cultivation; in itself, a delicate process. Not just any land will do. The village will gather to discuss and debate as to the merits of each piece of land, choosing the appropriate land together. It cannot be too high up the mountain or too low, the land must not be at any water source or on previously unfarmed rainforest and of course there should not be any bad spirits present. Once the farming area is chosen, the village will proceed to clear the land. Then it’s onto the dreaded and phase, slash and burn.

Picking food from the farm. Photo by Chalit Shaphaphak – RealFrame

We Chiang Mai folk who have been traumatised by the smog crisis in recent years might get our hackles up a bit after reading that. But remember that these are the people who have been bound to the forests since their birth. To prepare the land, the villagers will slash down the trees — not uproot them — at about a metre from the ground. “There is a certain kind of cicada that we listen to before slashing down trees to know which trees have the appropriate hydration,” said Nutdanai Trakansuphakon of Pgakenyaw Association for Sustainable Development (PASD), Thailand, who pointed to the preparation rituals for clearing the land at Huay Hin Lad Nai where he too is from. Once the trees have been slashed, a sacred ritual revolving around life and death takes place in preparation for the rebirth after the burning. “It is a procedure that must be performed with extreme regard to Mother Nature and a most significant rite in order to succeed in the coming harvest,” stated Dr. Prasert. Before carrying out the burning, which starts in March, the villagers will build firebreaks covering the whole forest. In Huay Hin Lad Nai’s case, it means an area of nearly twenty thousand rai of forest, even though the farms are only a small fraction of the area. Weather, especially wind, is one of the greatest concerns in choosing the date to set the fire. “We proceed with extreme caution and are very precise in our actions. The fire will be lit at the opposite corners of an area so that the flame will spread into the middle. It only takes about five or ten minutes to burn about five rai of land,” said Nutdanai. A study by Prayong Doklamyai in 2010 revealed that a 10 years rotational farm at Huay Hin Lad Nai has 17,348 tonnes of carbon storage while there is only 480 tonnes of carbon released during the burn.

The burning is vital. Not only will the heat sanitise the land, but the ashes from the young — five to six years of age — trees that are full of nourishment will automatically become organic fertiliser for the upcoming plantation. “While the natural degradation will take about 20 months to turn into compost, the ash can be simmered into the dirt and used by trees instantly when the next rains come. Fire, in the right amount, also produces inorganic nitrogen that accelerates tree growth,” said Dr. Permsak, Makarabhirom of Mahidol University. Another research by Dr. Jurgen Blaser, Professor for International Forestry, revealed that the young trees in rotational farming needed carbon dioxide to grow, more so than the fully grown forest.

“Around one or two weeks after the burn, young leaves will start branching out from the slashed trees,” said Dr. Prasert, who explained that shoots will start growing along with mushrooms that emerge from the ashes. By the time the rainy season has arrived, seeds will start to grow into saplings and from June onwards, several vegetables will be ready to be picked. November is when the farms come into fruition and harvesting occurs and all is repeated again in January on another piece of well-chosen land.

Here is the fascinating part. “Once the land has been cultivated, it will be left to become a habitat for small animals. By the time the land has been left for three or four years, larger animals such as barking deer, boars, and flying animals will start to return,” stated Dr. Prasert explaining that eventually the land will become a food source, not only for the people but also numerous animals, with up to 200 species of plants being found in a small area.

Layers of rotational farming. Photo: Chalit Shaphaphak – RealFrame

The rotation can occur up to every 15 years, with seven years being the absolute minimum time to return to cultivate a piece of land. That amount of time can be challenging, especially for indigenous people who are frequently in territory conflicts with the government. On top of that are the economic concerns that have led many to farm cash crops instead. “We are unquestionably rich in food, good food too, so we can live just fine. But we have to survive the economic system too. We still need to send our kids to school, go to hospital,” said Nutdanai who is the second generation of the forest heroes, and who now works to spread Huay Hin Lad Nai’s model of self-sustainability far and wide. After graduating from law school, Nudanai worked in a law firm in a marketing position. “I worked there three years and felt restless as nothing in the work I was doing was contributing or related to my hometown,” explained Nudanai of his journey home. He decided to initiate a social enterprise called Hostbeehive in 2015 telling Huay Hin Lad Nai’s story to outsiders in an attempt to generate income for the village. “What we do here is unbelievably astonishing. Through honey we are able to tell the story of the relationship between the people, forest and the bees, and how these trees are able to live together with understanding,” explained Nutdanai. “Honey is very special because the honey itself can tell the story of its environment through the colour, scent and taste. For example, if the weather was dry the honey will taste a little bit dry too,” said Nutdanai. “We give 30% from the income to the village fund which is used for community activities, firebreaks or medical services for those in need,” said Nudanai.

While running his social enterprise, Nudanai also works as a community developer at Pgakenyaw Association for Sustainable Development (PASD), which he described as a place that gathers the younger generation and provides knowledge exchange. “Together with Hostbeehive, many young people started to join in the projects and I think it is really significant to have the next generation carry on the knowledge and wisdoms,” he explained. The younger generation he mentioned is not only people from Hauy Hin Lad Nai village, but also from across the Northern Thai region who seek the know-how in developing their own communities. “There are about eight to nine villages — Chiang Mai, Chiang Rai, Mae Hong Son and Tak — that are adopting our case model. Some still have rotational farming and some don’t. Khun Win, for example, is a small village that has been struggling with food security, their go-to meal is the instant noodle and poor quality rice that is donated to the village. So we started a showcase of a seven year rotational farming at the school creating small plots of land that students can work on. The project only started earlier this year but now that the farm is starting to produce results and students pick fruits and vegetables for their families, the rest of the villagers are now paying a real interest,” said Nudanai as he continued “we are also exchanging knowledge with other villages as to various economic value crops such as coffee.”

“I want people to be proud of being Karen,” said Nudanai stating his mission. “We Karen, are an easy people. We only need the forest and food to live. But that is not enough for the modern economy. With Hostbeehive and the PASD, I am hoping to be the solution for the next generations to both preserve our culture and be able to live together with the modern world as a bicultural person,” said Nutdanai.