Old Ways of the Future

By Andrew D. Kaspar 22 November 2014

YANGON — As climate change becomes a growing global concern, the quest for new ways to use land resources more sustainably is gaining in urgency. What many researchers are discovering, however, is that some of the best answers can be found in practices that have existed for centuries.

This was the conclusion of a June report from the Indigenous Knowledge and Peoples Network (IKAP), based in Chiang Mai, Thailand. Based on a study of the farming and forestry techniques practiced among some ethnic Kayin in northern Thailand, the report documents a way of life that is helping to mitigate climate change, reduce soil erosion and protect biodiversity.

For many in Thailand and other parts of Asia, these findings fly in the face of conventional wisdom, which has long characterized “hill tribes” as poor stewards of increasingly scarce resources. In particular, the slash-and-burn method of clearing land for cultivation practiced in many remote regions has been blamed for releasing vast quantities of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere and producing a sometimes deadly haze that afflicts urban centers and less-populated areas alike.

What the IKAP report found, however, is that traditional practices, rooted in the Buddhist and animist beliefs of Kayin residents of the village of Ban Mae Lan Kham in northern Thailand’s Chiang Mai Province, are often ideally suited to ensuring the long-term preservation of forests, while also providing sustainable livelihoods.

Among the customs that the report highlights are rotational farming, the protection of forests situated between mountains to “aid the journeys of spiritual beings,” and the sparing from the ax of trees wrapped with the umbilical cords of newborns (the latter practice is said to protect the offspring for whom the umbilical cords once served as lifelines). Areas that house ancient ruins are also left undisturbed, as are burial grounds and other spaces considered sacred.

For the 658 Pgaz K’Nyau, or Kayin, inhabitants of Ban Mae Lan Kham studied in the report, these Taj Duf, or constraining rules, serve to “guide the people’s every life practice in utilizing or taking care of the ecological system in suitable and balanced ways.”

The report, based on research conducted from October 2012 to October 2013 in a village tract that covers an area of about 3,100 hectares, finds that these traditions “have proven to be sustainable and in line with climate change adaptation and mitigation strategies even though communities are not aware or conscious of ‘climate change’ causes and effects.”

A centerpiece of these sustainable land management practices is an eight-year crop-rotation cycle that avoids the soil erosion, nutrient depletion and ecosystem damage that result from more intensive use of the land.

Although slash-and-burn is still a part of this cycle, the study found that the Kayin system maintains the balance between carbon storage and carbon emissions, and also has an added advantage: By giving trees a chance to grow large enough that the timber can be harvested for construction purposes, villagers are able to profit from their conservation.

Indigenous people’s traditional forest knowledge is increasingly viewed as one front in the battle to reduce carbon emissions on a warming planet. A 2007 report from the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change found that indigenous knowledge is “an invaluable basis for developing adaptation and natural resource management strategies in response to environmental and other forms of change.”

Could Myanmar also benefit from the wisdom of its indigenous approaches to land use? That depends.

According to Saw Paul Sein Twa, director of the Thailand-based Karen Environmental and Social Action Network (KESAN), many of the values held by the Kayin studied in the IKAP report are shared by their ethnic brethren on the Myanmar side of the border.

“The beliefs are the same because culturally we are attached,” he said, adding that recognition of customary land tenure rights was essential to the survival of traditional Kayin agroforestry practices.

“Without that, surely there will be big problems in the near future. I don’t know how well [Myanmar’s] reforms will go, but we can see that more and more development projects and government expansion of its administrative areas is really competing for land with local communities.”

This article first appeared in the November 2014 print edition of The Irrawaddy magazine.