...with Sida’s Director General Charlotte Gornitzka puts the spotlight on women’s roles in traditional knowledge and resource management… and a model farm where old and new technologies provide a paradigm for green development
Ban Thung Yao village, North Thailand, 3 June 2012: The Chinese proverb “Women hold up half the sky” came to mind while listening to Phakee Wannasak, the first leader of the Women’s Group established in 1977 in this village. Renowned for its sustainable and equitable achievements, the village showcases traditional practices that balance ecological and economic systems. Phakee’s ancestors arrived here almost a century ago to escape drought and soon set up a community forestry system that has evolved over the years to become an inspiration for others. The effective zoning system – the division of the village into a residential area, agricultural tract, and community forest – is managed today by 12 village divisions, a third of them headed by women. Women also make up almost half of the Community Forest Committee, speaking volumes for their role in the community.
A walk in the forest begins with blessings from the sacred shrine in the background
Listening to their story – it was one of the country’s earliest ‘community forests’ when it was established in 1915 – is to remember how Thailand’s forests were widely felled to provide wood for construction and fuel for development, until the environmental impacts began to challenge the day-to-day lives of forest dependent people. The community is gathered today to share their history and experiences with Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (Sida) Director General Charlotte Gornitzka, visiting from Stockholm, along with Head of Regional Development Cooperation in Asia AnnaMaria Oltorp and National Programme Officer Orawan Raweekoon. Sida has been supporting RECOFTC’s work in community forestry for over a decade, during which time the Thailand Country Program has helped facilitate an active national community forest network.
An irrigation and reforestation plan
The village headman, Subanan Wannasak, recalls the concerted effort made by the community to implement an irrigation plan that entailed three years of manual digging of a canal to link the residential and agricultural areas to the river, giving a boost to food security and decreasing dependence on forest resources. The water also made possible the replanting of the community forest, which looks as lush to the naked eye as the pristine one on the neighboring hill.
|Sida’s Director General Charlotte Gornitzka
addressing the community
Ban Thung Yao began collaborating with RECOFTC in 2006 to develop the organization’s Community Forest database, and has benefitted from several training programs in forest carbon accounting and forest management planning since then. At least 40 of its 540 inhabitants are now RECOFTC alumni – although there may be more, as older villagers remember an earlier training in 1997 on environmental awareness undertaken together with the University of Michigan. The village has since been represented on several occasions at district and national events by both Phakee and the current head of the Women’s Group, Rawiwan Kanchaisak, in recognition of Ban Thung Yao’s dedication to sustainable self-management as a community. With food gathering alone valued at US$ 33,000 annually, the women’s contribution demonstrates a confidence and enterprise that reveals itself in everything from highly stylized and beautiful floral offerings to delicious food and active management of their natural resources.
“What you have achieved here is truly inspiring,” said Ms. Gornitzka in response to the presentations made by the community as she queried the youth on their group activities. The youth group learned from their elders about local flora and fauna and the forest’s important place in their culture and traditions, but they also have access to modern sources of knowledge – mobile network coverage is one of the many advantages of their close proximity to Chang Mai city. Indeed, there were smiles of acknowledgement as Ms. Gornitzka told the group she was sending their photos back home to friends and family in Sweden even as we talked.
Europe’s last nomads
The villagers gathered in the community center that day were also curious about forest rights issues in Sweden, and an interesting discussion developed around the livelihoods of Europe’s last tribal group – the Laps, whose nomadic reindeer herding existence and demands for rights over ancestral areas were issues this minority Yong community could empathize with. With both visitors and hosts learning about common challenges in very different settings, a sense of shared purpose was quickly established. Ms. Oltorp later asked the group other questions on forest use regulations. The residents emphasized the family-driven use of NTFPs, rather than an income-focused use for community forest products, a restriction that prevents exploitation of resources and provides food security to community outsiders.
A walk through the community forest offers a chance to survey edible and poisonous mushrooms, religious shrines built on the site of a sacred, natural spring, and an array of medicinal herbs for everything from alcohol hangovers to childbirth. And then, a silent moment as we stand on a modest concrete dam – the first version, built of bamboo and rocks by villagers, has been replaced by this structure provided by the government – and look out on a 360 degree panorama of reforested hills, their lush vegetation traveling down the slopes to mix with the giant leaves and flora of the river bed on which we stand. A swarm of butterflies add a swath of color as the villagers tell us the names of the birds we hear and the plants we see.
Old and new knowledge
Capturing this knowledge in a form that can be passed on to future generations is vital to their way of life. With it comes the appreciation that ‘traditional knowledge’ is also an evolving discipline and that each generation adds new meaning to the learning of the past. With such a rich stream of knowledge, the villagers are more discerning about adopting new development choices.
“We can only suggest new approaches and teach new skills in our training programs,” says Dr. Tint Lwin Thaung, RECOFTC’s Executive Director, “but the choice of incorporating this knowledge depends on the community. Being able to demonstrate how researched practices can complement traditional ones is something we are promoting in other projects too,” as seen with Pred Nai’s community-based mangrove restoration project.
The team from Sida and RECOFTC wrap up the visit by stopping at what Ban Thung Yao calls a “model family farm,” where chickens are free-range, the myriad vegetables and fruits are grown organically for consumption and profit, and cow manure is fermented to make biogas. A solar panel powers the TV and some small farm equipment. With US$200 a day in his pocket from selling his produce after meeting all his family needs, Pajon Pingkasun is something of a poster boy for the new ‘green economy’ paradigm of sustainable development. In this place, it is easy to feel this is not just another label to justify the hype, but little real hope, of upcoming international events like Rio+20.
Reported by Prabha Chandran, pictures by Estelle Srivijitaker