CHIANG RAI – Ban Huay Hin Lahd Nai in Chiang Rai province is one of about 8,800 forest community villages in the country recognised by Royal Forestry of Thailand and permitted to stay in state forest land. The century-old village is one of the strongest examples of a forest community. It helps protect 10,000 rai of forest.
Preecha Siri, a Karen villager just received a 2013 United Nations Forest Heroes Award, he might live in a rural village, but that hasn’t stopped him from making his mark in forest preservation and the UN has taken notice.
The award recognises his three decades of forest conservation efforts in Ban Huay Hin Lahd Nai, a small mountainous village Wiang Pa Pao district in Chiang Rai province.
“I think the achievement of our community to save the forest comes from our Pakakayor’s way of life,” said 60-year-old Preecha.
Pakakayor is one of the Karen ethnic tribes, known for its steadfast practice of traditional culture and a self-sufficient lifestyle.
“Our tribe has been known of being very, very slow to adapt to the modern world and really, really afraid of change. You may say that we love to live in the past,” he added. “We repetitively say no to the authorities that try to bring electricity to us. We turn down many offers from companies to give us chemical fertilisers and corn seeds that [would] require us to bulldoze forests to plant large-scale corn fields. Recently we turned down a lucrative contract farming offer to grow Wulong tea to supply tea leaves to beverage factories.”
Preecha’s forest conservation began three decades ago after he witnessed environmental and cultural changes brought to hilltribe villagers in the province by the newly built Prao-Wiang Pa Pao highway.
“Villagers started cutting down trees to sell them and clear the forest for planting cabbages and corn. Once trees and land were up for sale, I knew there would not be enough resources for this commercial-driven purpose,” he said.
It was in the late 1970s when Preecha started talking with other community members about the future of their village, which had been there for over a century.
The community’s members decided to impose forest consumption and management rules. Villagers, for example, were banned from cutting wood for commercial purposes, so a committee was set up to oversee and approve forest and natural resource consumption. The village also earmarked protected zones where forest cutting and animal hunting are completely prohibited.
Ritual and superstitious acts are also practised to save forests. For example, villagers continue the Pakakayor ritual of placing newborn babies’ umbilical cords under trees, a practice that is believed to sanctify and prevent them from being cut down.
Thirty years of conservation has transformed Preecha’s small village into one of the most outstanding showcases of community forest projects in Thailand. The village of only 22 households now helps preserve over 10,000 rai of forest.
Ta Ter Mao Ta Ter Kair is a Karen shrine built to worship the god of plantation.
Ban Huay Hin Lahd Nai is one among 8,800 villages that dwell on 3.5 million rai of forest, or 3% of the land in Thailand. These villages are permitted by authorities to stay on the condition that they help protect forests and the environment.
In Thailand, most forest areas are state property and off-limits for individual living. These communities are allowed to stay, however, because it has been legally verified that they had been settled before forest protection laws were promulgated.
But turning their backs on modernity and capitalism does not mean the villagers live in poverty.
Studies on forest management show villagers who are permitted to use and preserve forests can reduce expenditure by half or more because forest ecology provides them with food and resources that can be sold, such as rattan, bamboo shoots and Assam tea leaves. In short, the concept of allowing villagers to live in forest land can help protect forests and at the same time reduce poverty.
Ban Huay Hin Lahd Nai is a good example of this. Villagers make a living selling organic indigenous rice, rare plants and local tea in booming organic and healthy food markets.
Blessed with scenic views, the village also receives tourists who visit to study forest conservation and traditional culture.
“But we need to say no to tourists who wear body-revealing clothes or tourists who just come for vacation or trekking,” said Preecha.
The UN Forest Hero does not attempt to protect only his village. Preecha has also engaged in environmental conservation efforts at the national level. Recently, he joined a grassroots movement to propose draft bills related to land rights and progressive land taxes that, if become law, could solve land problems among villagers and break land monopolies controlled by elite groups.
Preecha does not live in the past. His village, too, is not as primitive as his descriptions might suggest.
“We have electricity produced by solar cells, and three television sets for the whole village,” said Preecha, who also proudly points out that his village has “television watching rules” to ensure quality content consumption.
The community is also connected with the world and, of course, to the internet.
“We use mobile phones. And there are iPad tablets in our village. Our youngsters who go to schools in the city brought smartphones and tablets to the community. But we believe that we can use these gadgets, instead of being used by them,” he said.
Villagers use religious rituals such as ‘ordination’ to deter villagers from cutting down trees.