Lessons in Nature Stewardship from Thailand’s Ethnic Groups

Benjamin Rujopakarn

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Lessons in Nature Stewardship from Thailand’s Ethnic Groups

Ethnic groups are considered some of the best stewards of nature, and there is much we can learn from them about ways to live harmoniously with nature and each other.

Together with local communities, ethnic groups informally hold as much as 65% of the world’s land, and it’s no coincidence that most of these places overlap with natural habitats and biodiversity hotspots.There are estimated to be around five million people belonging to ethnic minority groups in Thailand, each with their own unique cultures and customs. This article explores Thailand’s largest ethnic groups, their way of life, their worldview, and what they can teach us about sustainability and conservation.

Lessons in Nature Stewardship from Thailand’s Ethnic Peoples

  • Ethnic groups in Thailand
    • The Karen
    • The Hmong
    • The Moken
  • Sustainable practices & livelihoods
  • Compatible cultures & beliefs
  • Protecting ethnic rights

Ethnic groups in Thailand

Though their way of life grows more and more dominated by modern cities and industrial expansion, many ethnic groups still keep to their traditional lifestyles in their ancestral homelands, both with and without iThough their way of life grows more and more dominated by modern cities and industrial expansion, many ethnic groups still keep to their traditional lifestyles in their ancestral homelands, both with and without influence from modern societies. They are primarily scattered across 20 provinces in the northern and western parts of the country, including Chiang Mai and Kanchanaburi, mostly in forests but also by coastlines and on the sea.

The Karen

A Karen woman wearing traditional brass neck rings in a hill tribe village near Chiang Rai.

The Karen are the largest ethnic group in Thailand, with an estimated population of around one million. Originally, they lived in eastern Tibet and China, but after being invaded, they migrated to live along the Mekong and Salween River. There too, however, they faced oppression and even slavery under the rule of Burma, Siam, and British colonization.

Eventually, they migrated from Myanmar and are now widely spread out across 16 different provinces in western and northern Thailand, which contain large areas of mountainous and dense forest. While they are best known for the neck rings worn by Karen women, that only represents one of the many tribes which compose their diverse community.

The Hmong

Hmong girls wearing their traditional clothes during the Hmong New Year celebration in KM 52 Village. Source: Yangxiong / Shutterstock.com

The Hmong originally migrated from southern China into what is now Vietnam, Laos, Myanmar, and Thailand, with some having migrated further to the United States. In Thailand, they make their homes in the mountainous North. They are highly distinguishable by their traditional clothing, which often display colorful, sophisticated patterns as art pieces unto themselves.

The Moken

Moken anglers hauling a boat ashore at Ko Lao Village, Ranong Province, Thailand. Soure: superoke / Shutterstock.com

One with the ocean, the Moken people, or “people immersed in water,” have never placed their roots in a single region. Sometimes glossed over as “gypsies of the sea,” they are a nomadic seafaring tribe who once traversed the Andaman Sea, living on wooden kabang boats and diving to fish for food and sometimes trade. However, since the horrific tsunami hit Thailand in 2004, they’ve been forced onto land—primarily residing in the South—and are now limited in their mobility and traditional way of life.

Sustainable practices & livelihoods

Without modern technology, ethnic groups have been able to utilize and manage natural resources with methods that are scientifically proven to be more sustainable and more effective than many “modern” practices.

While each village has their own unique principles and practices, we will explore some useful examples relevant to our changing climate and society, drawing upon the Hmong, Karen, and Moken. These examples are by no means representative of the entire spectrum of ethnic lifestyles and cultures.

Moken village at Koh Surin Marine National Park. Source: Catchiangmai / Shutterstock.com

Architecture – From pillars and walls to the floorboards and stilts, bamboo is used for almost every part of the house and can keep its residents cool during summers and warm during mild winters. Bamboo has been shown to produce 35% more oxygen than trees and absorb up to 12 tons more CO² per hectare each year. Many ethnic minority groups use this strong, versatile, and fast-growing plant to craft various household items like flasks, baskets, and canes.

A Hmong woman sewing colorful traditional clothes. Source: SL-Photography / Shutterstock.com

Clothing – Traditional Hmong clothing is renowned for its needlework, weaving complex patterns into their vibrant batik fabric. This is created by using beeswax to draw the designs onto textiles typically made from hemp, one of the most durable natural fibers and a natural pest deterrent, requiring 50% less water and land than cotton. Then they use natural dyes, such as by extracting colors from the leaves of a true indigo tree and fermenting it in rice wine.

Pigs being reared under the stilt homes of the Karen villagers. Source: Denny George / Shutterstock.com

Animal husbandry – In most ethnic villages, it is common to live among various other animals, from dogs, cats, and chickens to pigs, cattle, and buffalo. Not all the animals are raised for their meat or labor. While buffalo are used to sow fields, they’re also seen as valued companions.

Rotational farming – In rotational farming—different from crop rotation, which involves growing various crops across different seasons on the same land—villagers spend a season farming a single plot and then leave it for several years to recover before returning to farm it again.

This practice is often negatively misunderstood as shifting cultivation, in which farmers degrade the land and constantly abandon it to move and farm on more fertile plots. Rotational farming is essential to the Karen, who treasure their forests highly, as this method allows the soil to regenerate and for trees to regrow, often even denser than before.

This practice is also performed in tandem with intercropping, which forms a mini ecosystem where a variety of vegetables are grown together to benefit one another. These symbiotic relationships not only help increase crop succession and reduce the risk of a disease wiping out entire crops, but also maintain biodiversity and soil nutrients over time.

Karen farmers walking among their paddy rice terraces in Chiang Mai, Thailand. Source: Tavarius / Shutterstock.com

Terrace farming – Living on high mountains, tribes like the Hmong have learned to farm on steep inclines by cutting the slopes into a series of steps to cultivate rice. This enables rainwater or water diverted from streams to follow gravity and provide irrigation without the use of piping systems and pumps, while also reducing erosion and runoff.

A Moken fisherman freediving with a traditional three-pronged spear. Source: Logunov Maxim / Shutterstock.com

Freedive fishing – For thousands of years, the Moken have mastered the technique of freediving, swimming to depths without the use of oxygen tanks and catching seafood. With a single breath, it is common for them to dive more than 20 meters with ease. In fact, it is normal for them to learn to swim before they can even walk.

Unlike today’s intensive fisheries, the Moken traditionally use spears and, more recently, small-scale nets to catch fish. This way, they take only as much as they need for their subsistence, leaving minimal impact on ocean habitats and allowing marine animals to continue spawning.

Compatible cultures & beliefs

Although not necessarily unique to Thailand, ethnic groups have distinctive cultures that offer insights into their profound connection and affinity with nature. When we understand the shape of a culture, we understand its values and how those values translate into individual actions, broader lifestyles, and timeless traditions.

Animism – The Hmong respect the various spiritual entities they believe give them protection—nature spirits, house spirits, human souls, and more—along with the omens and sacred rituals which revolve around them.

Similarly, the Karen have beliefs which set rules of good and bad in their communities, such as that sharing rice harvests with others will bring merit, while cutting an ordained tree can cause illness to the whole village. When a baby is born, fathers will bring their umbilical cords to a special tree, so the tree can become guardian to their child.

The Moken, too, are animistic and listen for cues from ancestor spirits who guide them through the ocean or warn them about dangers on the sea. These value systems govern ethnic peoples to live in harmony with nature and each other.

Storytelling – Ethnic peoples pass down wisdom through narratives of interactions between humans, animals, and spirits, conveying their morals in the form of oral storytelling, poetry, and song.

One Karen fable tells of a wealthy merchant who tried to calm his crying son by having him drink water soaked in money. However, he was only able to console the boy by giving him water soaked in rice.

The story is often taken as a message about the importance of this grain over monetary possessions and encourages listeners to think about what truly matters in life.

Nature readings – In 2004, the Moken tribe were the first to warn others of the coming tsunami—known to them as laboon, sent by ancestral spirits to clear away evil entities—that was about to devastate southern Thailand.

Seeing signs—a strangely calm and windless ocean, deep sea fish appearing on the surface, and hermit crabs moving inland—they foresaw the disaster with their ethnic knowledge and oral tradition.

They managed to escape, evacuate their surrounding community to higher ground, and rescue survivors in the water.

Protecting ethnic rights

A Karen family wearing traditional brass neck rings. Source: Wallenrock / Shutterstock.com

Over recent decades, ethnic groups in Thailand and around the world face growing threats to their traditional way of life from industrial expansion, human rights abuses, and climate change. Disappearing with them are their invaluable ingenuity, wisdom, and culture.

Accumulated over hundreds and thousands of years, this wealth of past and evolving knowledge can provide us with lessons on how to progress toward a better future in which humans and nature can co-exist and thrive alongside one another. Whether it’s in being resourceful and respectful of nature or valuing generosity and compassion as a community, there’s much that urban dwellers can learn from ethnic groups and local communities.

To head toward truly sustainable and equitable development, it’s important to recognize the value and contributions of ethnic groups, protect their rights, and preserve their rich culture, so they can continue to flourish and safeguard natural resources and environments that we all depend upon.

To this end, the Thai government has made several legislative and policy changes to address civil rights problems surrounding ethnic groups and stateless persons in Thailand, including drafting the Protection and Promotion of Ethnic Groups Act to guarantee that ethnic groups enjoy equal rights without discrimination; implementing the Plan to Promote Coexistence under a Multicultural Society in Thailand 2018-2021 to promote coexistence in a multicultural society; and amending the Registration of Residential Inhabitant Act and Civil Registration Act to provide pathways to citizenship for the children of foreign or stateless inhabitants.

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Benjamin Rujopakarn

Ben has worn several hats in broadcast television and radio news programs, culminating in his role as Editor-in-Chief of Thailand NOW and Radio Thailand FM88. Though he has extensive experience in media communications, Ben holds degrees in marine science and molecular biology from UNSW and UT Dallas, respectively.

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