In the north of Thailand, the Hin Lad Nai, a community of the Karen people, are receiving international recognition for their conservation of the land. Despite their accomplishments, the Thai government’s conservation strategy has historically neglected Indigenous knowledge and criminalized many Indigenous practices. The recent Global Biodiversity Framework (GBF) may provide a new opportunity to support these traditional approaches to agriculture that benefit communities and the Earth while securing communities’ rights.
After a logging company destroyed much of their jungle’s ecosystem in the 1980s, Hin Lad Nai community members banded together immediately after the forest was ravaged to begin restoring their home. The base of the restoration work is in their rotational farming system, also called the fallow system or swidden agriculture.
Hin Lad Nai habitants communally clear a section of the forest by cutting down trees (but leaving large stumps to encourage regeneration) and applying controlled burning. A farmer then cultivates that plot of land before leaving it fallow for seven-to-ten-year cycles. Transition periods between active to fallow land are also accompanied by spiritual rituals.
The type of rotational farming that Hin Lad Nai engages in, which includes what is sometimes known as slashing and burning, did not originally fit with the Thai government’s conservation strategy.
“The discourse on rotational farming is that it is the cause of deforestation. But Hin Lad Nai has proved through scientific research that rotational farming is not causing climate change, but the opposite,” says Karen researcher Dr. Prasert Trakansuphakon to Food Tank. Trakansuphakon has advocated for Hin Lad Nai and Indigenous rights for decades, speaking at the United Nations (UN) and other international forums.
Hin Lad Nai partnered with Thai researcher Prayong Doklamyai and the organization Oxfam International to study the community’s carbon footprint. They report that while rotational farming releases about 480 tons of carbon per year through controlled burning, the regenerative fallow system stores 17,000 tons in the same time period.
And through another partnership with SwedBio, a program at the Stockholm Resilience Center, Hin Lad Nai co-authored a report which explains the spiritual significance of the rotational farming system, while also providing statistical evidence of its value for biodiversity. Their co-created research found that on some farms, the rotational fallow system led to greater agrobiodiversity, greater production, more reliable production, and richer soil.
Pernilla Malmer, Senior Advisor at SwedBio, tells Food Tank about the “multiple-evidence base approach”, which shows that “traditional knowledge of local communities is equally valid to science and brings critical value for complying with international environmental agreements.”
In three decades, Hin Lad Nai has restored 80 percent of their previously destroyed forest and revitalized populations of many animal species, some endangered. According to the Swedbio report, there are some 207 food crops cultivated in the rotational farming system used by Hin Lad Nai. “They earn income from forest products and beekeeping. That’s why they don’t have to do cash cropping and why they prohibit chemicals in the area,” Trakansuphakon tells Food Tank.
Hin Lad Nai uses their agricultural and spiritual system to feed themselves, keep their forest healthy and biodiverse, and earn a sustainable income. Convincing the Thai government of these benefits took time, but partnerships with researchers helped them secure their rights to the forest.
Hin Lad Nai has also leveraged awards from agenda-setting organizations including the United Nations to prove the value of their agricultural practices. A Hin Lad Nai community leader won the U.N.’s Forest Hero Award, their village was established as a Special Cultural Zone by the Thai Ministry of Culture, and the UN now recognizes rotational farming as a protected cultural heritage.
But Hin Lad Nai’s success is not shared by all Indigenous communities across the country. In 2021, the Thai government came under the international spotlight for burning Karen peoples’ homes, arresting women and children, and forcibly evicting Karen people from their ancestral lands in order to expand Kaeng Krachan National Park.
One of the GBF’s targets is to designate 30 percent of Earth’s land and sea as protected by 2030. And it emphasizes the importance of upholding Indigenous people’s rights to achieve these goals.
In response to the new GBF, Alice Matthew of the International Indigenous Forum on Biodiversity tells Food Tank: “We hope that states will be more open to working with Indigenous Peoples and will focus on ending their suffering caused by ‘conservation.’”
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Photo courtesy of Pernilla Malmer