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Asia Indigenous Peoples Pact

Further Reciprocal Rice for Fish: An act of Indigenous Peoples against Covid-19 recurrence

Because of Covid-19, people are queuing for food donations from the Network of Indigenous Peoples of Thailand (NIPT). Photographer: Afu Bacher,

Following the incidence of Covid-19, the phenomena of reciprocal commodities takes place among Indigenous Peoples of Thailand. This happens especially between the Indigenous Karen in the North and the sea peoples in the South, including the Northeastern peasants with altogether more than 10,000 kilos of their products. This is an exceptionally successful incidence leading to reciprocal sustainability. At the same time, this indigenous cooperation can foster their fight against the second round of Covid-19 and also promote food exchange, both at the time of crisis and during normal times. Such practices have been piloted as a project among six communities in Thailand.

Review of the Situation

The pandemic of Covid-19 has had a serious impact on almost all nations, including Thailand. The fact that Thailand has been dealing appropriately with the Corona virus is recognized and appreciated by the world community for its ability to halt the pandemic entering the country. Statistically, there were 133 days free of internal infection in Thailand on the 5th of October 2020. However, Thailand had also experienced a difficult situation from February to April 2020, but it gradually relaxed from May onward. During the domestic crisis, the Thai Government launched several measures, such as, a late night curfew, and the closing of department stores, entertainment places, and schools.

Such Government measures worked well at stopping the pandemic, but caused negative impacts on its people in terms of lack/or reduction of income, joblessness, and business closings. The situation became worse when many people found it difficult to find food for their families simply because the transport system was paralyzed. People were seen queuing to receive food here and there.

Pictures portrayed in various media showed ‘kindness and sharing among Thai people’. There were sites for food donation for persons in distress and jobless, setting up of food shelves for happiness sharing, and exchanges of food products between the sea people in the South and the Karen people in the North.

On 24 March 2020, a caravan of pick-up trucks carrying 8,000 kilos of rice and about one ton of dried food departed Chiang Mai for the Southern destination of the Rawai seashore in Phuket in order to assist a food exchange with the sea people there. On the way back to Chiang Mai, these pick-up trucks carried about one ton of dried fish which, later, was distributed among more than 40 northern communities in five provinces, namely, Chiang Mai, Chiang Rai, Mae Hong Son, Lampang, and Tak; received by Indigenous Karen communities practicing rotational farming. This is the beginning of ‘Khao chao na laek pla chao lay’ (Wet rice farmers’ rice for sea peoples’ fish) through collaboration among the peasants in Yasothorn Province, the Governor of Pang-gna Province, and the Air Force – five tons of rice and one ton of dried chilis were transported to the sea people in Pang-gna Province coordinated by the Thai Community Foundation.

The Beginning of ‘Rice for Fish’

Assistant Professor Suwichan Phattanaphraiwan, Deputy Dean of the Bhodi Wichalai College, Srinakharinwirot University, Tak campus, who is popularly known as Pgakenyaw artist (Chi Suwichan), was a key person in the ‘rice for fish’ program. He recapped the beginning of this activity as ‘They lack rice, we lack fish’. ‘They’ means the Southern sea people whose rice was scant, because they could not travel from their islands to buy commodities in town and all the stores were shuttered.

‘We’ means Pgakenyaw communities for whom dried food was difficult to find. In addition, these Karen people had to fight against the pandemic on the one hand and forest fires on the other. Forest surveillance was required day and night so that the Karen people had almost no time for food gathering.

Dr. Chi Suwichan explained further that this activity is not completely new, but it is an extension of the past event when in 2014 at Bhodi Wichalai, Mae Sod District, Tak Province ‘Rice for Fish’ bartering was organized between Indigenous Peoples from the North and the South who came to join the celebration of International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples in Thailand. This food exchange now goes on every year in commemoration of the Indigenous Peoples Day in Thailand and all the celebrations are mainly organized by the Council of Indigenous Peoples of Thailand (CIPT) in conjunction with partner organizations and allied agencies.

Picture of the first Rice for Fish exchange in celebration of the International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples on 28. November 2014. Photographer: Afu Bacher –

“But if we think in retrospect, we will find that Thai people also have an old proverb, ‘Chili from a family up-North, salt from a family down-South’. Such a proverb illustrates the traditional way of life where sharing and exchanging of things is part of normal life”, said Dr. Chi.

In addition, this food exchange is regarded as ‘P2P’ or ‘People to People’ and ‘Products to Products’ interaction in the sense that each party shares what it has in surplus with the people who are in need. In other words, the people perform practice interdependence without government intervention.

Toward Sustainability

To achieve ‘Rice for fish’ exchange sustainability requires a new system formulated drawing on the lessons learned and challenges to previous activities. Three components can be identified:

  1. It is important to have a well-designed data-based system to include information such as the surplus products each community can produce, not only rice and dried fish, in order to distribute to other people as needed.
  2. Storage space is needed to collect the products readily available for food exchange.
  3. Logistic services are necessary for food exchange from one region to another.
Assistant Professor Dr. Suwichan Phattanaphraiwan – lecturer, artist, activist. Photographer: Afu Bachur –

At present, Dr. Chi has launched six pilots in Karen communities in Tha Song Yang District, Tak Province where rotational farming is practiced widely. It is estimated that upland rice cultivation covers 576 hectares in rotational fields. Sixty five youth volunteers are recruited for data collection about the kinds of food products and their quantity and harvest season; how much of food products can be harvested; and how much does it take for annual home consumption and how much can be exchanged.

Food exchange can be performed when the knowledge is clear about what is needed and what can be shared in each community at certain times”.

Currently, some people have already indicated what they have to share and exchange with other people with the collection of 1,000 kilos of rice and 100 bottles of sesame oil from rotational fields. This is the good sign of willingness among the people to help each other at the time of crisis and even in daily life.


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