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Asia Indigenous Peoples Pact

Indigenous Women’s Customary Land Tenure – A Study of Three Communities in Northern Thailand

In-depth interviews with Indigenous Karen, Lahu, and Tin women in three communities in Northern Thailand shed light on how women view their traditional ability to access the land and resources necessary to secure the physical and spiritual wellbeing of their communities.

In all three communities, land, forest, and water resources were traditionally used and managed collectively through community-based governance, ancestral knowledge, and territorial management practices.  The women play central roles in achieving balance between their communities and the surrounding environment through spiritual beliefs, rituals and ceremonies. They lay the moral groundwork for this system through their teachings, instilling a sense of shared responsibility for the maintenance of natural resources for successive generations.

For every grain of rice that we eat, we ask permission and forgiveness. We believe that everything has an owner, or spirit, thus requires permission before using.” -Ms. Naw Eh Po, Huay I Khang village

As matrilineal and semi-matrilineal societies, women in these communities enjoy relatively secure access to land and decision-making power over its use despite lack of legal recognition of their land rights.

Exclusion and alienation occur as national parks and conservation areas overlap ancestral land, eroding women’s access to their land and threatening food sovereignty. Indigenous women are at the front lines of popular movements to gain legal recognition of customary land tenure and to secure community land rights under Thai law. A key advocacy strategy is public awareness-raising, translating Indigenous knowledge, beliefs and management systems into a language that policy makers and the Thai public can understand. In 2020, for example, Karen women from Huay I Khang village donated rice to city dwellers during the Covid lockdown, explaining on national TV the importance of protecting Indigenous rice and seed varieties for use in times of crisis.

Providing the new generation of Indigenous woman leaders with opportunities to study law and engage in policy advocacy will be crucial to their efforts to promote legal recognition of their customary land tenure and territorial management practices.

Click here to download the full study of three communities in northern Thailand PDF file

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