Thailand: Learning and understanding living in harmony with nature from Karen knowledge holders in the Karen language

Group photo of the learning exchange participants at Mae Yod Village, Thailand

Language is not only a tool for communication but also the identity of Indigenous Peoples which represents who we are and our distinct relationship with land, territories and resources. Most of the Indigenous Communities have oral traditions. Therefore, language is the key medium through which Indigenous Knowledge holders transmit knowledge and innovations relating to natural resources, governance systems, traditional dances and songs, handicrafts and art, among others, from generation to generation.

The knowledge of Indigenous Peoples is not static and keeps evolving over time. “Everybody says knowledge is power. Indigenous Knowledge is also power, our power. Our Indigenous Knowledge Systems need to be recognized, respected, protected and promoted,” said Mr. Gam A. Shimray, Secretary General of Asia Indigenous Peoples Pact (AIPP).

Out of the estimated 7,000 languages in the world, around 2,000 are spoken by Indigenous Peoples in Asia who represent the greater part of the world’s cultural diversity. However, those languages are disappearing at an alarming rate. With the disappearance of languages, culture, world views and knowledge of Indigenous Peoples disappear as well. One of the main challenges in continuing our indigenous language is the detachment of young generations from their own communities’ values, belief systems and, above all, from their traditional homeland. This is happening as Indigenous Youth are migrating to cities and abroad, for education, employment and opportunities. “Many of our young generation believe, and are influenced by, the thinking and perspectives of schoolteachers, which may not necessarily reflect the knowledge and belief systems of Indigenous Peoples. Therefore, it is very important to integrate indigenous values, culture and natural resource management systems into the formal education system so that our young generations continue to understand, respect and practice our values, culture and traditional practices respectively”, stressed Mr. Dilok Trakunrungamphai headman of Mae Yod village.

In Thailand, the Thai Constitution does not recognize the term “Indigenous Peoples” despite the adoption of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP). As a result, the right to participate in political processes, right to land, territories and resources and right to self-determination, among others recognized by the UNDRIP, are often ignored. Even though the Thai government is open for local knowledge and learning in the mother tongue, in practice the government still promotes a monolingual and monoculture system of education.

Indigenous Peoples have their right to education in their own languages. The formal education system of Asian states does not adequately prioritize in preserving, revitalizing and promoting languages of Indigenous Peoples despite the widespread adoption of the UNDRIP. Asian Indigenous Peoples who speak in their languages often face discrimination in schools and public spaces. Therefore, many Indigenous Peoples hesitate to speak in their own languages and often attempt to hide their identify to avoid discrimination. Indigenous Peoples and their organizations are taking initiatives to develop Indigenous Schools and curriculums. “Those initiatives of Indigenous Peoples’ Organizations should be recognized, supported and upscaled. States should urgently take action to integrate indigenous languages into modern education systems at all levels including the formulation, implementation and monitoring of policies and programs on indigenous language with the full and effective participation of Indigenous Peoples”, said Mr. Kittisak Rattanakrajangsri, Chairperson of AIPP.

During 27-29 September 2019, AIPP, The Pgakenyaw Association for Sustainable Development (PASD), Indigenous Women Network in Thailand (IWNT) and Tonkla Indigenous Youth Network (TKN) co-organized a learning exchange on “Mother Tongue, Mothers Teach through the ways of Karen people in life” in Mae Yod Village. The workshop was conducted in consultation with Mae Yod villagers. Representatives of AIPP and PASD visited the village in advance to share information about the event and received approval from the villagers.

54 participants representing AIPP, PASD, IWNT and TKN, as well as knowledge holders, Indigenous Women, Indigenous Youth, schoolteachers and community leaders of Mae Yod village gathered in the evening of 27 September in the Buddhist temple of the village. “All of us have gathered here to sensitize our indigenous girls and boys about Indigenous Knowledge relating to forests and rotational agriculture by facilitating the sharing of experiences from Indigenous Knowledge holders. We are here also to recognize and promote the role of  Indigenous Women as knowledge holders, leaders, and managers of seeds, food systems and natural resources,” expounded Ms. Pirawan Wongnithisathaporn, AIPP Environment Program Officer.

Participants heading towards the forest areas to learn from the knowledge holders of Mae Yod Village
Participants heading towards the forest areas to learn from the knowledge holders of Mae Yod Village

In the morning of 28 September, the participants of the learning exchange were divided into three groups. Each group was headed by a knowledge holder of the Mae Yod village. Indigenous girls and boys with leadership and guidance of knowledge holders visited forests and fallow are of the rotational agriculture and learned about plants, vegetables, flowers and trees that have medicinal values, good nutrition and are culturally important for Karen people. Indigenous girls and boys actively interacted with knowledge holders as well as documented all the information in the Karen language. In the afternoon, indigenous girls and boys were taken to the rotational agriculture areas, where knowledge holders explained Indigenous Knowledge of Karen people relating to rotational agriculture as well as shared the importance of rotational agriculture in the lives and livelihoods of Karen people.

Mrs. Jawa explaining the use of herbal medicines found in the fallow area of rotational agriculture;
Mrs. Jawa explaining the use of herbal medicines found in the fallow area of rotational agriculture;
Village headman explaining the name, use and benefits of the plants found in the forests, with indigenous girls documenting the information.
Village headman explaining the name, use and benefits of the plants found in the forests, with indigenous girls documenting the information.

Rotational agriculture is the cultural heritage of indigenous communities. Indigenous knowledge, spiritual and cultural values attached to this livelihood system demonstrate that rotational agriculture is not merely a technique of land use but their way of life. In 2015, AIPP, International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs (IWGIA) and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) undertook case studies on rotational agriculture in Bangladesh, Cambodia, India, Indonesia, Lao PDR, Nepal and Thailand. The case studies reaffirmed that Indigenous Peoples’ life and culture are intricately linked to rotational agriculture and this agriculture system is playing a significant role in providing livelihoods and ensuring food diversity and security to indigenous communities and does not lead to deforestation.

Paw Ngor (red in color) and Paw Bor (yellow in color) grow in the rotational agriculture areas and protect rice from insect attacks. These flowers are also used for the “Tho Bi Kha ritual” which is conducted to express thanks to the Mother Earth for providing good yields by protecting the crops.
Paw Ngor (red in color) and Paw Bor (yellow in color) grow in the rotational agriculture areas and protect rice from insect attacks. These flowers are also used for the “Tho Bi Kha ritual” which is conducted to express thanks to the Mother Earth for providing good yields by protecting the crops.
Mrs. Shipho sharing poetry related to rotational agriculture “Ta Nge Ler Per Mho Oh Di, Ta Nge Ler Per Pa Oh Di, Ker Taw Ne Per Kue Ah Klee, Ker Taw Ne Per Nwae Ah Klee, Mee May Pwae Ser Chee, Ta Ka Nha Kay, Ter Sa wee”
Mrs. Shipho sharing poetry related to rotational agriculture “Ta Nge Ler Per Mho Oh Di, Ta Nge Ler Per Pa Oh Di, Ker Taw Ne Per Kue Ah Klee, Ker Taw Ne Per Nwae Ah Klee, Mee May Pwae Ser Chee, Ta Ka Nha Kay, Ter Sa wee”

The main message of this poetry is, “Karen people find everything for their livelihood throughout the year in the rotational farming areas.”

In the evening, indigenous girls and boys prepared food from the products they had collected from forests and rotational agriculture areas. There were three main menus; namely; Taker Por (Rice soup), Ta Su Thee (chicken soup), and Mu Sa To (Chilli paste).

Indigenous youth preparing food for the participants. They learned how to cook their traditional foods as well as how to find essential cooking ingredients from forests and rotational farming. All participants enjoyed eating the rice and food cooked by indigenous youth.

 Indigenous youth preparing food for the participants. They learned how to cook their traditional foods as well as how to find essential cooking ingredients from forests and rotational farming. All participants enjoyed eating the rice and food cooked by indigenous youth.

In the morning of 29 September, Ms. Noraeri Thungmuangthong explained that her community members are using local resources to make dyes and traditional clothes which help them to generate more income. Ms. Noraeri is the first Indigenous Woman to be elected as the chief of Huay E-Khang Village in early 2019. She conducted a practical session to prepare dyes from mud, Mango tree bark and turmeric. Indigenous girls and boys and Mae Yod villagers enthusiastically participated in making dyes, as well as making different interesting designs for white cloth. Since the session was limited to just one morning, villagers decided to invite Ms. Noraeri next time to undertake a comprehensive practical session.

In total, indigenous girls and boys, with guidance and support from the knowledge holders of Mae Yod Village, were able to collect and document information on at least 51 species of plants, trees, vegetables and flowers from a four hour field visit on day 1. This serves the needs of Karen people for medicines, foods, timber for house construction, natural dyes, insect repellent, and are culturally important for the Karen villagers. AIPP will share all the documented information among Mae Yod villagers so that they can continue to add information of additional species of plants, flowers, trees and vegetables. 

Indigenous girl of Mae Yod Village explaining the native names, uses and benefits of all the plants, flowers and vegetables collected by her group from the field visit
Indigenous girl of Mae Yod Village explaining the native names, uses and benefits of all the plants, flowers and vegetables collected by her group from the field visit

“Our children go to School every day and don’t have time to help us in the farm. If the young generation do not understand our values and stay away from our traditional practices, our knowledge and culture associated with those practices will continue to disappear. It is very important to transfer, protect, promote and practice our knowledge to continue living in harmony with nature,” expressed Ms. Jawa Trakoonrungampai who is one of the members of the Karen women’s group of Mae Yod village.

Reflecting on the eco-walk with elders through the forests, Ms. Da, an indigenous girl of Mae Yod Village, expressed “I have never thought that we have so many foods and herbs in our forests. Some of the medicinal plants that I came to know about, while walking through the forests and interacting with knowledge holders, I thought were just grasses in the beginning. Now I know the indigenous names of our medicinal plants, their use and benefits, including cultural values. I am confident to share knowledge gained from this activity with my friends and community members.”

The action plan that came out from the learning exchange includes; development and production of education materials on Karen Indigenous Knowledge Systems and their way of life in Thai, Karen and English languages; building and strengthening the capacity and awareness of Indigenous Youth and Children on the rights of Indigenous Peoples; and diversifying and strengthening the livelihoods of the villagers.

“AIPP will support developing and printing and educational comic book on Karen Knowledge Systems that will be integrated into the local education curriculum of Mae Yod Village. This will foster sensitization on Mae Yod village history and Karen Knowledge Systems, not only among young generations, but also among teachers of the school for a very long time. The comic book will be produced first in the Thai language followed by translation into Karen and English languages. This book will also be useful for Indigenous Peoples practicing rotational agriculture in other countries in Asia,” shared Ms. Pirawan Wongnithisathaporn of AIPP.

AIPP, in consultation with its members and partner organizations, has recently established a regional network on Indigenous Knowledge known as “Indigenous Knowledge and Peoples of Asia (IKPA).” The goal of the IKPA is to advance the respect, recognition and visibility of Indigenous Knowledge and Community Initiatives at all levels. “We, Indigenous Peoples have deep knowledge about our eco-systems. This kind of knowledge is sometimes deeper than the scientific knowledge. This world needs to learn from Indigenous Peoples,” highlighted Mr. Prasert Trakansuphakon, Director of the PASD.

AIPP is grateful to the International Indigenous Women’s Forum (FIMI) for financially supporting this important learning exchange at Mae Yod Village.

Written by Ms. Pirawan Wongnithisathaporn and Mr. Lakpa Nuri Sherpa of AIPP

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