In the Indigenous Karen village of Huay Ee Khang, in the mountainous north of Thailand, all life starts in the forest: When a baby is born, its umbilical cord is placed in a bamboo container and hung on a healthy fruit tree.
“De Paw Thoo” [“Umbilical Cord Forest”] designates the area in which bamboo containers with umbilical cords are hung on trees. This forest has a size of 64 ha and is also used as a learning site.
“This way, the souls of the baby and the tree are intertwined throughout their lifespan and nobody is allowed to cut the tree,” explains the village chief, Noraeri Thungmueangthong.
47-year-old Noraeri is the first woman to head the village and the only female leader in the whole district of Mae Wang, located in the province of Chiang Mai. She belongs to the Karen Indigenous Peoples, which include a great variety of ethnic groups spread across Myanmar and Thailand.
"THE FOREST IS OUR COMMUNITY SUPERMARKET"
“We have been using our beliefs, culture, and knowledge systems to sustainably manage our resources from generation to generation. Indigenous women have a crucial role in our communities as we know where to find food and medicines – and how to collect and preserve them. Without us women, the forest cannot be maintained”, says Noraeri, who considers the forest as the “community supermarket”.
In 2016, Noraeri initiated Ker Nue Mue, or Women’s Forest, to create a space for indigenous knowledge transmission, food production and supplementary income generation. The village’s “natural forest classroom” encompasses an area of 9.6 hectares in which a variety of indigenous tree and plant species used for herbal medicines, cloth dying, and food production have been introduced. Here, community members, especially young girls, can acquire knowledge and skills in natural resource management, traditionally held by women.
In Karen villages, like in many other indigenous communities, knowledge and skills in natural resource management are traditionally held by women.
Sixty percent of the community land in Huay Ee Khang is considered a protected area, which only allows for the harvest of non-timber forest products (NTFPs). The remaining forty percent is comprised of residential areas, designated zones for rotational crop farming as well as community forest lands.
Noraeri looks ahead with confidence: “In the long run, the Indigenous Women’s Forest will be the main source of our income, especially regarding the expected sales from bamboo products and our woven fabrics.” Plants and seeds from the forest are also used for the traditional dyeing craftmanship – knowledge which has been passed on from generation to generation.
"TREES HAVE SOULS, LIKE HUMANS"
For Noraeri and the other women of the village, the forest however represents much more than a source of knowledge, food, and income generation. “We humans are just one element of nature and as such, we are deeply interconnected with the forest on a spiritual level.”
According to the Karen belief system, everything in nature, such as water, forests, and fire, has a spirit. “Before engaging in any agricultural activity, the spirits need to be consulted to seek their permission”, says Noraeri.
Srijan Sriauengdoi, who is the accountant of the village and a mentor of the youth group, concurs: “When I was younger, I saw the forest as a source of fresh air, filled with interesting animals and food. As I grew up, I had the chance to learn everything about its ecosystem and how to use it for rotational farming. Now that I am getting older, I often go to the forest to find peace. I feel there is something powerful and sacred there, something that words cannot describe.”
Sixty-two-year-old Saisuda Sriauengdoi is the village elder and holds all the knowledge relating to local seeds and herbal medicine. For her, trees have souls, like humans. “The forest means everything to us, above all happiness, food, and spiritual wellbeing. Without the forest, there would be no water. Without the water, there would be no farming. And without farming, there would be no life.”
Saisuda wishes to see women and men equally respected and sharing roles and responsibilities in the village. “Until now, men have been relying on us to do the big part of the daily work. I would like our community to grow more united, with men and women of all generations pulling together. This way, we can be a leading example for others.”
MINDSETS TAKE TIME TO SHIFT
Yet, even in matrilineal indigenous communities like the Karen, it is the men who are usually granted roles as leaders and representatives of their communities and who are expected to provide the main source of family income. “It takes time for mindsets to shift”, Noraeri says. “In our culture, female leadership is usually seen as a bad thing. Women cannot be leaders. If a woman becomes a leader, our people believe that bad things will happen, that there will be no rainfall, or the harvest will turn out poorly.”
Since 2019, Noraeri has proven the village wrong: “Men are still doubting my capacities, but I feel it is getting better. They have learned to respect me. After all, I have been elected by my people and I refuse taking on the role of serving and pleasing that is usually assigned to women in our culture. I want to inspire other indigenous women and show them that we are powerful!”
REVIVAL OF OLD RITUALS
Customary rules regulate the hunting and harvesting of non-timber forest products (NTFPs) in Huay Ee Khang. “We tell our husbands and male community members not to collect forest products or hunt during breeding time. Pregnant animals cannot be hunted, and we are making sure that there is enough time for animals and plants to rest and restore”, Noraeri states.
The women also make sure to integrate ancestral practices in the management of village’s natural resources. Apart from upholding forest conservation, they have revived ancestral practices of water management, based on indigenous belief systems.
“About ten years ago, outsiders came to our river and electrocuted fish in great numbers, almost wiping out all water creatures” Noraeri recalls. Since then, the community has undertaken several efforts to demarcate a fish sanctuary for about three kilometers along the Mae Wang waterway and developed regulations for the protection of underwater life. “In addition, we regularly practice a Karen ritual, Sue Thee Anee, to express gratitude and apologize to the water spirit as well as asking for blessings from the spirit.”
KEEPING THE CULTURE ALIVE
When asked what she aspires to, Noraeri pauses and smiles: “I have already fulfilled my biggest dream by serving my village. We have done our best to keep our culture and identity. The only thing I am missing is the recognition by our government, to protect our indigenous way of life and to determine our own future. All we want is to live our life in dignity and security.” Although Thailand adopted the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, it does not officially recognize the existence of Indigenous Peoples in the country.
Noraeri and the other women fear that their ancestral rituals and practices may at some point be lost, since more and more young people move to the cities where they are detached from their identity and culture. “Our children are studying and working in the city, just to become the slaves for other people”, she deplores. “My only wish is to see our youth returning to the village. Here, we have all the resources available for them to be the true owners of their lives!”
–> Huay Ee Khang village chief Noraeri Thungmueangthong is a committee member of the Indigenous Women’s Network of Thailand (IWNT)
–> This photo story is part of a multimedia series showcasing the work and realities of Indigenous peoples across Asia and illustrates aspects of the study The rights, roles and contributions of Indigenous Peoples in NDCs: Experience from Asia undertaken by the Asia Indigenous Peoples Pact (AIPP) and the Forest Peoples Programme (FPP) over the past two years
–> The report was supported by UNDP, the UN-REDD Programme, the Development Cooperation Section of the Embassy of Sweden in Bangkok and the Swedish International Development Agency (SIDA) through Swedbio at the Stockholm Resilience Centre and looks at ways in which the promises made by governments under the first round of NDCs (Nationally Determined Contributions) have been translated into real strategies, policies, laws, and to what extent they include Indigenous People’s rights to their land, forests, waters, and territorial management across Asia