The Forest as Community Supermarket for Karen Indigenous Peoples in Thailand

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In Ban Mae Jok, neither electricity nor internet/Wi-Fi are available, but 1,600 hectares of natural forest provide a much larger choice of consumable items than a giant supermarket.

Even without electricity and mobile phone access, as well as the current local lock-down due to the Covid-19 pandemic, the villagers of more than 50 households are not worried at all about their daily food. This is because the local forest – which the community has taken good care of for many generations – is a wide source of food, equivalent to a large supermarket with fresh products available 24 hours a day. In addition, this natural supermarket requires no monetary payment, but only communal labor and care.

Landscape of community forest and farm lands in Ban Mae Jok; Phnom Thano, imnvoices.com

The name of Ban Mae Jok may not sound familiar to many people, but it is a Pgakenyaw village located in Pa Pae sub-district, Mae Taeng district, Chiang Mai province. It takes a little over 3 hours on the Mae Malai-Pai road from Chiang Mai town and takes right-turn at Ban Mae Sae climbing down for 5 km. to a small village surrounded by the natural dense forest with a stream passing by. The lives of more than 300 people depend on this Mae Jok stream. The majority households own terraced paddy-fields, while some fewer families are practicing rotational farming. It has been recorded that the settlement has already been located there for more than 130 years as a permanent community.

With the outbreak of Covid-19 pandemic, Ban Mae Jok has locked-down with no in-and-out for 15 days. Later on, the entrance gate was constructed with a padlock only to allow for crossing necessities. Thus, the community lock-down lasted for about three months from March to May. As a result, the villagers could not go to the market outside and they have to depend completely on farm and forest products in the same way as they did in the long past.

Suphalak Musuloy (or Ae Thoo) is a Grade 11 student in Chiang Mai that she has to come back to the village, because of school shutting down. She said, “Mae Jok villagers need not worry about food for they can gather abundant food from the forest as well as from farm lands. There are different kinds of vegetable, bamboo shoots, mushrooms and fruits, including fresh-water fish, shellfish, crabs, and shrimps.”

A variety of vegetables Ae Thoo and her friends gathered from rotational farm and community forest; Phnom Thano, imnvoices.com

Ae Thoo said that the community with considerable food security because everybody has taken very good care of the forest. She also made reference to an old saying, “Au thee keutoh thee. Au koh keutoh koh” meaning, “Eat from water, care for water. Eat from land, care for land.”

Ae Thoo’s testimony illustrates the good reason that Mae Jok has requested land title registration in 2011 with the total area around 1,714 hectares covering residential areas, farmlands, and conservation, and community forests. In 2010, from January to May, the forest surveillance team was assigned to organize, for example, firebreak clearing, forest reconnaissance, and forest firefight. The labor spent on all these, if calculate in monetary term, it would be amounting to 318,600 baht.

Ae Thoo is preparing food from local ingredients; Phnom Thano, imnvoices.com

Ae Thoo gave her last words, “As a youth member, I will put my effort to caring of community forest on-and-on; and I hope that the next generation from mine will do the same. Because throughout these three months of national lock-down, we have good proof that we could survive the crisis easily with very healthy forest surrounding.

Reference: Report on natural resource management activities in Ban Mae Jok, Collaborative Management Learning Network Project (CMLN), Inter-Mountain Peoples Education and Culture in Thailand Association (IMPECT).

This article is prepared based on the field visit conducted by Indigenous Media Network (IMN) from 13-14 June 2020. The field visit was financially supported by the Forest Peoples Programme (FPP) and the Asia Indigenous Peoples Pact (AIPP)

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