Ethnic Karen use innovation to battle wildfires, Thai government regulation

Subel Rai Bhandari for RFA
Pa Pae village, Thailand
Ethnic Karen use innovation to battle wildfires, Thai government regulation Deepunu, the Karen leader from the village of Pa Pae in northern Thajland, has been leading a team battling wildfires deep in the forest, April 4, 2023.
Subel Rai Bhandari for RFA

For the past three weeks, Deepunu has slept only a few hours every night.

The 37-year-old Karen leader has been leading a village youth team to battle wildfires deep in the forest of northern Thailand. The blaze threatens their ethnic village Pa Pae on Doi Chang, a sacred mountain in the Ban Hong district of Lamphun province.

The village of about 70 homes is accessible only by four-wheel drive vehicles or motorcycles. Then, it is a few more kilometers of an uphill hike to the wildfire frontline.

“We have been doing 12-hour shifts with six to 12 people,” Deepunu said.

“This year, it has been worse than ever before. It’s drier air, so the fire does not die,” he said. “If we don’t fight, our village will be destroyed.”

Villagers in Pa Pae in the Ban Hong district of Lamphun province, northern Thailand, dug a pond to store 400,000 liters of water to fight forest fires, April 4, 2023. [Subel Rai Bhandari for RFA]

Ponchai Muehae, who had just returned after a shift, said the terrain was challenging and there was no water nearby.

“It is hard work. There is no money, but we do it for the community.”

“We are tired and upset, especially when city people blame us for causing wildfire and pollution. But the team is great, and we raise each other’s spirits,” Ponchai said.

The Karen people, the largest of nine major hill tribes in Thailand, are scattered across the region, including Myanmar and Laos.

“We are forest people,” said Pa Pae’s village elder, Chanchai Gula. “Communities like us live in protected areas. That is why we always have issues with the forest department.”

Karen face a crackdown from authorities who accuse the community of encroaching on the forest and for burning.

In Thailand, less than a third of the country is forest. The new forest laws were introduced in 2019 to increase it to 40% by 2024.

A villager shows the feed from a mountaintop camera that transmits real-time video on Doi Chang mountain in northern Thailand, April 4, 2023. [Subel Rai Bhandari for RFA]

In February 2020, Pa Pae villagers agreed with the local government to be recognized as “a Special Cultural Area” so they could live and farm traditionally.

About 21,000 rai, or 3,360 hectares, of land is protected under the agreement, the first such deal since the new forest law that allows people to reside or utilize certain forest areas, with conditions, for up to 20 years at a time.

“We are responsible for this land. … There is trust in the community now,” Deepunu said.

Innovation to tackle village challenges

Deepunu said he is fighting to bring about change to his village “without changing the village in the process” as they battle government regulation, climate change impacts, and the emigration of youth.

He first saw the smoke in mid-March on his smartphone via one of the two cameras he had installed on a mountaintop to monitor the wildfires. The battery-powered equipment can be controlled remotely since they are attached to wireless sim card routers. 

A dozen 2,000-liter water tanks are kept near an area at risk of fires on Doi Chang mountain, northern Thailand, April 4, 2023. [Subel Rai Bhandari for RFA]

Before, a village survey team had to go to the top of the mountain to check for fires. But now the cameras provide an unobstructed, panoramic live view of the area day and night.

The villagers sometimes use drone cameras to monitor smoke and have installed sensors to measure and record temperature and pollution.

These are some of the innovations in the village to prepare for “changes due to global warming and other issues,” Chanchai said.

“We are facing many challenges. The firebreak line is not working as it did traditionally, so we have to think of new ideas,” he said.

Later this year, the village plans to set up “a water spray system” in the forest which villagers can remotely turn on when they know a wildfire is on the way.

“If this idea works, it will be great because other ethnic villages could replicate it,” Deepunu said.

Water is available “at just 60% of previous times,” he said. So, the villagers have stored several 2,000-liter water tanks in risk-prone areas. They have also dug a pond in the middle of the village to hold about 400,000 liters of water.


A Karen villager shows a patch of land farmed in 2022 in Pa Pae, northern Thailand, April 4, 2023. [Subel Rai Bhandari for RFA]

The traditional way of farming

Karen communities conduct traditional rotational farming, which requires farmers to burn the area and move their cultivation every year so that the land gets time to regenerate. It has been a sore point with the Thai authorities.

“One family gets a maximum of 5 rai (0.8 hectares) where they grow rice, cassava and plenty of vegetables. It’s enough,” villager Jiradet Ngoenkham said.

After cultivation, villagers return to the same area after seven to eight years.

Before and after each harvest, the villagers burn the remains in the farm in a responsible manner, which provides natural nutrients to the soil, said another villager, Kriangkrai Buntha.

“We are cautious. It is never out of control. It has never happened,” he said.

“The rotational cultivation burning is short, fast and limited, not done all at once. There is not much pollution,” Chi Suwichan Phatthanaphraiwan, a professor of geo-cultural management at Srinakharinwirot University.

However, such slash-and-burn practice has led to public misconceptions about Karen-style farming and air pollution, with the government responding with “zero-burn” policies.

Chatchawan Thongdeelert, a social activist and director of Breath Council, said that approach “blanketly criminalizes the villagers.

“In the north, we say there are two types of fire: necessary and unnecessary. We will have many unnecessary fires if we do not do necessary ones,” he said.

“We have to be specific about the cause of air pollution. It’s not rotational farming burning, but monoculture agricultural burning, and wildfires.”

Villagers and activists allege things started worsening when industrial-scale farming of maize for animal feed began more than a decade ago, as big companies offered incentives to lure the villagers to switch to the cash crops.

A Catholic priest and Buddhist monks wrap a village tree with an orange robe to protect it from being cut or destroyed in Pa Pae, northern Thailand, April 4, 2023. [Subel Rai Bhandari for RFA]

Environmentalists blame maize stubble burning as one of the two reasons for the record-breaking air pollution in northern Thailand.

Pa Pae villagers said they had been approached to do contract maize farming but rejected the offer.

“We rejected because it is not according to traditional living,” Deepunu said. “It affects our culture, belief, and relationship with the forest.”

Catholic priest, Buddhist monks bless trees

To keep the local government on their side, Pa Pae villagers prepared a mapping survey system, which informs the geo-locations of where the villagers conduct their shifting cultivation each year, as well as important spots such as spiritual and religious sites and cemeteries.

In early April, Pa Pae villagers organized an event to present the data to government officials and other local communities. District and provincial governors and forest department officials attended.

A Catholic priest and several Buddhist monks wrapped orange clerical robes around trees to protect forests. It was the first time, the villagers said, for the two religious leaders to come together to show common struggle against environmental degradation.

“Karen are accused of destroying the forest, of burning, but they are not doing that,” Prachoen Samongdee, Ban Hong’s district governor overseeing Pa Pae village, told Radio Free Asia, a news service affiliated with BenarNews, after the event.

“This community has been in this land for at least 140 years. They have lived together with the forest and used the forest for food,” he said.

Trees are marked as protected from being cut or destroyed in Pa Pae, northern Thailand, April 4, 2023. [Subel Rai Bhandari for RFA]

The data on land use given by the villagers “is science-based and shows us in detail about the forest and trees,” he said, as authorities can check if there has been any destruction.

Santithorn Yimlamai, the provincial governor of Lamphun, called Pa Pae “an authentic, model village” for cultural protection, saying he will use the data collection as an example for other communities.

“It will also help the government to understand the livelihood of ethnic communities more,” he said. “It shows how ethnic people use land and live together with nature.”

Phrue Odochao, a Karen leader and forest dweller from another community, who came to attend the event, said the communities have lived in the forests “for hundreds of years before they became national parks.”

Phrue said climate change is a threat, but the bigger threat is from the people.

“For city people, everything is economic. Like they see a green forest, they talk about timber cultivation, carbon credit, and green business,” he said.

“Villagers are the ones who protect nature, but the money goes to the government.”


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