We had an excellent time with our friends at the Lahu and Akha village of Ban Ba Lha this past week. Ban Ba Lha, a small village a few hours north of Chiang Mai, is experiencing both pain and hope. The village is home to the Black Lahu, Yellow Lahu, and Akha ethnic groups. These peoples have come into northern Thailand fairly recently as a result of conflicts in their Chinese and Burmese homelands. The Lahu, Akha, and other “hill tribes”, as they are called, are often looked down upon by ethnic Thais, and are generally poor. Most of the people of Ban Ba Lha make a living farming feed corn on the steep hills surrounding the village. However, the soil surrounding the village is poor in nutrients. Therefore, the farmers must keep on burning down patches of forest to grow more corn because their original fields can no longer support the crop. As the forest has receded, animals that the villagers used to hunt for food, such as wild boar, jungle fowl, and deer, have disappeared. The loss of trees on the mountain slopes means that the topsoil gets quickly washed into the rivers. This loss of topsoil makes it near impossible to grow crops in the future. In addition, the soil in the rivers smothers aquatic insects, which are the food for fish. As a result, there are fewer fish for the villagers to eat and the fish that are present are smaller than they should be.
Despite these negative effects, the villagers continue to plant corn because they can get a good amount of money from multinational agribusinesses (on average about $3000 per year or $250 per month for each family of four). However, the villagers become dependent on these businesses for their lives. In the past, the Lahu and Akha people practiced subsistence farming, planting crops which they needed to survive. Now, they plant only field corn, which they cannot eat but can sell for money to buy food. The type of corn they grow is a hybrid variety. This means that the corn they grow is a cross between two different strains of other corn. Hybrid corn can grow faster than non-hybrid corn, but the seeds of hybrid corn cannot grow when they’re planted in the ground. Therefore, the farmers must buy hybrid corn seeds from the large businesses they sell their corn to. They are totally dependent on the company to buy their seeds and to sell their crop. In short, they have lost much of their economic independence so they can simply earn a living.
One of the men in Ban Ba Lha saw how burning down the forest to grow corn meant that future generations would have no fertile land to farm on and decided to do something about it. Witoon Daleethong, a Lahu man of about thirty who grew up in Ban Ba Lha, decided to help his fellow villagers diversify their crops. Witoon was privileged enough to obtain a master’s degree in Sustainable Development from Chiang Mai University. Instead of using his degree to earn money for himself, Witoon had a vision of returning to Ban Ba Lha to make sure future generations could continue to farm there. However, Witoon’s wife and parents opposed this idea. People get degrees so they can move out of their small village to make money in the city, they said. His wife wanted to stay in Chiang Mai or move to Bangkok and she thought Witoon’s dream was frivolous. After a few years of tears and struggle, Witoon was finally able to return to Ban Ba Lha with his family.
Witoon wanted his fellow villagers to plant fruit trees, tea, and coffee trees where they had been planting corn. These trees would be able to grow in the nutrient-poor soil and their roots would prevent soil erosion. In addition, the trees would be able to provide habitat for some of the animals that had disappeared from the area due to slash-and-burn agriculture. Growing trees would also allow the farmers to be more independent, as they would not have to depend on large agri-businesses to buy or sell their crops. However, trees cost a lot to buy and take several years to mature. The farmers would have no income for a few years until the trees bore their fruits, which would be very difficult for the farmers. As a result, only few farmers wanted to follow Witoon’s advice, and many thought he was crazy for wanting to plant something other than corn.
Over time, however, and thanks to the work of Ajarn Mike and former SST student Jonathan Adam, farmers in Ban Ba Lha began to catch Witoon’s vision. They saw how fruit trees, especially bananas, could provide a steady, robust income while protecting the soil so future generations could continue to farm. The farmers saw Ajarn Mike and SST students help Witoon with planting the trees and catch his vision. Seeing foreigners support the effort to diversify crops encouraged village farmers to do the same. Many farmers realized that it would not be that difficult to plant a few trees on their land and began to do so. Today, over 50 farmers have formally decided to have a co-op with Witoon, in which they help each other plant trees and sell their produce and these farmers receive financial help from Jonathan’s Restore ministry. Now other farmers are planting trees on some areas of their land without joining the co-op. (See the website thaiconnections.org/fcf/projectrestore and short videos which describes Jonathan’s Restore ministry www.youtube.com/watch?v=X4b4uoS1uD4&feature=share also http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EQvSlatnfus ).
This year, we wanted to help Witoon and other farmers expand the proportion of their land devoted to growing trees by planting 1,000 bananas. The farmers supplied all the trees and we simply supplied a few hours of labor each day. Together, we were able to plant a total of 1,006 banana trees over six days! The task of planting bananas was hard work, but we had a lot of fun doing it. Banana trees don’t have seeds we can plant, so we would transplant the stumps of banana trees to the desired area. Each year, a banana plant can send up about six new trunks and also produce about 60 pounds of bananas for consumption or sale. Many of these new trunks are unnecessary, so farmers will often uproot a few trunks from each banana plant, cut off the stump from the trunks, and replant the stumps in a new location. The stump will then grow into a new banana tree. We had the fun of planting these trunks in farmers’ fields surrounding the village. A group of us would carry the banana trunks from their original location to the site the farmers had selected. Another group of us would slide the bananas down the hill to holes we or the farmers had dug. The third group would fill in the soil around the banana stumps. This division of labor was not only effective, but also helped us grow together as a team. It is amazing what can be accomplished when working together! Next year at this time the villagers will have approximately 60,000 pounds of bananas they can sell to the many elephant camps, domestic consumers, and/or to the Chiang Mai Zoo.
During our time at Ban Ba Lha, we got to know many of the people. Members of our group got to stay with host families throughout the village, both Lahu and Akha. Our stay with the families helped us to see village life at a deeper level. We had the opportunity to play with many of the children of the village in the afternoon and evenings, something that both the children and we looked forward to. Overall, our time in Ban Ba Lha was very rewarding and fun!
Blog post #12 was written by Jared Franklin, a senior Environmental Science Major from Messiah College.