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Akha Human Rights - Akha University
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Farming, Farm Land and Akha Agriculture
The Akha are some of the most skillful farmers on the planet earth. Their ability to produce food, protect their farms, villages and families, even in times of war, is unmatched. The dryland mountain rice that the Akha farm on hillsides is some of the most dense and genetically rich rice in the world. Farmers adjust where they gather their rice seed for the next years planting based on what the signs of the weather are, basically picking the genetics they need for the coming season. The Akha make observations based on weather patters, rainfall, drought and even the insects.
Western "developers" (remember Fukushima) are very critical of Akha and other hill tribe practicing swidden agriculture. They prefer to give it the name "slash and burn". In Oregon it would be more acceptable if it was called a Forest Service supervised "CLEAR CUT". So the missionaries, ngo's and government officials use the "slash and burn" mantra to justify pushing the Akha off their land so it can all be logged, turned into flower farms for the Queen, used for growing high insecticide crops like oranges and basically taking the land for what ever they need it for, but never for regenerating the natural forest they were so concerned about.
But slash and burn agriculture makes a lot of sense if you sort out the NON-sense. For example, these carpet baggers claim that the Akha way was not sustainable at all so they slashed and burned and then moved on to more land. Well if you take some three hundred villages just in Thailand, moving every three years due to "depleted soils" as they love to call it, I think a person would really notice it. There would be "nomadic" buses and trucks hired out by the Thais just to cope with the situation. Maybe a hundred villages moving per year?
A Thai school teacher in Haen Taek said, "We know who really logged the area and cut down the forest. It was not the hill tribe, it was the Thai loggers."
As the military moved the Akha around and had them change fields so that they could begin to plant pine plantations, the Akha were actually used to assist the process. In many cases they would wait till the Akha had cleared the fields they had, and even planted their rice, then the forestry department would come in and plant pine seedlings right in the middle of it all, threatening the Akha with fines if they cleared the pine trees. Then they would tell the Akha to farm "in that section over there" and force them to cut new area that they had not used before. So the Forestry could have it both ways, plant pine and tell people that the Akha were deforesting new ground all the time. And of course the missionaries loved to quote this mantra.
In fact, the Forestry department had little interest in working with the Akha. They did not care how much forest was destroyed as long as in the end they got it all and the Akha had nothing. In some cases the Thais have learned that this has a terrific price in certain forums such as at the UN, where their actions were considered less than wise, less than benevolent, less than legal.
But the Akha in fact need stable fields, surrounding their village, which grows enough rice, not too much, and doesn't require walking very far. If you are walking to the fields and carrying your crops to the village, you want to keep it close. You don't want to move a mile away from your village next year for next year's rice. The problem is that as the Thai army and forestry have grabbed off the land for THEIR crops, the Akha have been forced to rotate their fields more often. However, villagers have still managed to survive, to shape the land, to improve their water systems, to keep a large variety of crops and herbs growing. This can even be shown in Akha villages which were forced to relocate to some open barren field in the low lands. In a few years the Akha have brought in many species which they rely on and planted them all around the village.
The Akha religious system ties the Akha people very closely to their fields, interwoven with village life, something they never see as separate from the whole picture, "Oh heck, I guess I'll go farming today" will not be heard spoken in an Akha village. The Akha know, if you don't take care of the fields you will have no future. Unfortunately outsider models pressure the Akha to grow other commercial crops than the food they need. Bananas, tea, coffee, rubber. Fine in small amounts but not so fine when it turns Akha farm land in to mono-crops and displaces their normal highly varied number of food crops.
The missionaries are at fault on two levels regarding to Akha farming. First, they ban the culture and consider all the Akha ceremonies not to be an integral spiritual system of land, plants, animals and humans, but as a kind of devil worship. They are not intelligent enough to understand this intricate system and how it keeps all things going on. But then of course they don't need to, they can just go to the ATM again for more cash when they are out of food. In America it was OK for the europeans to slaughter all the buffalo, cut down all the forests, pump the aquifers dry, turn the midwest into a dust bowl, and genocide the many native Americans into extinction. This will NOT come up in a "preachy-preachy" in an Akha village. Oh such selective memory.
Secondly, the missionaries with their vast money and power will not stand up to the Thai government and help protect Akha farm lands. They will gladly collect the millions of dollars needed for their lifestyle and for the large compounds where they will remove Akha kids to for INDOCTRINATION. THEY will have farmland, the Akha will not. They will also have nice newest four wheel drives, great houses, kids in private schools, and the best food, for themselves. They may even have a big savings account and the standard pension. The Akha will for the most part have none of this but their children are needed in the "orphanage" so that they can produce the donors that are needed back in the home churches in America. Rather than protect the land, the missionaries see themselves as the saviors, not of the Akha, but of the Thai government in their quest to take all the land in the mountains. Further, the missionaries will never speak of the fact that by removing the children and preventing them from learning their valuable farming skills, they will also forfeit in many cases the very land they live on while they are gone, which has an enormous DOLLAR value, while the missionaries are exploiting them for a few dollars of their own. But when a couple years are gone by the Akha will be out of the mission school, and THEN what will they have?
The Akha take jobs with the Thais spraying chemicals the Thai workers want to avoid and thus learn to use chemicals in farming. As they are put under more pressure in the mountains they increasingly cut corners and use chemicals like Gramoxone made by Astra Zeneca, the British company, which is better known by the name paraquat. (In the west Astra-Zeneca would prefer to be seen as the company that produces "life saving" equipment and supplies, far from the land where men and women's hands are stained with their hazardous product.) This is an extremely dangerous chemical. The Akha have little means to protect themselves from contamination. Bayer also produces a similar chemical called Hedenol. Also very dangerous.
The Akha manage to hold on to some of the land and make life better for themselves. Often they send their children as far away as foreign countries to be able to get the money needed to keep their grip on the village even though they may have very little land left to farm.
Copyright 1991 The Akha Heritage Foundation