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Ali Ben Khan - The Work of the Akha Heritage Foundation

Comment On The Work Of The Akha Heritage Foundation
By Ali Ben Kahn During July/August 1999 I was able to visit northern Thailand and meet Matthew McDaniel of the Akha Heritage Foundation. I was very impressed by the various activities being undertaken by the Foundation, and also very alarmed by the situation of the Akha in Thailand at the present time.

I initially contacted Matthew in early/mid 1999 after several months of reading his Akha newsletter which is posted on various internet bulletin boards. I am presently undertaking a Ph.D. in the area of the recognition of indigenous knowledge systems, (or the lack thereof), in promoting plant biodiversity conservation within the very problemmatic context of 'development'. Matthew's internet newsletter caught my eye as he seemed to be grappling with many of the same problems that concern me and was obviously trying to come up with some alternatives to conventional western style development.

Matthew gave me a good introductory talk about the situation of the Akha. Much of this information can be found on the Akha Foundation homepage, though not in such detail. Matthew then took me to several villages so that I could see for myself what was happening. I have ocassionally seen reponses to Matthew's newsletters and comments questioning his view that the current situation is one of crisis. Unfortunately, I have to confirm his belief that, basically, the Hill Tribe cultures are under siege and I can assure everyone that Matthew's reports do not exaggerate in any way the urgency of the situation.

However, I want to make clear that the following is based on my own interpretation of what I saw and learned, based on my own background as someone who has very deep reservations about the whole concept of 'development' as defined and created by western culture. I don't pretend to have an easy answer or a new whizz-bang alternative. However, I believe that we need to question the whole concept of 'development', as indeed many are already doing, and try to evolve some new ways of sharing wealth, constructive technology, knowledge systems and so on. Having said that, back to northern Thailand. Under the guise of 'development' and 'modernisation' there appears to be a policy on the part of the Thai government to systematically dismantle Hill Tribe cultures. My ongoing research suggests that there are a number of reasons for this.

Thailand operates a very old-fashioned, assimilationist policy aimed at bringing the Hill Tribes into the 'mainstream' Thai culture. As a white Australian, the very idea of assimilationism makes my hair curl! Maybe some people mean well by wanting others to assimilate. A lot of the time however, assimilationism is just another way of saying 'your culture is crap, ours is better so take it up or else, because we're not going to allow any space for you to be different'. In other words, it leads inexorably to cultural genocide and the Australian Aboriginals have educated us about the extreme injustice and arrogance of this! The land that should belong to the Hill Tribes (but which doesn't legally as they have no 'land rights' or citizenship status) could be 'better' used by the Thai government and/or Thai farmers. Without going into the various rights and wrongs of this, or the situation of impoverished Thai farmers, suffice to say that some very lucrative plantation deals, tourism ventures etc are in the offing if only those Hill Tribes weren't cluttering up the place! The situation regarding tourism is interesting though: the Thai government is faced with some very awkward dilemmas here, given the big boom in Hill Tribe Treks-more later.

The need to be active (or at least appear to be active) in the field of biodiversity conservation and agricultural reform. This has become a major interest of various heavy duty aid and development agencies (World Bank, IMF, Asian Development Bank etc). Thailand is faced with some very embarassing past history in this area, e.g. systemmatic destruction of their once widespread forest resources facilitated by official corruption and lack of good governance to mention only one.

Unfortunately, it has now proved convenient to scapegoat the Hill Tribes and to claim that deforestation, soil erosion, stream siltation and numerous other environmental ills are caused by their agricultural practices, one of which is shifting cultivation. The possibility that these people may have valuable indigenous knowledge about their surrounding ecosystems and to have developed production systems suited to their environment is never mentioned or acknowledged. This scapegoating the hill tribes for the problem of deforestation is very widespread. I visited the Hill Tribe Museums in both Chaing Mai and Chaing Rai. Both feature display information panels that put the blame for deforestation squarely on the shoulders of the Hill Tribes. No mention is made of government sponsored logging, illegal logging and the corrupt practices of the past and present which persist even though logging was banned in the early 90's, and which in any case simply shifted the rape of the forests into Laos, Burma and Cambodia.

While it is undoubtedly true that shifting cultivation becomes less sustainable as population increases, there have been no recent demographic studies to clearly demonstrate that the hill tribe populations have increased or by how much. This is another claim of the government: that the Hill Tribe populations are increasing at a rapid rate. Whether or not this is actually true needs to be properly researched. In relation to the putative effects of land clearing, in the course of my research I have found evidence that a major contributor to stream siltation in northern Thailand is, in fact, roadbuilding. While travelling to and from the villages I saw many examples of road building practices that were nothing short of environmental vandalism on a monumental scale: these really have to be seen to be believed! No environmental impact studies had been undertaken, no proper/best practice guidelines exist in any meaningful context and road building proceeds with complete and absolute disregard of the surrounding environment. The government is undertaking a massive roadbuilding programme to facilitate both trade and tourism, especially tourist access into ever remoter areas as part of the 'Hill Tribe Trek' phenomenon.

In this way, the government is faced with a dilemma: one the one hand, it wants the land the Hill Tribes are living on to create lucrative plantations. The plantations are usually pines and eucalypts and clearing of indigenous forest to plant them is common. This is usually justified by the claim that the areas were already degraded (by, you guessed it, Hill Tribes). Indeed, the Forestry Dept's definition of re-aforestation/revegetation seems to consist entirely of planting with exotic plantation species. Deals with Chinese interests for enormous joint plantation projects were being announced in the Thai media while I was there.

I am presently seeking information on development funding for 're-afforestation'and revegetation in Thailand. Do the donors know, for example, what is really happening? On the other hand, tourism is a mainstay of the Thai economy, especially during hard times such as the recent Asian economic crisis. Hill Tribe Treks are the most recent BIG thing and so there is a need to maintain some villages. However, many of the selling points of the treks are that the villages visited are 'unspoilt, remote, intact indigenous cultures etc' and so there is a need to keep pushing into ever more remote areas, to build more and more roads (bigger to accommodate bigger coaches) and so on. It isn't hard to see that this is completely unsustainable. However, tourism aside, the overall policy is undoubtedly to move the Hill Tribes off the mountains. Once moved, the people are provided with little or nothing in the way of services and facilities. The situation concerning water is particularly critical and underscores the apparent reluctance of the Thai government to provide even the most basis infrastructure. This is in contradiction to the stated policy of the government, which partly justifies the moving of people in order to better provide for their basic needs in the areas of education, utilities and health care.

The real situation however, is very different. I saw several villages that Akha had been moved to which were not even provided with a source of water. Health care is an unobtainable dream and there are many well documented cases of Hill Tribe people being mistreated or ignored by health workers who view them as undeserving ignorant savages. One of the things that the Akha Heritage Foundation does is to build wells. I saw several excellent wells, constantly in use, that Matthew had helped to build. However, it seemed absurd to me (and very revealing) that Matthew is undertaking such basic infrastructure works which by any standards should be provided by the government. Moving villages has numerous consequences for the people involved. They are always moved downwards, sometimes even to flat land which Akha are not used to, and the change in altitude can affect the health of both the people and their livestock. Loss of livestock means less protein.

The forced removals seriously disrupt the traditional agricultural production cycles which also leads to dietary problems and malnutrition. Common ailments among Akha babies, eg congenital heart problems, are often blamed on dietary deficiency on the part of the mothers. This is usually blamed on the eating of white rice but there can be no doubt that overall protein deficiency is a major contributor. This in turn has increased pressure on the wildlife of the forests, notably barking deer and birds (which are noticeably absent due to heavy hunting). Added to this is the aggressive marketing of MSG (monosodium glutamate) in Thailand, particularly among the Hill Tribes. All this adds up to very serious dietary problems. In short, and to be very blunt, it was hard to come to any other conclusion except that the Thai government is undertaking a deliberate policy of cultural genocide, dressed up in old-fashioned assimilationist language, or under the guise of environmental protection or development.

The Thai Forestry Department bears no resemblance to what most other forestry workers would recognise as comprising best practice forestry management. It would be more appropriate to call it the Department of Logging and Plantations, and indeed you sometimes hear this said jokingly when referring to the Forestry Dept. The use of the environmental protection motive to attack Hill Tribes is particularly invidious and hypocritical given the otherwise complete lack of commitment on the part of the Thai government to undertake proper natural resource management in the forests of the north. There are no inventories of natural resources and no programmes to manage the forests in a sustainable manner and no scientific (western or otherwise) standards applied. The rich store of Akha and other Hill Tribe lore concerning the forests is completely ignored in the face of logging and plantation pressures.

In reaction to this very negative government approach, the Hill Tribes are in the very embryonic phase of organising themselves to protect their culture and knowledge. This is made additionally difficult due to the influence of the Christian missionaries, who always seem to initiate their entry into a village by telling the people that their own culture and religious beliefs are wrong (often described as 'devil worship') and must be given up. In Christian invaded villages it is unusual to see women wearing headdresses (which are enormously significant components of women's cultural lives) and in some villages there are only older women present, as the missionaries encourage the younger women and girls to leave the village. The reason given for this is to save them from 'devil worship', abuse by the males of the village, and for purposes of education. The fact that many of these removed women and girls end up as prostitutes is an interesting phenomenon that requires further investigation. This removal of younger women has a devastating effect on the age structure of villages, the production cycles, social interactions, marriage prospects and so on.

The Thai government maintains a hands-off approach to these Christian activities but it isn't hard to see that this cultural disruption aids and abets the government's covert aim of gradually dismantling Hill Tribe culture and removing them altogether from the mountains of northern Thailand. Cultural demoralisation will simply make it that much easier. In relation to this missionary activity, I will be honest and say that I personally have never been able to understand the zeal that lies behind thinking that you have the right to go to someone's else's culture and carry out this kind of activity. I can understand compassion and generosity but not the colonial mentality that says that you should give up your 'devil-worshipping' ways (as defined by me) and take up my system of beliefs. I found it very interesting that Matthew views this as a human rights issue and my conclusion is that he is right. I think that this will become a big issue in the near future as increasing numbers of indigenous peoples gain the confidence to challenge what is, after all, a direct attack on their basic human right to adhere to their own system of beliefs. In addition, I think that extreme fundamentalist evangelicism and missionary zeal will be recognised as the mental illness it undoubtedly is.

In relation to the missionaries in northern Thailand, I tried hard to find examples of good works but failed. I wanted to give them the benefit of the doubt, but found only a weird kind of ignorant fundamentalist empire building whereby the missionaries are happy to build a big church on the highest point of a village that doesn't even have a well! The role of these missionaries in the destruction of Hill Tribe culture should not be underestimated. In relation to tourism, I would urge everyone reading this to keep in mind the following if you ever visit northern Thailand and consider going on a 'Hill Tribe Trek'. These treks are the latest fad and often dressed up as 'ecotourism'. Inquiries quickly reveal, however, that local tribespeople gain little benefit from these treks and suffer considerable disruption to their village life and privacy. In addition, remember that the popularity of treks has encouraged the government to increase road building and other means of access into ever more previously remote villages.

Conclusion So, sorry to be talking doom and gloom but this IS a crisis situation. It's only by knowing the truth and challenging what is happening that we can help the Hill Tribes who are starting to get organised to challenge these attacks on their culture and to have the right to make decisions about their future for themselves. My experience helped me realise that Hill Tribe cultures (and other cultures in general) are incalculable treasures. We may not all agree on everything and there's always room for dialogue, discussion and even argument and disagreement. After all, no-one's culture remains the same forever (if it does you're in trouble). The important thing is who gets to decide, how much respect you're given and how much space is available for difference to exist. In Thailand at the present time, that space is apparently almost non-existent.

Ali Ben Kahn B.A.; M.Env.Stud.; Grad. Dip. Outdoor Ed. & Outdoor L'dship. Dept of Social Inquiry University of Adelaide South Australia (

I am a plant ecologist and conservation biologist presently doing a PhD Degree at the University of Adelaide in South Australia. My research field is the acknowledgment and application of indigenous knowledge in plant conservation as part of the development process. This reflects my interests in several areas, mainly plant conservation and natural resource management, cultural diversity and the alternative development movement which is critical of the importation of western values, economics and knowledge systems into other cultures. I have worked for many years as an environmental activist and am presently Vice President of the Nature Conservation Society of South Australia, the state's pre-eminent science based community biodiversity and nature conservation organisation. I also sit on several state statutory bodies dealing with issues pertaining to conservation and/or natural resource management. I am a practicing Mahayana Buddhist and have traveled extensively, especially in Africa, where I lived in Zimbabwe in the late 80's.

(Ms) Ali Ben Kahn
Department of Social Inquiry
University of Adelaide, SA, 5005
Ph: (08) 8303 3351 (wk); (08) 8449 9379 (hm)

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