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Akha Hope For Justice
Hope for Justice
July 15, 2000
1. Justice: A Basis For Consideration
The Human desire for justice, freedom from oppression, access to what is ours, and means of appeal for our grievances, is common to all of our lives. We desire to build up some level of security based in the land, from which we can expect to safely grow food for our survival and well being. In what we call “advanced” or “developed” society, the land and food model is a little more distant, and this can effect policy. However for many societies, especially indigenous societies, there is little that is more important than their relationship with the land.
But in reality much justice is an illusion.
As humans we invent, proclaiming that with our inventions, justice, development and equality will come. With the advances of technology, we can contact almost anyone within moments. This gives the illusion of better and instant communication, the resolution of conflict and misunderstanding. Yet our technology would seem to out perform us. On the local and immediate level there is little form by which we can address our grievances.
There are few greater issues for concern, mediation and appeal than those issues of justice surrounding the right to land, and to the manner in which one would live on it, which we call culture.
The ease of access to the system of justice is key to resolving disputes, yet it is lacking. Artificial barriers to access are created, classes of society are separated, and the oppression continues. One can not stress enough, that if the access to justice regarding land and other issues is not the corner stone to the society, the society will fail to provide the most basic rights to its inhabitants.
Without this firm foundation in access to justice we can build no model of community property rights, cultural rights, or human rights. It is the lack of this access to justice that is most noticeably overlooked as communities seek to solve conflict.
If justice is not provided on the community level, for community issues, it must be sought outside the community on the provincial, national or international level.
In many cases, the artificial creation of nation state boundaries has led to many disputes, which are now swept aside and go unheard because international bodies consider them to be internal issues to those said states, for purpose of convenience and denial.
If international appeal, which is the most logical, is not possible, the door remains long closed on the abuses of human, cultural and community property rights.
It does us little good to understand all the boundaries and defenses of what is “ours” if when it is taken away by force, or twisting of the law, or by decreed policy from the top, we have no means to decide the matter.
The world society today is taken up with carefully placing the emphasis on understanding what our “rights” are, while the manner of seeking justice for these rights is ignored. The powerful take, and keep on taking, the gap between rich and poor widens, and the local land owner becomes a serf for a landlord on land which used to belong to their family for generations. The fact that the landlord exploits the land for financial gain, in excess of the need of the land for food, is ignored. On the other hand the original farmer, be they Akha or Thai, needs the land primarily for food for the family and may not even own so much as a motorbike or car.
It is hard to proceed with concepts of community property rights based on a foundation of justice, when the trend in property ownership is outside control, established by “legalized” ownership of land, rich people being able to buy up large tracts for non food uses, while the poor have not enough to grow food on.
Certainly the issue of land ownership to those who are present on that land should be given priority. Priority before disputes of private vs. government control. Consideration must be given to the humans as part of the habitat in need of protection. On one hand how can we rule that humans are incompetent to live within the environment in sustainable ways, while competent to rule it from the outside?
An additional and enormous complicating factor is that the current international economic model will continue to demand centralization of resources, and until this is also addressed, the issues surrounding community property rights may well be defeated, whether or not the individual farmer owns the land. If the individual farmer owns the land, but must farm it for product that must flow to centralized markets, for export or consumption in the cities, the sense of community property rights is defeated from its intent. So for the moment, while resources dwindle, and local communities take a larger role in demanding that they have control over what belongs to their region in the way of land and other resources, the international economic model may just get around this by continuing to exploit the resources anyway, no matter who claims to own them. And it is here that the value of the Akha economic and social model must be considered.
Errors in current international systems can be summarized as this. Lack of local and regional justice. Lack of international appeal. Definitions of justice that allow injustice to continue by only switching the name. Humans being seen as not part of the environment in which they live.
2. The Akha And Local Land History
Currently in Thailand it is popular on the part of the government and policy makers to state that the Akha are immigrants to Thailand, persona non grata, and should appreciate any morsel or scraps thrown down to them. Many Akha still do not have identity cards and can not travel safely in Thailand free of Police harassment, fine and imprisonment. The education system is improving but continues to popularize false stereotypes of the hill tribe peoples as environmentally destructive, drug runners, prostitutes, spreaders of the HIV virus, and uneducated social undesirables. Groups effected by these attitudes include the Akha, Lahu, Lisaw and others. It is government policy in many cases that these people can not own any of the land for any reason, that they are only squatters. Additional policy would be that all Akha villages be marginalized to the point of forcing them to relocate out of the mountains or at least no longer be a recognizable Akha Villages.
It would appear that this propaganda is fostered mostly by those who would have something of shame to hide. For instance it might be in the fact that the Akha, as a group, provide a fascinating tourist destination in Thailand, and while the Thai community exploits this to the maximum for tourist dollars which they consume, the Akha community is otherwise castigated and denied equal rights. Few tourists know the restrictions on the land, on travel and access to government services that the Akha experience. None of their home countries have such conditions imposed on populations within their borders.
The basis of this propaganda is that few people know the true history of the hill tribes, and their presence and use of the land in Thailand. The Akha land ownership model is based on human need, not books, colonizers, and borders. If you need the land, if you can farm it, then it belongs to you and you farm it because when you get old you will die and you will no longer farm it or eat the food it grows and hence you will no longer own it. Very practical. So what we have is a dispute as to whose legal system takes precedent, and there is no reason to discredit the Akha system vs. the Thai land and border system.
The Akha are considered migratory and land squatters. Historically hill tribes have been known to inhabit the mountain regions of Chiangrai Province, many villages dating back close to or more than a 100 years. What is reasonable to ask, is why there is harm in the hill tribes living in these regions, an asset to diversity, and having ownership of these lands. Is Thailand that intolerant of any culture other than its own? One draws that conclusion when looking at the events in these mountains aimed at removing these peoples.
In the case of the region of Haen Taek, there was little to no Thai activity in these regions up until the last few years. Back ten years ago there was hardly what could even be construed as a road, and getting to Hua Mae Kom was a major event by motorcycle, let alone truck. Few Thais lived in the region and only small groups of Thai soldiers attempted to exercise control over these areas. So from the aspect of history of residence, surely it is the Thai that is the newcomer.
But even if we respect what is given as the Thai border lines, there is still dispute. Akha villages have history in these border regions, all mountains, all in areas Thais did not travel into very often, for more than 100 years, and before them the Lisaw, Wa, Lahu. Some villages have been kilometers into Thailand for more than a hundred years, but the greatest changes in the locations of Akha villages in Thailand have come as a result of the conflict of armies, not intentional migration of the Akha.
Villages were often within a few hundred meters of what is now considered the border, making it obvious that they were border villages with their roots in Burma, not Thailand. But the Thai army in many cases forced these villages against their will to move, or soldiers on the Burma side retaliated for local actions by raiding these border villages and burning them or raping their women, which caused them to flee into Thailand further. Lack of vision and provision of security for these villages without conflict was a shortcoming of the Thai side and a misunderstanding of the environmental impact of forced village relocations and what increased development of these regions would further do. Currently the Haen Taek region is being further developed at alarming speed, all drawing more resources out of the environment, while the Army and others would blame the environmental damage on the hill tribe. This is a racially based bias and laughable when looking at what is occurring in that region.
Rather than admitting to errors in policy, the government and army, which is not necessarily distinguishable one from the other, put the blame for both alien citizen status and environmental degradation on the very hill tribe they forced to move. Akha villages that had been at their border sites for more than a hundred years, with little dispute with anyone, now had the problems of others thrust on them and took the blame for it as well. Being citizens of Burma, they were forced deeper into Thailand and then labeled as aliens and invaders heavy on the hospitality of the Thais. Such is the case of many villages in the Haen Taek region.
In addition to failing to admit to the true legal status of these citizens, that they were from Burma, were pulled deep into Thailand, yet not afforded refugee status or citizenship status, little consideration has been given to the impact on the Akha themselves and their community. It was either assumed that they would survive, so it did not matter, or assumed that they would not survive. The Akha as a result suffered years of abuse having to run a gauntlet of police checkpoints and extortion to carry on the most basic aspects of life.
In meetings with numerous government officials in Thailand it was clearly stated that the Akha were to be continuously displaced from their mountain homes, “assimilated” and made into a labor class for the convenience of the Thais. No consideration is given to the legal status or rights of these Akha people in the international community. This would not be so tragic if it were not true that a large populations of Akha now make up labor forces in Thailand, much of it unsavory.
As to the survival of the Akha and other relocated hill tribe groups, a careful look into their locations and communities brings out harsh realities.
Once these villages were located carefully in the mountains, the product of choosing village sites based on altitude, wind, and the ability to grow food continuously over many generations. These proud and self sufficient people were broken up from big villages. Being scattered, they lost their lands in which they had invested decades of labor, and were moved to areas where they were given no comparable land. They were pushed into stifling river bottom locations where the change in altitude and environment brought on illness of the people and the death of their livestock, a valuable source of protein.
One only need to travel to the old village sites to comprehend the colossal stupidity of forcing these people to relocate in an age of environmental concern and human rights. Villages were carefully built on the top ridges, the land full of tall grasses, wind, water, and gentle slopes that did not erode easily. Great forests existed from which small quantities of wood could be gotten for houses, simple houses, and in which the cattle and pigs could find cool shelter and feed, raise their young. Trails and terraces were built, fencing was in place to keep the cattle out of sensitive farming areas, and water sources were protected. There was no where one could look without seeing either sunrise or sunset and the mountains below for kilometers. These people did not go down to the valley asking for trouble, it was the people of the low lands who came up to them and began to tell them that they were foreigners and that they must do this and that, and move their villages. Fruit trees and bushes with berries were common, birds and animals for hunting plentiful, and crops rotated from one land plot to another. One family, one village, only chose to farm close to home, only farmed for what they needed, and so the idea that the forest was continuously cut was more a concept of convenient imagination than reality.
However the Akha can tell you when the low land people came up and logged all the big trees off their mountains. These were the first roads. With the building of bigger roads for a host of reasons, came policy. And with policy came schools and stores, and the pressure and requirement to need money. The Akha were ridiculed for who they were, and so the pressure was also there to look more Thai, to own more, to build more Thai like houses, more resources needed. The need for all this money increased the burden on the families to not just grow food but grow crops that brought in money, be it opium or cabbages.
Increasingly Akha were arrested for this and that offense, offenses that were called on the bias of an outside referee with no hope that they, the people of the community, would have any say in it, and so they saw their fathers and husbands and sons taken down to the jails of the lowlands, not to come back for years. Heavy fines were extracted, girls went to town to find jobs that would pay such heavy fines, not good jobs, not jobs that you or I or other civil people would want their daughters to do, but all legal here in Thailand. Villages were forced to relocate to places that would grow no food, and during the years that it took for the village to get back on its feet, to invest the labor back in the new land to make it productive, more girls went to town to find cash to take up the place of the lost land. And every time the Akha got relocated, and the people who relocated them told them to go ahead and farm, they got collectively blamed for deforestation, one can hardly blame them now for being cynical.
Even to this day, the Thai forestry department takes over the new land they were given to farm, planting pine on all sides, a non native specie pine for a possible commercial crop, as there is no environmentally sound reason for it. The Chiangrai Forestry Department is chiefly to blame for this disastrous policy. Now thousands of rai of land, once carefully managed by Akha villages, has been totally cut clear, pine has been planted, and below the branches of the pine no other specie of any kind grows, replacing thousands of rai of jungle and productive lands with a bio desert. And each time forestry takes new land for this use, the Akha are pushed deeper into the existing forest to find new plots to grow food, and once again blamed for cutting trees when ever this occurs.
The lack of visible and well organized central clearing house for environmental information in Thailand has made it possible for this incredible environmental destruction to continue unbeknown and unseen by the Thai population at large, who might very well choose a different environmental policy in regards to this land than what Petroleum Authority of Thailand, which sponsors the plantings, and the Forestry department envision.
So as we see, community property rights, or human rights, have little meaning besides discussion, without the means to bring justice to each and every issue.
The hand that does the damage is hidden, while the people who suffer the consequences of the foolish and greedy policies of others, are made to pay both in public relations and poverty.
Living in conditions that few would want to live in, with no view of the horizon, and with little land to farm, communities often resorted to illegal activities such as drugs.
While Thailand tolerates a large population of brothels for its social needs, the hill tribe girls, coming from such impoverished backgrounds of family emergency are castigated as easy and natural prostitutes. Such attitudes often come out in conversations with both Thai government officials and well paid and secure missionary personnel.
It is very difficult not to notice the issue of race and superiority based on presumed differences between these cultures.
The natural education system of the Akha is scorned and taken away, while decrying their lack of a Thai style education, which would suggest that the only kind of education one can or should have must be a Thai school book education.
These issues are at the heart of sovereignty concerns of people who live on the land, farm it for food, and maintain their cultural and religious beliefs. For after all, if we disrespect or fail to understand the culture of another, we can hardly suggest that we are willing to give them control of the land they live on.
So in considering the issue of rights of people, we must look at these rights from the standpoint of a sphere of rights, not just convenient rights, but all the rights which cover all the aspects of life of a people. We can not claim to be for human rights while the clinics turn away those who can not pay, yet millions of baht squandered by the countries risk taking rich in via bank loans, is absorbed by the government.
All forms of rights, can only work, when the people own them as defined by their community. It is not enough, just because outsiders say they now have enough rights, enough quality of life. It is enough when the community understands and has say in what effects it, and is able to call for a halt to actions imposed upon it which are causing it damage.
Community rights can not occur if government policies of propaganda continue to push an agenda that brings about disregard for the stated community leading to degradation and social structure failure.
3. Western Driven Ideologies Which Effect The Akha
Many of the changes that are imposed from the outside on the Akha community are based on assumptions which the outside communities make as a result of their relationship with the western cultures which have co-opted them.
On one hand the British widely traded drugs, opium in particular, in the Asian hemisphere. Yet a few years later, the collective memory gone to amnesia, the west is the standard barer of drug morality, imposing its will in both war and policy on the Thai people and inhabitants along its borders. Under the pretense of stopping the drug crop of opium, at that time a well established part of the economy for the hill tribe people, the pressure to burn crops and arrest growers and users increased. More roads were built to establish a full drug free zone out to the limit of the Thai borders and many evils were imposed on these communities in the process. If one looks at the history of this process over the last ten years, one can say that it is true, that little to no opium is now grown in this region, but the region is environmentally unrecognizable compared to what it used to be. An incredible environmental loss has occurred, but the national community does not recognize this loss.
The west is now establishing economically throughout the world, what it used to try and establish by war and colonization. Central policies are controlled by trade, communications, travel, patents, banking, loans and trade treaties. The western economic model is based on the growth of economy and this economy is based on the increased exploitation of the environment. Selling this policy to countries such as Thailand has brought about increased hardship from risk in the financial sector that failed, and by the non stop pushing of consumption of manufactured goods, displacing old systems of sustainability. Thailand competes for its place in this new system, rather than find an alternative. To fuel this effort at competition the Thai people must write checks based on the chief resource it has, the environment. Rather than look for an alternative system, the Thais are told by the west, that if they run faster, if they exploit more cleverly, they can still beat the clock somehow. So if there is too much use of water, you don’t slow the use, you concrete in all the creeks and every location you can to bring the water more expeditiously to the city. And you place increased restriction on the poor people who are using some of it.
One of the penalties of this new system is that products that were not popular, were not considered wise, and were not manufactured in Thailand, began to be imported into Thailand from western countries and countries set up to manufacture to the western system. A host of motorbikes spewing toxic gases, two cycle models, came from Japan. More and more autos and highways. Electricity with its horrid web of cables and poles was pushed out to every Akha community where solar models had already been successfully tested. It was quite clear that development, opening up of these communities was sought, to increase sales of consumable goods to them, to increase traffic in and out of the villages, and even in some cases to speed the decline of the community. Communities which lived in isolation for y ears, were seen as backward and needing of development with no consideration to what this development would do to them. Ironically, many people in the west, long tired of the abuses and excess of development and consumption, were seeking these exact models of sustainability to go back to. So development must not be overlooked as a weapon, depending on how it is used.
But no issue of development promises to have a longer term impact on the environment than the increasing introduction of herbicides into this region. No government policy or law has been sited to stop this disastrous development for both people, land, species and water systems.
Herbicide is now pushed in all the stores as a quick solution to labor marginalization. Where kids worked in the fields to some degree with their parents as they grew older, the Thai schools now take them to “educate” them, and the labor gap is filled with farming chemicals.
One is made to wonder, when the west complains about the flow of toxic compounds such as opium and heroin, while they are busy exporting millions of liters of far more toxic and environmentally unsafe and long lasting chemicals into the environment of these same countries, where the products are far from the training and caution that came with them in their invention. Heroin use may have many harmful side effects to the west, to the users and their society. But herbicides and pesticides have far greater reaching effects and are used far less discriminatingly throughout the soil and water community. Yet little consideration is given to this, and you can legally sell this toxin in any Thai community, where as opium is forbidden.
The Akha were not the problem, lack of government vision was. Now herbicides are increasingly being used for the profit of chemical companies which sell them, and the Akha are spraying them on mountain fields, damaging soil organisms, and contaminating the workers, finally flowing with rains into the water shed and contributing to the contamination of regional waters. In the low lands the Thais had already been using these products for years, and now these last regions were being added. Yet in another case of mugging the facts, the Forestry department came out to say that the reason the Akha villages must now be moved was due to pollution of the water shed. But the people pushing toxic substances far in excess what damage the Akha could do, were not sited in these one sided accounts.
The Thai education system, providing education for adults moving into an industrial society, was chiefly built on western norms, at the exclusion of all else. While the Thai system was following this western method, space for alternatives with much longer histories was not allowed. So rather than looking for instance at the environmental wisdom and knowledge of the Akha education system it was rejected. We can hardly speak of community rights, while the system, one by one debunks and rejects all of these rights.
Akha children often come away from Thai schools being made to feel that being Akha is inferior, as compared to being Thai. As well, they are displaced from their own educational system, based on deep knowledge of their food working environment, herbal medicines, soil protection practices and healthy foods and protein.
In contrast to the old system, little stores come to many villages, as well as schools, selling a host of chiefly junk food, sugars, coloring and air. One sees more and more food being imported into the Akha community, much of it with low nutritional value, white rice as compared to heavy mountain dark rice. So with time, the Akha community moves further and further away from food security, and more and more of the food has high trucking miles attached to it.
Yet if we compare the educational norms we can find no reason why the Thai system is superior. If the Thais choose it, they should use it, but the Akha model should not be scorned, marginalized or rejected. In addition, we see few to no Akha teachers in the schools. This can hardly be good for Akha children that Akha teachers are not included in the educational process.
If Thailand were to recognize the benefit of different education models, not just that of the west, it would also have hope of reviving and preserving its own traditional knowledge which has been greatly lost in Thai society due to these compromises and abdications to western thinking as the only good way.
4. Benefits Of The Akha Model
We can hardly look at community property rights without looking at culture, farming and education of the indigenous people. We must ask why they continue to use a system for hundreds of years, a thousand over? Is it just because they are stupid and don’t know to change, as many would claim, or could it be that the system has great value and that it even has secrets and wisdom to offer larger societies caught up in their own impressions?
Without even waiting for the future, we can see that the Akha model has great wisdom about the environment and sustained use. Only a short stay in an Akha village will cause one to realize that the Akha are not prone to being big consumers. Houses are generally made of a little bit of wood, bamboo for the most part and grass thatch. Few own cars or motorbikes. Few own TV’s. The interior of an Akha house will usually reveal a small number of clothes, blankets and chiefly cooking utensils. As far as the Akha system goes, without increasing per capita environmental burden, it could continue on for years to come. It is only the increased consumption that is being imported and imposed on the Akha that is bringing the change.
The Akha model is based carefully in the production and protection of food sources, and has little inclination toward industrial modernization or consumption of goods. But this is one of the best kept secrets of greater Thai and western societies, that the commerce elite must have consumption of an ever new array of goods, to keep the people working and spending their money into these folk’s coffers. This increases the flow of money from the poor, toward the top, selling goods that do not last durably for a long time, with a heavy emphasis on electronics. Even the effort to replace water buffaloes with tractors has increased the use of fuels and also driven the buffalo into decline, no longer viewed as a national resource. The trend pushed by the corporate sector in society is for more and more consumption, though this model is shown to be fatally flawed both for natural resources and human justice. The population is not offered wise models of conservation of the land for food security. Water is exploited, not protected. Protection comes only in forms to protect it for the high consuming sectors of society in the cities. No moral consideration of community based property rights can by pass the issue of consumption as a society standard, as it is this model which has been imposed which will do the most to damage the local communities and make community property rights in reality, only a fantasy. People, even if they do “own” the land, will be working harder and harder to buy many things they do not need and pay increasing fees for services they did not ask for.
We can not assume the limitations to development, as other communities have imposed on themselves are bad. The concept of sustainable development appears a contradiction in words as it seems to fail at selectively controlling itself.
Further, we must look at the system of Akha culture, religion and land use as an integrated model, one that like a great snowball or rolling stone, picks up investment with time and increases in kinetic energy, with the knowledge and wisdom saved, saving time and work, preserving the community, the traditions and very importantly the land. The Akha are not just people, individuals, as advocated in the west, in a slight of hand shell game, but they are a tribe, a clan, villages. Not just one village but a collection of villages, and not just a collection of villages but the current point in a processes of villages over centuries that moves on the forward wave of knowledge and investment in the land.
This process within Akha society and its reflections in the land can be seen in time marking of Akha villages. The oldest Akha villages have the greatest investment in terracing, moving up from the bottoms, terracing more and more of the suitable land, and partially terracing other lands for preservation of water shed and soils. Terracing started at the bottoms collects any run off sediment from hillside farming.
Unfortunately, and conveniently, when environmental degradation is sited among the Akha, it is invariably done at the site of a recently relocated village. Little consideration is given to the massive destruction of invested labor in the land, so little environmental wisdom is understood on the part of the people who relocated them. They are just people you can move when you want. After an Akha village is moved, it may take anywhere up to twenty years and longer for a collection of new knowledge about the new location and the building of terraces to begin to occur. The labor involved in building terraces is no small matter. The Akha don’t get to rely on a poorer group of people to do the hard work for them at low wages, they must do it themselves. What would the Akha be owed in baht, if they were compensated for this lost land labor investment and seen as more than tourist attractions and curiosities?
The Akha invest extensively in water management, building canal systems to move water across mountain faces, and increase its benefit. The moving of water increases the use of terracing and lowers erosion.
Around older Akha villages naturally occurring fruit trees and cultivated ones can be found, but generally not so many in villages younger than twenty years. In the older locations, individual fruit trees were destinations, not just trees. Mango trees more than a hundred years old are testimony to the time the Akha lived showing that the current time of environmentalism is not the only one.
Akha traditions are aimed at one thing, living a good life, and bearing children and leaving them land to live on. Based on this, the culture is carefully woven to avoid repetitive mistakes, avoid conflict, continue to use land close to the village, and most importantly continue to raise good children to take one’s place. The Akha can not comprehend that any level of consumption could legitimately replace this, as some of the failed western models might suggest.
Akha culture is not compartmentalized. There are not laws for people and then laws for the land. The law applies to people and their relationship to each other and the land. Some days you go to the fields, some days you can weed the rice, some days it is forbidden. But this is no mystery to the Akha, like a carefully timed clock, they turn at the right moments, then move freely about. The turns set at the right times, seem little inconvenience, in perspective of not just the individual, but the village, the entire system of villages and the whole race going on, very close to the earth, closer than most other parts of society in Thailand, under much more harsh conditions.
Akha culture and law dictates festivities and ceremonies at particular times of year, rotating around the planting and harvesting of rice. There are also rituals for births, deaths and marriages. Seemingly odd from the outside, it is carefully constructed with a rhythm in mind, keeping on track but with the greatest flexibility.
The Akha work hard, consume not much more than the food they eat and have much more free time than their western counterparts. Yet they are continuously told by others that they are backward and must consume more in order to prove otherwise.
Children offer an important role in village and family farming life, working along with the family in the fields, learning from a very small age what it takes to farm, information about the natural world around them, every component. An Akha child can readily identify bugs, which ones are dangerous, which ones eat the crops, and which ones can be eaten. The western model education system divorces them from this natural world.
Children learn through festivals, more than twelve regular ones per year, how the crops are maintained, their view of God, and the forces that control nature, and how not to disturb these forces such that crops are always abundant. Ceremonies and festivals occur at every important stage of the rice crop that it be healthy, that the soil turns out well, that the heads be strong, that the rains come, and that the bugs don’t eat the crop. Any abnormal variation in the crop will bring about more ceremonies to rebalance the environmental spiritual balance such that the crop becomes healthy again. Even in the case of insects, they are not killed, as many more will come to replace them, instead the village takes the day off and asks the insects to leave, closes their eyes it is said, and send them on their way to another place where there is no rice plants to eat. Respect is given to ones parents and the parents before them for living wisely and bringing children safely to this stage, such that they could grow and have children again for their own part in the future of their clan. Year after year the cycle is successfully repeated. The Akha model could best be described as an agricultural and environmental theology. If we do not draw comparisons of the Akha model and the outside forces that are being imposed on them with ill results, we can not understand the heart of the issues involved in community based rights, which should include right to run your own lives, education and religious beliefs without domination from other cultures.
One is reminded of what occurred in many places in Africa, where the colonizers required a tax, which was placed on people that had plenty of food, so that they would have to move themselves into the jobs offered, in order to get the coinage to pay the tax. They could not pay it in other resources, and by this means their communities were often broken up, families separated, men having to go off to work in distant mines and so forth.
Thai administrators in Chiangrai Province stated that jobs were being increasingly offered in the towns to hill tribe people through their government programs to encourage the hill tribe youth to move out of the mountains. This would not sound all that odd, except it was spoken combined with the often stated desire of many agencies to move all hill tribe villages out of the mountains. Once again, it is defeating such agendas that is back at the heart of community based rights.
5. Comparative Village Examples Huuh Mah Akha is a village near Haen Taek that was caught before it was moved. This village had been at their current location for more than 78 years and had a level of nutrition reflective of this. Extensive rice terraces were built, there were plenteous fields with no new cutting of trees required. Pigs, water buffalo, cattle, and horses were plentiful. The children enjoyed good sources of fruits and vegetables, the nutrition level in the village quite satisfactory.
Huuh Mah Akha had no record of arrests or illegal activities. There are no drug users at Huuh Mah Akha.
Against this backdrop of a healthy life, Forestry Department Officials and Local Army officials decided to move Huuh Mah Akha to set up more region for planting pine in the guise of protecting the water shed. This mentality is not a solely Thai creation, and we must be careful and exact to point that out, but is backed by policy from the Asian Development Bank to relocate mountains peoples and streamline watersheds for city use.
In this scenario the Akha, the Lahu or the Lisaw, are seen as non relevant species to the environmental process.
This situation also denies the contradictions that exist. For on one hand the natural jungle is removed, and replaced with a bio desert, and at the same time, the most serious known toxic agents to the water shed are freely sold in Haen Taek. So high altitude or low, the most dangerous toxins are being freely allowed to move into the watershed system. Rather than ban the use of these agents which would stop the pollution, the officials take the opportunity to displace peoples which does not stop the pollution. In Addition, the location that was prepared for Huuh Mah Akha to move to, in itself did serious environmental damage, causing massive erosion and reckless silting of existing rice terraces of the Lisaw community below the site where the mountain was bull dozed away for houses. Another case of short term thinking. However the moving of Huuh Mah Akha was stopped, further disturbance to the environment was halted, and the village continues to prosper. The military, like having a one track mind to change something, determined that if the village was not to be moved then a new disfiguring road should be carved up through the pristine central canyon, which makes up the chief view of Huuh Mah Akha, and that power lines should be brought in, even though Huuh Mah Akha has an ample solar supply. It seems the only answer is develop or nothing. No healthy alternatives are considered.
Pah Nmm Akha was a village across the valley from Huuh Mah Akha also near the Thai border. So close in fact, it would be very hard to say that the village was surely in Thailand and that the citizens were in fact Thai. It would be more logical to presume that these Akha were Burmese citizens. The village had a long and secure history on the ridge top, farming the same location for so many years. Investments had been made in terracing, fruit trees, and water. The small area around the village was cleared of trees but the great forest was below, undisturbed. Lahu and Lisaw lived nearby. But close to nine years ago the Thai army arbitrarily decided to move this village as if no other solution was available for border security.
They moved the village several kilometers down the hill. The Akha stopped on top of a hill, while the Lahu and Lisaw and one other Akha village moved into the very bottom next to the creek, a most unhealthy and unnatural choice for any. The villages near the creek saw the greatest drug dependency, cultural breakdown and criminal activity. Pah Nmm Akha which remained higher faired much better. The village environment was also much healthier, but not without problems that previously did not exist. For one thing, and this may seem a small matter to some, but the Akha always were people who chose to live high in the mountains, where it is cold, the wind blows and your eye can see forever.
To move them to the bottoms was similar to taking away the ears of a great musician. There was no longer room for pigs and cattle to roam, and the pig population declined radically. Chickens also faired off worse and died of fever. There was no adjacent land to farm so the villagers had to still walk back up the mountain to find fields. So it was OK to farm up in the mountain, but not live there, in a most perverted form of imposed logic on the part of the Thai Forestry and Army. But since most the old fields were still too far away, the Akha were told to farm the lower lands. So areas that were fully forested for years were cut for farming again, by the Akha under the direction of the Army. Of course neither the Army nor Forestry takes account for this. Just the same, the distance that has to be walked to the fields, instead of minutes at a normal village location such as the old one, but more than an hour, close to an hour and a half.
All farming tools, materials, seeds, and crops had to be transported by back and by horse this distance. A woman working in the fields would have to walk three hours per day, just to get to the fields and back, to say nothing of the long hours in the field. Impracticality of field location imposed by the Army eats up one third of the working day of these people. And as if this was not enough, the forestry begins to plant more and more pine on these depleted lands, pushing the Akha once again. If in fact the Akha are aliens, then they are aliens that the Thai Army acquired, not aliens who strayed or migrated into Thailand. Cheh Pah Kah is a village closely located to Pah Nmm Akha, close to that original altitude, but for a number of factors it was not relocated. Comparing the prosperity of Cheh Pah Kah and Pah Nmm Akha we can see that where Pah Nmm Akha went backward, Cheh Pah Kah prospered. The village grew in size, tea and fruit plantations flourish and a tea drying plant has been bought means of a village co-op. The Akha in this village continue to enjoy years of terracing and water work investment, as well as stable living environment.
6. Factors of Increased Land Degradation While there is much discussion of land use, forestry, and water shed protection we must assume that these motives are the cover for a different agenda due to the incredible contradictions of fact which they include.
Currently in the Haen Taek region a significant amount of the area is farmed and lived on by Akha, Lahu and Lisaw hill tribe. Tai Yai make up another ethnic group. But there are few Thais living in the area. While stating concern for the land condition, more roads are built with great damage done due to silting, erosion and land slides, totally burying terraced rice in some cases. Bottom land terraces of black clay are now filling with red mud. The population is increasing as the road is built and more and more Thais relocate into the tiny mountain location, putting up big gaudy houses and shops on every road side. The quantity of trucks and cement moving into the region and the condition of the road as a result is plenty testimony to the influx of new comers. Now their shops are demanding wood from the mountains for cooking so more and more trees are being cut. There is a much greater creation of sewage and garbage, putting more strain on the local water supply and drainage. Herbicides are now plentiful in the stores and encouraged for use, totally in denial of what they are doing to the watershed of a before pristine area.
It would appear that the true agenda of this region is a racially based agenda, to move as many Thais into the region and take away as much of the land from the hill tribe as possible to reinforce the Thai for Thai mentality of nationalism. The Army is in place to continuously tighten the living conditions and freedoms of the Akha, both land restrictions and arrests for drug use are such instruments. It is worth noting that the village with the least desirable location given to them by the Army, also have high drug trafficking problems and criminality. Should not be any surprise.
Disturbing the original farming has also created over farming of some lands, increasing corrosion and depletion, the normal rotation cycle of the land having been put to an end.
So as we look at events that effect the environment, we must ignore who made the decisions which did the environment such damage and ignored so many rights of the people.
It is worth noting that racial bias and geographical isolation made these actions possible.
When we ask administrators why these actions are taken, they can only point concerns for the environment and the security of Thailand, while having ignored all the factors which they promoted which actually increased the problems.
The Akha and other hill tribes are of course, caught in the middle of this propaganda and administrative action.
In this highly marginalized environment with little representation we find the Akha being harassed non stop by foreign missionaries and local missionaries supplied with moneys from the foreign missions. Villages which are marginalized the heaviest are the first to succumb to the pressure. A host of fabrications are erected to show the Akha how they are themselves to blame for all that has occurred to them and that as soon as they become Christian or whatever, their lives will improve. A more sinister set of lies could not be fabricated or imposed on a poorer people, robbed of most all they had. Though the government supports Buddhism in Thailand, it would appear that their allowance of the missionaries into these tribal regions to “civilize” them is rather convenient.
In the villages which have been pacified in this way, the worst living conditions are found and the least resistance to the events which have impoverished them can be found. It is clear that the missions do not raise the standards of the people, but demand that they give up their souls for tiny morsels of help, the most money which can be found invested in dark church buildings. Young people particularly those who can bear more Akha children are taken away from the village to low land schools to “help” them while it is fully known and desired that they should not and do not go back to the village or their culture.
The Thai government has knowingly stood by while the Christian missionaries have harassed, pressured and denied the Akha their culture under a host of guises and fabrications to the truth. The Thai government can not show where it has acted in good faith to either recognize the Akha as refugees, annexed citizens, or tribal peoples worthy of protection. The Thai government has failed to show good faith in protecting the culture of the Akha from these proselytizing forces and the deterioration that occurs with forced village moves and marginalization. Local army policy has been to marginalize and displace the Akha to the greatest possible degree. Local administrators make no secret of wanting to move all the hill tribe to the towns in the valleys where they can be nothing more than a serf labor class. The men selling drugs, the women prostitutes, a degradation of the poor visible in many countries in the world.
At the same time this lack of moral will on the part of the government has highly damaged Thailand’s reputation as a safe haven for distinct cultures. Possible the host of tourists to the hill tribe are over and now it is only time to relocate them all and see their culture disappear for good? The tourism money has been spent, the Akha the bait, but certainly not the recipients of the money made off the process of showing them off to the outside world.
What ever the complaints of the poor and land use, we see it is the cynical actions of the greater society that create the injustice. Without redress of this ongoing stream of injustice, we can hardly expect to progress toward community rights of land and forests.
To whom should the Akha appeal for this justice?
8. Ongoing Problems
The Akha and other hill tribe groups now fight an ongoing effort of many years to assimilate them into Thai society as a non distinct group, and to displace their villages from their native locations in the mountains. While throughout the mountains we see plenteous resorts which consume a huge amount of land with benefit to only a few elite, the Akha are denied land because there is a “land shortage”. At the same time many new Thais are moving into the area, taking more and more of the land that was used for farming.
The Akha will continue to face these problems as long as they lack governmental and legal representation and as long as the government maintains policies that work against them. Akha language is not taught in schools built in their communities, and assimilating them as a backward people continues to be the talk.
Increased political and human rights for the Akha is the only basis for a policy of improved community rights of land and culture.
9. Hope For The Future
If community land rights, protections for human and cultural rights are put in place and administered in Thailand, then rather than assimilation and failure of the Akha community, we could expect to see the respect for distinct cultures and the complementing of these cultures to each other. The Akha a mountain people, willing and able to farm the mountains and make them flower, preserving water and soils and forests and animals. Certainly it is a benefit to all to have this variation of culture within a larger country.
As well, in this manner, the extensive knowledge of the forests, soils and plants of the mountain jungle regions will not be lost.
It is the most just consideration to include people as components in the environment, not just so many humans to be displaced for convenience and policy.
This is best for the environment and the people who live in it. When we deny that there is this relationship we can expect to incur costs that are not so easy to pay later on.
Copyright 1991 The Akha Heritage Foundation