Letter from the Road #27

Path of the Friend

Elias Amidon


Indigenous Survival


Trying to keep our balance in the back of the pickup truck as it struggles up the rutted dirt road, Father Wichai and I shout our conversation. He points to the yellow flowers on the thick stands of bamboo. “Not a good sign,” he yells. “When the bamboo trees make flowers that means they’re about to die. They only flower at the end of their lives. The Paganyaw don’t know why so many bamboo are flowering this year.” Father Wichai is a Thai Jesuit priest who’s been president of the Catholic Council for Indigenous People in Thailand for the past 12 years, and knows the tribes well.

The truck stops suddenly. In front of us rises a newly-built gateway about 20 feet high spanning the road. Built of stout logs it is hung with dozens of painted boards announcing this is the entry into the Paganyaw community forest of Mae Lan Kham. The gateway hadn’t been there six weeks ago when we last came up here.

It looks rather haphazard and festive, the boards sticking out unevenly on each side, lettered in homemade Thai script describing how many rai are designated for various purposes within the community forest – the conserved areas, the ceremonial forests, the area for villages, and for paddy rice and upland rice.

“Do not come here please to hunt, or to fish in the conserved parts of the Mae Lan River.”

“We the Paganyaw (Karen) people of the Mae Lan Kham community forest protect this forest. Do not start fires. Come see us if you want to walk here.”

Nutt, our driver and our former Masters student in the Environmental Leadership program at Naropa University, jumps out of the truck and points at the signs. “That’s from the Declaration!” he shouts, referring to a project we initiated three years ago that inspired the Paganyaw to declare their “land ethic” in a written form. The resulting “Declaration of the Rights and Responsibilities of Forest Communities” they created was presented to Forestry Department officials and sent to the King in an effort to demonstrate the Paganyaw’s commitment to protecting these headwater forests. The spirit of the ethic had now found its way to the signs on this new gateway.

There is a history of racism in Thai society toward the tribal peoples that judges them to be primitive despoilers of the forests. This is ironic since the only forests left in Thailand are where the tribal peoples live. For a number of years there has been a succession of official policies and economic seductions aimed at relocating the Paganyaw and assimilating them into the cheap labor pool of the cities.
The gateway across the road also showed the Paganyaw’s realization of the need to designate their own territory, and the sub-zones within it, particularly in relation to the increasing expansionist pressures from the outside world. It is this particular vision – a vision of protective zoning – that brings us back to the forest this day.

We arrive at the village of Soblan and walk up a path to one of the larger stilt houses. About 25 village leaders have already assembled, curious to continue our earlier discussions about this vision for cultural survival. Once the initial respectful greetings are completed, I start by reminding all of us of the grim situation facing tribal peoples throughout the world – the rapid decline of indigenous cultures through loss of land, language, their own forms of education, and the spread of the money economy and its enticements.

Pau Luang Joni, the most senior and influential leader present, listens to my description, and then responds, “Yes, this is happening. We see this. We are losing the battle to modernization. It is like the story of the man with children whose wife dies. He remarries, but his new wife tells him he has to get rid of the children. We are that man. But even though we are losing, we still want to fight with our hearts.”

His statement is a response not only to the hopelessness of indigenous peoples, but to our own – the hopelessness of our generation watching the world we love be exploited and destroyed by greed on such an unprecedented scale. “We still want to fight with our hearts.”

I describe the vision to the elders – a vision for the long term safe-guarding of their culture. It is rather simple. It involves responding to the flood of modernization by establishing three zones in their community lands in which they would designate the varying degrees of modernization and infrastructure allowed in each zone, stipulating everything from roads to types of schools, building materials to electricity use, forms of agriculture to the specifics of technological innovations permitted. “Zone A” would be the most pristine and would have the highest filter, “Zone C” would be the most permissive and open to outside influence. The current situation allows almost no filtering of change – as it is now everyone living in the community is forced to accept all changes that show up.

In this vision, each zone also would involve a specified role of cultural stewardship. For the sake of example, I gave these roles possible names but stressed the actual definition of the roles would be up to them. Zone A could be called “The Zone of the Guardians” in which, having the least contact with modernity, those choosing to live here would follow more traditional Paganyaw ceremonies, beliefs, and subsistence lifestyle in harmony with the forest and the spirits of the forest they respect.

Zone B, having road access and more contact with the outside world, might be called “The Zone of the Teachers.” Having more contact with the outside world they would teach the young both about Paganyaw ways and the ways of the modern world.

People choosing to live in Zone C would be more integrated with the Thai money-based economy, but would not be simply a poor version of it. Inhabitants of this zone would also be dedicated to maintaining Paganyaw culture, but perhaps would take the role of exploring what new technologies and skills might be appropriate to Paganyaw culture. In general they would actively interface with the outside, and in this role might be called “The Zone of the Friends.” Here, for example, the treks and tourists wanting to experience Paganyaw life would be welcome and would be encountered with a spirit of self-respect rather than weakness or money-hunger.

It would be important that each these roles be understood and honored for their necessary purpose in sustaining the culture. In this strategy, the members of the tribe could freely choose to live in whichever zone they wished at different times in their lives, as long as they respected the differences and roles of each zone.

The elders quickly engaged the subject with spirited discussion, which for the next three hours largely centered on the issue of education of the young. Since the Thai government had made modern education compulsory, Paganyaw children had no time to learn the traditional stories, songs, ceremonies, and wisdom of the forest from their elders. Like any living system denied the ability to self-generate, the culture was consequently turning into a relic.

I asked what would prevent the village of Soblan from starting a pilot project right here. The headman, Pati Dayei, said, “Yes! We can do it!” His friend, Pati Muso, from the village of Megapu, said, “Yes, we can, but the problem still will be finding young people confident enough to do it. We uncles would be glad to do this, but we have failed to teach the young people. I myself learned the songs from the grandmothers – I had to sing on the spot! It was fun!”

A group of young Paganyaw were asked to speak. Were they aware of the dangers facing their culture? Yes, they were worried, they said, but understood little about the consequences of following either the traditional ways or the modern ways.

Rabia spoke to them. “One way to understand that,” she said, “is to ask the question: Which culture – Thai culture or Paganyaw culture – makes you feel most like a man, or a woman?”

“That’s it,” Pati Muso said. “If we are going to live in the Paganyaw way it has to be both fun and honorable. If it is, then the young people will follow.”

“OK,” Pau Luang Joni said, “let’s get practical. How many villages are willing to begin a dialogue about this vision and the issue of education that goes with it?” The headmen from the five local villages expressed interest. A visiting Paganyaw elder representing an association of 21 villages said he was impressed by the vision and would discuss the model at their monthly watershed meeting. Father Wichai offered his agricultural center outside of Bangkok as a place for young Paganyaw to see how urban Thais are trying to re-learn sustainable agriculture, as well as for them to take “exposure trips” into the city’s slums to witness how Paganyaw have to work and live in the margins of Thai society when they migrate to Bangkok.

Father Wichai concluded the gathering with the words, “We must remember this struggle is a spiritual struggle. The answers we carry in our hearts already. That is where we will find them.”
I thought of the blossoming of the bamboo trees we saw, beautiful flowers signifying the dying of the old. And yet seeds were being made, and they would drift on the wind to take root no one knows where.

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