Thailand – Building Adaptive Capacity Through Community Leadership in Om Koi District

The Karen ethnic communities of Om Koi District in Chiang Mai Province are among the poorest in Thailand. The Raks Thai Foundation, a member of CARE International, has been working with these communities, whose livelihoods depend on agriculture and forest products, to promote sustainable natural resources management practices for eight years. Under the Where the Rain Falls project, Raks Thai is working with five communities in Om Koi to promote climate-smart agriculture practices and build adaptive capacity to climate variability and change.

Raising living standards and adapting to climate change for these communities will require local leadership. One such leader is Mr. Sutipong Apibankunchan, who is the Chairperson for the Where the Rain Falls working group in Mae Lan Noi village. On a recent visit to an irrigation pond built by the community with Raks Thai support, Mr. Apibankunchan showed great interest in better understanding climate change and it causes and likely impacts. He wanted to know if other countries are experiencing the same sort of increasingly unpredictable rainfall patterns they are seeing in Mae Lan Noi village and if such changes are due to global warming. He also expressed the view that global warming is being caused primarily, not by people in villages like Mae Lan Noi, but by the growth of cities. He also expressed the view that the Government is too focused on “making money” and not doing enough to promote sustainable development. He also said that the government and lowland/urban Thais should stop expecting upland peoples to protect the country’s forest and water resources without doing their fair share to address the problems. As the sun began to set in the hills of Om Koi, these observations sparked a lively debate among the local farmers and CARE visitors, raising hope that community leaders in Om Koi are ready to do their part to address the global challenge that is climate change.

This impression was further confirmed by a visit to Huay Kong village. There we met with community leaders and a number of older farmers respected for their hard work and local knowledge. One such farmer is Mr. Takanu Krikachonkrai, who will serve as a model farmer under the Where the Rain Falls project. Like many farmers in his village, he has been engaged in contract tomato and chili farming for an outside investor. Looking for a more sustainable and profitable way of farming his hillside farm, Mr. Krikachonkrai sought support from the Royal Project. This initiative, supported by the royal family of Thailand, provided him with passion fruit seedlings, starter fertilizer and wire for trellises. He supplied the bamboo poles, labor and subsequent inputs to develop trellises of passion fruit above his existing vegetable plots. Already the passion fruit is thriving and will shade out the vegetables by next season, allowing for a transition from pesticide-heavy contract vegetable farming to organic fruit production. An additional benefit to local farmers of participating in the Royal Project is that they provide a market for first-quality, pesticide-free passion fruit and select other local fruits and vegetables.

In Huay Poo Luang village, where work is just getting started under the Where the Rain Falls project, we met with the village head man, Mr. Raka Nampraserting. He is showing leadership by example in abandoning contract tomato farming in favor of organic coffee production and organic vegetable production in backyard gardens. His motivation for doing so is both economic and concerns for the health of his community. While he described the contract farming system as having some advantages for local farmers, he said that current prices set for tomatoes by investors made it impossible for farmers to earn a profit. He also expressed concerns about the high use of pesticides promoted under contract farming. He noted that recent blood tests done in his village by the Health Department showed that 98% of its residents had unsafe levels of pesticide exposure. He also counted approximately six deaths due to cancer in the village, which consists of just 65 households, in recent years. These factors have led him to take a leadership in a local initiative supported by Chiang Mai University to form an organic coffee cooperative, which ten other farmers in the village have also joined.

Building adaptive capacity and raising living standards in Karen villages will also require the active engagement of women. Doing so will require focused attention, given the prevailing social norms in traditionally male-dominated Karen society. In historically isolated Karen villages, women have had little contact with wider Thai society or the outside world, have lower levels of literacy, and are subject to social norms that limit their mobility, participation in public fora, and equality in decision-making and access to resources, even within their own households.

One example of gender inequality recounted by women in Huay Thong Luang village is that women suffer most when there are food shortages because they are only allowed to eat after the men and the children. Indeed, one local male leader in this remote village proudly said that when times are difficult they are able to get by on a diet of rice, salt and chili. The consequences of these social norms were evident in the malnourished state of the many young children in the village. It is thus perhaps a first positive step that the working group for the Where the Rain Falls project in Huay Thong Luang village has five women among its 15 members.  Of course, mere representation on such a committee will not ensure that that the project has a positive impact on gender equality and the well-being of women and children, but the Raks Thai staff will work with local leaders and the women’s group in Huay Thong Luang to ensure that the activities undertaken there under the Where the Rain Falls project are gender-sensitive. Transforming gender relations will be a long-term process, particularly in isolated villages like Huay Thong Luang.

Kevin Henry

Project Coordinator, Where the Rain Falls

November 2014

Mr. Sutipong Apibankunchan, Chairperson of Project Working Group in Mae Lan Noi Village

Mr. Takanu Krikachonkrai, Model Farmer in Huay Kong Village

Mr. Raka Nampraserting, Head Man of Huay Poo Luang Village

Project Working Group member in Huay Thong Luang village