Community Forestry: The Next Generation

Maggie Kellogg, RECOFTC’s Princeton in Asia Communications Fellow, shares highlights from a visit to a community forestry site made by key donor representatives. The community members have worked hard to develop their sustainable forest management plan so that it is reflective of their traditional beliefs, but are unsure of what the future will hold as many young people are choosing to leave the village for larger cities. 

On 7 February 2013, a group of representatives from RECOFTC’s key donors travelled together with staff members on a 3-hour journey out of Bangkok to Suphanburi province to visit the Huai Hin Dam community and their forest. The group of representatives consisted of members from JICA, Norad, Sida and SDC. The purpose of this field visit was to provide an opportunity for the donor representatives to interact directly with communities that RECOFTC has been working with over the years. It was also an opportunity for them to see the impacts of their support, as well as the challenges that still needed to be addressed. This field visit was tied together with the RECOFTC Annual Review Meeting for donor focal points that was scheduled the following day, at which representatives from the European Commission, Kasetsart University, and USAID also participated.

The visitors enjoyed touring the Huai Hin Dam community forest on a tractor-pulled wagon.

The visitors enjoyed touring the Huai Hin Dam community forest on a tractor-pulled wagon. (Photo credit: Maggie kellogg)

As the donors saw and remarked upon throughout the day, this community and their forest are unique in certain key ways. As members of the Karen ethnic minority, the Huai Hin Dam community members believe that their forest is sacred. Their deep respect for the forest and awareness of the value of natural resources translate directly into their forest management plan. As healthy forests are a priority for this community, they have been able to successfully and sustainably manage their forest, even through use of the controversial slash and burn, or swidden, method of agriculture.

The after affects of the swidden practices employed by this community can be seen not only in the charred remains, but also through the very evident fertility of the soil, in which rice, chilies, tomatoes and other nourishing plants were growing at every turn.

The after affects of the swidden practices employed by this community can be seen not only in the charred remains, but also through the very evident fertility of the soil, with rice, chilies, tomatoes and other crops growing at every turn. (Photo credit: Maggie Kellogg)

The donors took note of these unique characteristics, and demonstrated their interest in the community’s history and the steps that they have taken to reach these achievements. It has certainly entailed a great deal of hard work and perseverance, but the effort that this community has put into sustainably managing their forest has paid off and set them apart from many other communities like it. However, the Huai Hin Dam community members also face many of the same challenges that are confronting small, forest-dependent communities across the Asia-Pacific region. One of the most difficult of these challenges is the flight of young people out of the villages to larger cities.

There is a very apparent age gap in the Huai Hin Dam community, which is comprised of plenty of older and middle age adults, as well as young children, but is lacking in young adults. The older generations are understandably quite concerned with this scenario. They are unsure of the best way to preserve their culture and way of life, and to pass this along to their children.


Some of the Huai Hin Dam community members. (Photo credit: Maggie Kellogg)

When one of the donor representatives asked a member of the community women’s group who was accompanied by her young daughter about what she would like for her daughter’s future, the woman thoughtfully responded “I would like for her to stay and make use of the home we’ve built here, and to continue building the community…but she won’t be rich,” acknowledging that there were certain things and opportunities that the forest and life in the community couldn’t provide, and that ultimately, it would be up to her daughter to decide her own future.

Many young people from rural communities like Huai Hin Dam are finding the allure of cities and the promise of greater opportunities difficult to resist. And there is certainly a more traditional and less flexible lifestyle on offer in the village. One father spoke proudly about his two daughters, the younger of whom seems to always be saying, “Dad, you’re so old-fashioned.” While this is a sentiment voiced by young people – and a concern for parents – in virtually all societies around the world, this ethnic minority Thai Karen community’s way of life is particularly unique, and the need for it’s preservation particularly urgent.

It’s easy to understand how the young people in communities like Huai Hin Dam, who are connected to the outside, modern world in virtual ways, would like to be connected in more tangible ways. And it’s certainly difficult to imagine how traditional, agricultural-based, rural lifestyles could be more desirable to these young people, who are learning from a distance about the freedoms and new possibilities available in cities. However, an enthusiastic and active, if small number of young adults are returning home from sampling life outside of their home communities.

While some aspects of life in the community are more traditional, the community members are clearly very capable of adapting to and embracing change.

While some aspects of life in the community are more traditional, the community members are clearly very capable of adapting to and embracing change. (Photo credit: Maggie Kellogg)

We had the opportunity to meet one of these young people who made the decision to come back to the Huai Hin Dam community and work to preserve his community’s forest and traditions. Leeh is a member of the Young Seedlings Network, who is using the knowledge and support that he has gained through trainings and exchanges with other Young Seedlings across Thailand to encourage more young people to return to their villages and participate in community life. There are a few occasions throughout the year when most young people do return home to Huai Hin Dam, including New Years celebrations and the first annual rice planting. During these occasions, Leeh creates more engaging opportunities for the young people to get involved, including playing games to make community gatherings and meetings more fun and interactive.


Donor representatives, community members, and RECOFTC staff. (Photo credit: Maggie Kellog)

The donor representatives were very impressed with Leeh and his work through the Young Seedlings Network, as well as many other things about the Huai Hin Dam community forest. At the end of the visit, they shared their reflections and feedback with the community, expressing their appreciation for the community’s efforts and perseverance to hold true to their beliefs and incorporate sustainable practices into their forest management plan. The community was encouraged to keep up their efforts, continuing to address the challenges that remain, and be another proven example of the potential and power of community forestry.

One of the last words shared by the representatives was a reminder that all stakeholders – be they donor agencies, international organizations, civil society organizations, or communities – play critical roles and must work together cooperatively to advance community forestry and community-based natural resource management. This is very true for the younger generation of leaders as well, and it will be up to them to continue to strike the balance between ensuring sustainable forest management and adapting to emerging challenges.

RECOFTC’s Young Seedlings Network is working to connect young people like Leeh to allow them to communicate and share their knowledge and experiences to make their difficult task a little bit easier. If you are interested in learning more about the Young Seedling’s Network, please click here.  

“The Forest is Our Supermarket…and We Don’t Need Money”

RECOFTC’s first Executive Study Tour on food security brings up questions on need, greed and forest creed.


Organic rice field at Huai Hin Dam.

With the steep rise in global food prices pinching millions of poor rural households, families are becoming more dependent on natural resources for their sustenance. RECOFTC –The Center for People and Forests, has been working with local communities living in and around forests in the Asia-Pacific region for 25 years, trying to understand the challenges and solutions for improving their lives through community forestry.

On October 12, 2012, RECOFTC organized its first Executive Study Tour on “Forest and Food Security” for 11 senior government and civil society professionals from four countries in the region. The group visited the ethnic minority Thai Karen village of Ban Huai Hin Dam, some three hours  west of Bangkok, and spent the day listening to their story of settlement as refugees 200 years ago, the threat that led to the formation of their community forest in 1995, and what it means for their way of life today.

In a materialistic world, it’s important to remind ourselves that there are also people who regard money as meaningless when life depends on the preservation and skillful use of natural resources. It’s a powerful message that resonated throughout the presentations made in the morning, the lunch served from forest products, and the walk through an organic farm and agro-forest plantation in the afternoon.

Regenerating the forest…and their lives

Tracing the story of the community forest on a hand drawn map, the Village Head Mr. Joe Kueng Ba Ngamying  recounts how a logging concession from 1974-89 led to the loss of farming land for the community and destroyed the forests and watersheds, leading to drought, loss of sustenance and great distress for the community. Continued encroachment of the open land even after the concession ended in 1989, brought the community, now 567 strong, together to preserve their environment and their way of life. With support from NGOs, the community forest committee was formed in 1995, boundaries were demarcated, and regulations for the joint and sustainable use of natural resources were put in place.

RECOFTC has been active in the area since 2000, helping the community sustainably manage and monitor utilization of their forest resources through a project called “The Thailand Collaborative Country Support Program” until 2008. Action research on Bamboo monitoring and planning for the community forest was completed by 2004, after which RECOFTC acted as a facilitator for boundary demarcation and resource management. Two years later, RECOFTC included Ban Huai Hin Dam in its youth-focused “Strengthening Young Seedlings Network: Youth Capacity Building for Sustainable Natural Resource Management,” project under which capacity building work still continues.

Today, life has improved visibly for the community: “We get clothes, food, medicine and shelter from the forest,” says Mr. Noei Aimchan, Chairman of Community Forest Committees of Ban Huai Hin Dam. “The forest is our supermarket. When you go to the supermarket, you need money. We don’t need money but we need to educate people how to use the forest.”

Huai Hin Dam Spirit House.

A Spirit House at the Huai Hin Dam.

Mr. Kwai Ngamying, the local wise man and advisor to the community forest committees, describes a way of life based on inversing the consumerism of the West: “In the West we believe that forests belong to people, but in the East we believe people belong to the forest.” It’s a telling difference fortified by reverence and rituals that have sustained the community for decades. Rituals that include meditating in the forest to know oneself, planting food as offerings for other living creatures and testing one’s wisdom by navigating a maze through the forest during a festive season.

18 years to build trust

To avoid conflict, the community has divided the forestland into zones for growing food, conserving wildlife and plant species, and for human habitation. The creation of a Pu Toei National Park in 1997 presented some problems as it encompassed an area traditionally used by the community for sustainable rotational agriculture. As we walked in that area admiring the abundant vegetables, fruit and grain crops, a committee member explains that trees are felled in a particular way to level a field for planting so that the stumps stay alive and can regenerate when the land is lying fallow. “We had to prove that we could conserve the forest and even improve it with our cultivation methods,” he says, “before the National Park authorities would agree to let us use it. It took 18 years for us to build the trust but we have a good understanding today.”

Through organic farming, the community has ensured a bumper crop of papayas, potatoes, eggplants and bananas and a particular variety of organic rice that is not available in the market. They deliberately  introduce different species on residential and forestland  to enrich the forest ecosystem and diversify the biosphere.  “We don’t use any chemicals here because we make our own organic fertilizer from rice husk and dung,” explains Mr. Kwai Ngamying, as we walk around a compost heap to examine the bark of a medicinal tree. “It’s quite strange, but if you have these leaves when you are sick, you get well. But if you have them when you are well, you may die,” he says, giving us an example of the forest lore which sustains communities even if it seems contradictory to outsiders.

Traditional medicine thrives in the many residential gardens which function as pharmacies, providing a range of remedies for common ailments. Delegates were offered a bitter brew made from forest herbs but many give up after the first few sips from their bamboo cups. I can vouch for the powerful cleansing properties of that drink however, after 24 hours.

Food Security Insurance: A rice bank

Being the basis of nutrition, a rice bank has been established in a small wooden hut opposite the community hall.  Under a barter system, a family may borrow up to 20 buckets (1 bucket = 15 kg.) of rice, but must replace it with 10% interest by the next season. The community also reserves a percentage of their collective cash for the poorest families, ensuring that the food security of all is preserved.

Some of the women community members at Huai Hin Dam.

The women of the community make their own important contribution to livelihood activities. Mrs. Lamyai Kongkae, the head of a women’s group from a neighboring village is here today to learn from the study tour discussions. Like the other women in the village, she is attired in a beautiful hand woven sarong and blouse that would not look out of place around the best addresses in town. Young girls are dressed in white by contrast, to signify purity. Pastel pinks, dusky browns, blues and red, the women look splendid in their ethnic creations. A selection of table runners, scarves, bags and other items woven by the women using natural dyes and the finest cotton are on sale.

The delegates buy presents for family members back home and suggest the women take up the activity on a commercial basis. This startles them as they are used to producing and harvesting only enough for their needs. It is what differentiates them from the consumer culture prevalent outside these communities.  The villagers don’t see a particular value in acquiring more than they need. As one of them points out:  “First you own the land, but later, you become the land.”  Trying to instill these creeds in a younger generation is more challenging they say, because development paradigms from the west are impacting their ancient belief systems. As the youth leader says, “In the west you protect forests with fences, here we protect them with love.”

%d bloggers like this: