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The Hmong Approach to Forest Life in Mae Sa Mai

By Khamvanh Daravong, Vientiane Mai, Laos

The sky was bright and blue, and the only dark clouds were beyond the mountain as the bus took us up into the valley of Mae Sa, Chiang Mai, in northern part of Thailand. The road was narrow and muddy but a beam of sunshine went through the green leaves, and a fresh breeze made the leaves on the linchi trees dance. Finally, when the group of IMMF journalists arrived in the Hmong village of Mae Sa Mai at 11.20 am, we were welcomed by Chaiyoot Tanomphonsook, head of village administration.
Chaiyoot is in his early 40s with dark hair. His beard makes him look a little bit older. His determined Chinese eyes glistened with pride when he talked about the forest restoration project and how the Hmong people in his village seem to have a better life after stopping their slash and burn farming habit.
One of the journalists asked him how important the forest is for him. With fixed eyes, he said, " The forest is the waterís source and without water we cannot survive, and if people feel a part of nature then they do not want to destroy our mother earth. Hmong people here are more cooperative because they realise that they have to help each other in order to bring back nature."
After lunch we met Dr. Stephen Elliot, Associate Professor of Conservation Biology at Chiang Mai University. Elliot explained his job is to research ways to improve tree seedlings to increase bio-diversity and protect watersheds. He said he was not a social scientists trying to persuade people to replant trees. The projectís success, he said, depends on the villagers themselves, who have to realise how important the forest is for them.
Elliot then took us to see the tree planting area further up the mountain. We got closer to the dark clouds and it started to rain. We followed Elliot to a two-year-old tree plot.
Beyond the trees, a ray of sunshine reappeared covering the bright blue horizon. We looked down from an elevation of more than 1,200 meters. Fifty rai of different local trees were planted in what once used to be opium plantation.
Elliot said at the very beginning of the forest restoration project, there were some conflicts between the old Hmong generation who were still attached to slash-and-burn farming. They did not agree to the idea of replanting trees and stopping their traditional farming. It took a few years for them to understand.
According to Elliot, the villagers here are divided into different teams. Some have a duty to take care of the seedling nursery and others serve as guards to prevent forest fires. They also have a regular meeting and training course to discuss new forest restoration techniques.
As we left the tree plots to return to the village, the sun began to slip behind the green mountain and the evening sky turned yellow. Chickens, dogs and little dark pigs ran around, while little Hmong kids played with their mothers. We walked into the village where smoke and steam came out from kitchens as it was about their dinner time. Yupin, a Hmong lady who is 30, sat with three of her children beside her low wooden house, and talked about her life here. She spoke in a small and timid voice.
She was born here and has seen all of the changes in this village, from traditional slash-and-burn farming to todayís more permanent cultivation. The government encouraged them to grow cash crops instead of opium.
Yupin said her life is better after growing linchi and some other vegetables such as cabbage and corn.
She explained the history of the village. There were only 700 Hmong people living in this area when the village was founded 30 years ago, but now there are 1,640. Many came from other places.
We asked Yupin how she felt when lowlanders accused the Hmong of destroying the forests, using too much water and also allowing chemical fertiliser into drinking supplies.
She said the Hmong people donít do such things. " We try to protect the forest and environment all the time. Now we have changed our ideas and activities to sustainable agriculture."
She said she hoped the government would not include the village as part of the national park, forcing the Hmong to leave. They have nowhere to go. Moreover, the Hmong way of life would likely disappear.
The Hmong takes part in an environmental conservation and protection programme that lets them replant the forest and look after forest fires. They also protect animals and forbid villagers to cut trees in the conservation area.
Even though the Hmong at Mae Sa Mai village still do not know what will happen to them, they are determined to conserve and bring back the forest.
Chaiyoot Tanomphonsook, said  " If we are good citizens and do not create any trouble for others, but try to help make this world a better place, then I hope the government or public will see what we have done and let us stay in the forest harmoniously."

 He ended his words with a ray of hope in his eyes.

Copyright 2009 IMMF.