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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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.
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
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