Karen Indigenous People’s Dependence on the Forest and their Traditional Forest Management
Rare wildlife species of both local and global significance still exist in the virgin forests of Northern Kawthoolei/Karen State. These species have been protected by the Karen indigenous people since time immemorial. It is the heritage passed down from our ancestors. While some Karen people do not respect the traditional practice and taboos that guide co-existence in the natural environment, the majority do follow the principles, and as a result Karen areas remain among the healthiest natural ecosystem in both Burma and Thailand.
The indigenous Karen people in this area are Sgaw Karen and have an animist system of belief and practice; some have converted to Buddhism or Christianity.
Their livelihood activities include wet-rice paddy farming, upland rotational farming, and a diverse range of agroforestry systems including mixed-species orchard gardens. Fertile soil from the forest erodes into the streams, which flood the paddy fields and deposit the nutrient-rich silts during the rainy season. The forest therefore provides a source of fertility for the paddy farmers. In addition, forest cover helps to moderate local microclimates, providing better conditions for the upland rotational farms.
Nowadays, the traditional rotational farming systems have become controversial, due to three major factors. First, the civil war drove many Karen people to abandon their wet paddy farms and regular rotational farming areas, forcing them to flee as IDPs into the virgin forest areas. Second, population growth in these IDP areas has forced the people to clear more forest for their farms. Finally, industrial development such as monoculture plantations, logging, and mining alienate lands from the traditional rotational farms, forcing them to either further expand into virgin forest or shorten the rest periods in the rotation, both of which result in environmental degradation.
People collect various household materials from the forest, such as wood and bamboo for building houses and leaves for the roofs. Local people collect various wild fruits, vegetable species, and mushrooms in the forest and along the stream banks. Examples include bamboo shoots and rattan shoots. People also collect herbal medicines from the forest.
Non-timber forest products also provide Karen people with a source of income; these products include honey, dotfruit, and cardamom. When people have free time from their farms, they also engage in gold panning. They can then exchange the gold for money to buy things such as salt, fish paste, and farming tools.
Traditionally Karen indigenous farmers also make traps around their upland farms and in the orchard gardens to capture common animals with rapid population growth rates such as rats, wild pigs, or squirrel which come to eat the rice and fruits. They also set nets and traps for sparrows and parrots that eat the rice crops.
Karen indigenous people also hunt in the forest and collect fish from the streams. Traditionally, when hunters come back with meat, they share it with the whole village. The elders teach the people to show respect to the forest when they hunt. Similarly, when people fish, they must show respect and use the traditional fishing method and tools. The elders teach the people not to be greedy when they hunt, and the meat from hunting is not to be sold. There are also prohibitions against hunting certain species that breed slowly, such as gibbon, hornbill, elephant, etc. While some people violate the prohibitions, often incited by traders, the large majority of Karen live simple, non-materialistic lives and actively protect their environment.
Following the teachings of our forebears, there remains widespread belief that certain rare animal species are the spirit of the rice; when people see these animals near the rice farms, they believe that they will have a good harvest. Children are not allowed to mention these animals by name, or to look at them. Local people also avoid thinking any bad thoughts about these animals. It is understood that when someone kills one of these animals, they and their family will experience bad luck and death for seven generations. Beliefs like these have helped protect these rare species up until the present time. The Karen National Union government from early on also developed special laws to protect these rare species; under the law, anyone who kills one of these animals will be heavily penalized, and in some rare cases the punishment can be very severe.
Starting in 2006, KESAN and the KFD, with permission from local authorities and Indigenous Karen communities, conducted wildlife surveys in northern Kawthoolei. In 2008, local authorities and communities provided support to the wildlife survey teams by guiding them through the areas and helping to carry supplies and food. Due to the cooperation of local Indigenous Karen communities, the team which was supported by W1 was able to find evidence (such as mud wallows, tracks, feces, and blood) of rare species in 2009 and 2010. Two people in the survey team were able to observe rare species directly in 2010. And in 2012 and 2013, the camera traps yielded photos and video clips of endangered wildlife species including tiger and clouded leopard.
These species and their habitat were actively protected by the Indigenous communities up until the present as a result of their traditional respect and love for the forest. Modern methods of conservation must respect Indigenous peoples’ natural heritage. There should not be misunderstanding or conflict between conservation initiatives and local communities who co-exist with their environment. Karen indigenous people believe that the spirit of the rare species is afraid of any kind of conflict or disharmony between people, and it will leave the area, never to be seen again.