Abedon, David [faculty advisor, Department of Natural Resources Science]
subsistence agriculture; community forest; livelihood
This paper explores the effects of development projects on traditional natural resource use in three communities in Northeast Thailand, a region known as Isan. I interviewed villagers in each community and asked them to describe their environmental perceptions, management practices and livelihood strategies. Participants described several subsistence livelihoods that have traditionally been present in Isan. These include rice farming, fishing, community forestry, and wetland use. Residents from the three communities all described various cultural activities, knowledge systems, and religious ceremonies that are closely tied to their local resources. Raising silk worms, making clay pots, and performing rituals for a spirit that presides over their rice fields are all examples of how natural resources play a part in the culture of Isan. Interviewees also noted a traditional community structure shaped by the relationships of trade, communal property, shared labor, and plentiful food sources. Through a series of interviews with elders in each community, the change in resource use and management is described. The results show that development projects over the past fifty years have altered access to resources and the subsistence livelihoods dependent on them. The management of resources, such as forests and rivers, shifted from the community level to the national government, against the will of the people with whom I spoke. Villagers in all communities expressed a desire to be included in the decision-making process and several of them are currently struggling to regain rights to use their local resources. Development projects discussed include the Green Revolution, the building of dams, and the creation of tree plantations. Although the specifics of each community differ, there was an overall belief that these projects have degraded the environment, the culture, and the communities themselves. Examples of impact on Isan culture include: decreased use of traditional fishing gear, loss of indigenous rice varieties, and the breakdown of traditional community structures. The majority of villagers noted that in the past they were able to sustain themselves almost entirely from their local resources, but that no longer is the case. Urban migration has increased rapidly as rural livelihoods are less successful and young people must go to the city to find work. It is common to find a village of elders and young children, with the majority of the working class living in Bangkok or abroad. I end my paper with a brief summary of a grassroots effort I helped to initiate in an urban community. The project was born from the comments of many Thai elders who expressed concern that their environmental knowledge would die with them. My aim was to re-integrate traditional environmental knowledge in an urban setting. I collaborated with a vibrant group of teachers and community members to plan and create a school garden. This garden now serves as an outdoor classroom where children cultivate Isan staples such as chili peppers, lemongrass, and basil. People of Isan have long been proud of their heritage as farmers, and it is inspiring to know that even for urban families this tradition has proven its resilience.