Imagine Bangkok physically disconnected from the rest of the country. How long could residents of the capital survive with the remaining food supply? Probably just a matter of weeks of relying on frozen and instant food.
Food security for the people in Mae Hong Son means growing and eating their own crops.
Being able to access a variety of food from local and overseas sources, Bangkok residents and those living in big cities assume _ wrongly _ that their food supply is secure.
Very few realise that availability and accessibility don't necessarily mean security, and that their lives depend largely on food producers. Last year's massive flood was, perhaps, an example of how Bangkokians are vulnerable when it comes to sourcing food, as products quickly disappeared from market shelves.
Food security has become a common issue around the world as a result of a growing population in contrast with a decreasing area of land for plantation and farming.
Mae Hong Son, the country's least densely populated province, is no exception. But of all the villages learning to fight against food insecurity, those in Mae Ping village are lucky enough to learn from the mistakes of their neighbours in Pai, a popular tourist destination.
Located about 12km from Pai, Mae Ping villagers have witnessed the arrival of the nearby tourism boom that has caused food shortages during the peak winter season over the past decade.
"Tourism is too demanding to cope with," said Amphan Preechayawichaikul, a senior resident who was a part of the research team in the village, supported by Thailand Research Fund.
Mae Ping is too remote to become a tourist destination, said Amphan, but is close enough for villagers to observe how tourism takes away sources of food from Pai. The land that used to grow rice and produce to feed the locals around the town has become busy with boutique resorts. The remaining farmers have turned to growing economically viable food for a higher income, instead of growing produce for family consumption.
Water from rivers once solely used for farming is now scarce because it goes directly to the luxurious resorts.
Resorts located by the river can afford powerful pumps to redirect water for their property. During the low season, people in Pai manage to survive with locally produced food, but the situation is different in the high season with the arrival of tourist crowds. Food has to be imported from Chiang Mai to feed the sharp increase in demand.
"It's fortunate that we can learn [from the mistakes of others] and be prepared to tackle problems that might occur," said Amphan.
Back in 2003, the community agreed to keep 800 rai of private land and public space in the mountains where the village is located for the 150 families to grow their own food.
No plot of land is allowed to be sold to outsiders, said Net Pino, the village head. Those violating the community rule will be deprived of social welfare, including low-interest loans and school scholarships for the children.
The community also bought two plots of land that had been sold to developers before the rule had been made, and later turned them into land for public use. Villagers are encouraged to grow rice and other produce, rather than commercial varieties, for family consumption. Commercial plants such as corn may generate more money, but the villagers don't eat it in everyday meals.
''You can't even eat the tip of the corn plant,'' said Amphan.
Villagers usually grow plants they can eat multiple parts of, such as its fruit or leaves.
For the past decade, the community has managed to rely on self-produced food. During the rainy season, villagers grow rice for local consumption and the surplus goes to the market. Outside the rainy season, they feed animals such as cows to earn extra money. They find seasonal produce such as bamboo shoots and mushrooms in the mountains and fish in the river for free all year round. They also earn some extra money from souvenirs sold to tourists coming into the village.
Generally, food is obtained from four sources: self-production through growing food and raising animals, natural resources (catching fish in the river or collecting seasonal vegetables from the forest), cultural resources (attending parties or ceremonies such as weddings or funerals), and food from markets. The first two are the most reliable sources of nutrition for villagers, making up to 70% of all consumption in many areas of Mae Hong Son.
The third is where the poor can feed themselves with better food at special occasions, while markets can be the most reliable source for urban dwellers, but usually unaffordable for villagers.
When it comes to saving land for agricultural use, Amphan lives by example. He turned down 20 million baht for his 5 rai plot by the main road.
''The only choice I had if I had sold the land was to move out of the village for good and enjoy the fortune elsewhere,'' he said.
''But I don't want our village to repeat [others'] mistakes.''
Need some pork for cooking? It’s right under the house. A Karen villager, above left, brings home some corn and herbs for cooking after checking on his rice field on the mountain.
Living life by nature's laws
When shrimps and frogs started to disappear from the river a few years ago, ethnic Karen villager Pana Chobkhunkhao knew the village's food sources were threatened.
The river and the forest up on the mountains have always been one of the two major food sources for Karen in Mae Ou Kor village in Mae Hong Son's Khun Yuam district.
Pana and a group of villagers decided to form a team to research their own community, supported by Thailand Research Fund.
And they found that life isn't as easy as it used to be since their food became scarce. They also know the cause of the problem _ their own neighbours from other hilltribes.
''With only 20 or 30 baht, a family could easily survive each day from the produce collected from their plantation and the fish caught in the river,'' said Pana.
Traditionally, the Karen, who are known for their conservationist lifestyle, engaged in integrated farming, growing a mix of crops including rice, corn, sweet potatoes, taro and other vegetables in the plantation for home cooking. Only the surplus rice and corn is sold in the market.
But their neighbours live a different lifestyle. They grow economically viable crops such as corn, cabbage or chilli. Such farming requires the use of farm chemicals.
Unfortunately, the neighbours' plantations are located near the watershed area _ the source of water for the villages. The chemicals used in their farming leaked into the water and harmed aquatic life. Numbers of fish, shrimps and frogs started to decrease, making it harder for the Karen to live off the natural resources.
Apart from the leaked chemicals, the villagers also found their neighbours also catch fish during the breeding season, a practice that has been prohibited in the Karen tradition.
''It only kills the food source of the future,'' he said.
A year after doing the research, the villagers found a way to reverse the situation, hoping to prevent the extinction of aquatic life. They started ''Wang Pla'', a fishing-prohibited area, two months ago on a 2km length of river close to the village. The prohibited area requires villagers to make more effort to walk further into the forest if they want to catch fish.
The Karen villagers plan to go a step further. They aim to convince their neighbours to share the villages' code of practice, to secure food sources for everyone.
About the author
- Writer: Sirinya Wattanasukchai