A way of life

Ethnic Karen Nutdanai Trakansuphakon is working hard to ensure the outside world see the positives of rotational farming

A Karen by birth, Nutdanai Trakansuphakon wants to share his community's wisdom in rotational farming. Photos Courtesy of Nutdanai Trakansuphakon

A resident of the Pgakenyaw community in northern Thailand, Nutdanai Trakansuphakon began an initiative to maintain, revive and promote rotational farming as a cultural practice tied to his Karen identity. In the process, he's helping raise awareness of its many benefits.

For him, the indigenous wisdom of rotational farming and revival of seasonal food plays a pivotal role in helping mitigate, among other things, climate change.

His work is based on traditional knowledge and practices and often features an innovative approach to the community's social enterprise activities. This includes reviving in-season local products, hosting group workshops about rotational farming techniques, and creating opportunities to market local organic ingredients to restaurants in the city.

Apart from being a co-founder and owner of the Pgakenyaw Brand, Nutdanai is the main co-ordinator of the Slow Food Youth Network Thailand, Slow Food Indigenous Network Thailand, and Sustainable Creative Pgakenyaw Association for Sustainable Development (PASD). He is also co-founder and managing director of HostBeeHiveThailand and Little Farm In A Big Forest, a training centre for organic farming and NTFPs. Nutdanai is also a researcher at the Indigenous Knowledge And Peoples In Mainland Southeast Asia (IKAP-MMSEA) Foundation.

While discussing his initiatives, he explained how the Pgakenyaw community project promotes public awareness of rotational farming methods and fosters pride in the cultural identity of the Pgakenyaw people.

This has helped them explore environmental conservation management, its obstacles and expected solutions.

Keeping today's youth interested in local wisdom through fun group activities. Courtesy of Nutdanai Trakansuphakon

Rotational farming, he explained, is an agricultural practice that involves alternating cultivation between different plots within the same location whilst leaving other plots fallow. It is often misunderstood and is mistakenly considered to be a destructive farming technique.

Nevertheless, for generations, Karen communities have depended on it as their main source of income, and rightfully so because the area is rich in biodiversity thanks largely to the traditional knowledge they use in farming, noted Nutdanai.

"We must remember these people have been bound to forests since birth. To prepare the land, the villagers will slash trees -- not uproot them -- at about a metre from the ground. The preparation rituals for clearing the land at Chiang Rai's Huay Hin Lad Nai village where I come from are the same. Once the trees have been slashed, a sacred ritual revolving around life and death takes place in preparation for the rebirth after burning."

He admitted there has been immense pressure by authorities to stop this practice because for one, it is not recognised by law, thus making it all the more important to build awareness of the fact that "when done properly, sustainable use of fire, and slash and burn agriculture offers communities with a good source of food and income".

Nutdanai, who has a background in law, said for Karen communities, farming is a holistic practice that balances the clearing and burning of land.

A Karen farmer in her element. Courtesy of Nutdanai Trakansuphakon

"It [the practice] is imbued in our culture and spiritual values and is a method we use to keep our forests safe and not just prevent wildfires but also help with biodiversity and soil erosion.''

Outsiders might assume the forest and farming are two separate issues, he said, however for his community they are interrelated.

Nutdanai hopes to educate the public on rotational farming in Karen communities in the hope that they will be more open-minded and not rush to judgement before understanding what lies at the core of such traditional farming methods.

Much of his work today focuses on raising awareness in urban communities about rotational farming through his research and documentation of types of produce and plant life that are grown in plots that use this method.

He shared how their programmes and workshops showcase the manner in which local foods and seasonal crops highlight rotational farming as part of the wisdom of the Pgakenyaw people.

A seasonal calendar detailing components used to map the community's food system is created to raise awareness and educate visitors and youth alike.

He explained food mapping is used because it is an image-based approach that reveals how humans connect to food and how it interacts with their senses, emotions and environments.

A sample of what to expect while experiencing nature. Courtesy of Nutdanai Trakansuphakon

"There is a lot of team effort and collaboration required to gather information for this activity," said Nutdanai. "Getting youth involved in the process of building a social enterprise mechanism is imperative in ensuring success."

When done effectively and with a goal in mind, rotational farming can help increase incomes in the community, he remarked, saying: "Making a profit is not our main objective as the foundation of our business is based on sharing our knowledge with outsiders.

"While our labour helps generate profit, our focus is on introducing the public to our history through the homegrown products we sell.''

Nutdanai said that to spearhead a community social enterprise, he had to get the residents excited about what they had individually to showcase to potential buyers from their rotational farming practices.

Each of their products is documented based on information gathered from the elders of the community.

"Storytelling is a huge part of what makes these products special. Information we get from senior folk finds its way into the packaging and marketing because it relates to who we are as a community. This keeps our history and culture alive. Storytelling is linked to every aspect of our life."

As for the rest of the process, Nutdanai continued: "To get the prototype right, we work with experts to tie loose ends. We invite them to visit and organise workshops in our community to educate everyone involved in this process.

"We often get feedback from experts that in some cases helps us create a new product such as our top-selling item rice chilli powder which is used in flavouring dishes. Our products are sold both online, which our youth help to manage with their skills in social media, and offline where we have partnered with individuals who are interested to sell our items.

"So far the response has been amazing. A Michelin star chef even used our wild honey in his dessert menu which became popular with clients. This has further created an interest in wild honey tastings activities and workshops."

Nutdanai said the community has created a rotational farming workshop where people from diverse occupations can participate.

Chefs from Bangkok are among visitors who get to spend a week at a homestay where they experience life with natives.

"It is a win-win situation for everyone. Cookbooks have come out of such visits while residents simulta- neously get valuable feedback from visitors on how to better their products for the future."

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