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1. The mountains of Northern Thailand and their inhabitants: some issues

1.1. Introduction
1.2. Who are the swiddeners (and why are people saying such terrible things about them)?
1.3. Complexities. myths, and misconceptions


1.1. Introduction

Although the mountain areas in Northern Thailand comprise only a fraction of the nation's land area and contain indigenous inhabitants that number less than 3 per cent of the nation's population, nevertheless these areas are of particular importance to Thailand. The mountains are politically and militarily sensitive areas, contiguous with neighbouring Burma and Laos and nearby to Yunnan in the People's Republic of China. Due to the inaccessibility of the terrain, Thailand's northern borders are virtually impossible to control and unsanctioned traffic across them is common. Many inhabitants of the northern mountains are culturally distinct from the lowland Thai and their political stability and integration is of major concern to the Thai government. In some areas open hostilities exist (see Race 1974). Marginal mountain inhabitants are also materially less well off than the lowland Thai; their livelihood and well-being are thus also of concern.

Mountain areas in Northern Thailand are also of major concern for reasons related to ecology and resources. Indigenous hill people who support themselves through shifting cultivation (hereafter called swiddening, for brevity and convenience in use as a verb form) are widely thought by many to be responsible for the destruction of valuable timber reserves which are of major economic interest to the nation. A related common fear is that crucial watershed capabilities might be destroyed by agricultural practices in the hills. Without sufficient forest cover, rainfall would tend to run off rapidly rather than being absorbed and released gradually over subsequent months. The result would be flooding and erosion during the rainy season and drought in the dry season; the floods could destroy lowland waterworks, and massive damage would be done to wet-rice agriculture, upon which the country is heavily dependent. Finally, widespread opium-growing in the hills is seen as inimical to the welfare of Thai society, where addiction to opium and its derivatives (particularly heroin) has become a problem among the young. Opium production is also an irritant to the international relations of the Thai Government.

Given the above reasons, it comes as no surprise that these "marginal" mountain areas in Northern Thailand are of major concern to the Thai Government as well as to international assistance agencies. A number of development and assistance programmes have come into being in the hills of Northern Thailand. Agricultural programmes, however, have in virtually all cases started with the a priori assumption that swiddening, upon which the mountain inhabitants depend, must be replaced by more ''permanent" forms of agriculture or arboriculture. The present study assumes an almost opposite point of view. Given that swidden systems have existed in the hills of Northern Thailand for some time, have become adapted to the environment, and are seen by their indigenous operators as essential to their livelihood, it is likely that this form of agriculture will be continued unless massive efforts are exerted by the Thai Government to coerce change. After the experiences of the late 1960s, it has become (wisely) generally recognized that the financial, political, and ethical costs of such massive efforts are unacceptably high (see Race 1974; Hearn 1974).

If swiddening in the hills of Northern Thailand has existed in the past, exists in the present, and in all likelihood will exist in the future, it makes little sense to turn a blind eye to it in the hope that some as yet unproven breakthrough will woo swiddeners away from their traditional systems.1 Instead, if it is held to be true that assistance programmes can be beneficial if appropriate, then should not the attempt be made to determine whether appropriate forms of assistance would be of value to swiddeners to make existing systems more economically and ecologically viable, and what such forms of assistance might be? To make such a determination will require some research and the planning of small, flexible, research-oriented pilot projects. But before these can be initiated, an examination is needed of some of the basic characteristics of existing swidden systems, with the general purpose in mind. This can be based in part on a considerable body of already existing information concerning swidden systems in North Thailand that has resulted from a number of careful research efforts conducted in the 1960s and early 1970s. Such examination will be a major part of the present study. Secondly, the study will examine the larger question of the development of swidden systems in general, reviewing experiments and recommendations from swidden areas in various times and places throughout the world. Finally, the study will attempt a preliminary assessment of the applicability of swidden development to the mountain areas of North Thailand.

1.2. Who are the swiddeners (and why are people saying such terrible things about them)?

1.2.1. The Thai
1.2.2. The Hill Peoples


1.2.1. The Thai

It is popularly assumed that swiddening in Northern Thailand is practiced primarily or exclusively by hill people (commonly called "hilltribes''), ethnic groups culturally distinct from the lowland Thai or North Thai. These culturally distinct swiddeners will be the focus of the present study, but it should first be pointed out that they are not the only swiddeners in the Northern Thailand hills. Indeed, they may not be in the majority, even taken all together. It is likely that they are now outnumbered by lowland (North) Thai (cf. Walker 1975, p. 8).

Widespread Thai swiddening in the hills of Northern Thailand is a rather recent phenomenon. Rudimentary swiddening techniques have long been known to the lowlanders in Southeast Asia and have been used in the previously existent lowland forests (Spencer 1966, p.13). in Thailand during the Ayuthaya and early Bangkok periods peasants who wished to strike out on their own probably often fled to the forests, where they could make a living from swiddening, and for this reason laws were periodically enacted to close the forests and prevent ''escapes" from the manpowerscarce wetrice society (Akin 1967, p. 87, passim).

As the lowland population expanded, swiddening was also used as a first step in converting new land to wet-rice agriculture. Forest cover was cut and burned and dry-rice broadcast or dibbled in the ashbeds for several years until yields declined and the gradual construction of wet-rice paddies progressed (Hanks 1972). By the 1960s, however, little suitable land remained in the lowlands for the expansion of wet-rice agriculture which had characterized the growth of the Thai economy since the nineteenth century (see Ingram 1971). In the face of land shortage, traditional expansion efforts continued on land that could be suitably swiddened on a rotational basis and swidden communities developed where wet-rice agriculture was unfeasible (Judd 1964).

By the late 1960s, however, there was little good land available in or near to the lowlands that was suitable for swiddening. The best sites in the mountains were already occupied by other groups, and, in any case, many of these sites were so far from the lowland communications systems that they were impractical for most Thai, who wished to swidden part-time to supplement other sources of income in the lowlands. Consequently, many Thai began to swidden in Dipterocarp and Mixed Deciduous Forests of the nearby foothills. By the mid-1970s this type of swiddening had increased to alarming proportions.

In general, a number of factors suggest that swiddening by lowland Thai in the foothills is a far greater ecological danger than that by hill peoples. First, the types of forest being swiddened by the Thai (near the lowlands) are generally drier and sparser and provide poorer yields. This may cause the swiddener to clear a larger area than he would otherwise need. In any case, a greater danger of erosion damage exists and forest regeneration is likely to be slower in these areas. Another contributing factor is that lowland Thai swiddening methods seem to be neither as careful nor as conservational as those of most hill-people swiddeners, who have been trained since childhood to practice this form of agriculture exclusively. This may also be due in part to the fact that many Thai swidden only to supplement lowland wet-rice paddies (or other lowland work). A labour conflict thus exists that limits the amount of effort they can afford to devote to their swiddens (see Chapman 1967; 1970; 1973).

Other recently mushrooming activities in the low foothills include the cutting of firewood and the making of charcoal by lowland Thai, activities that have also resulted from growing population pressure and the lack of other sufficiently attractive alternatives for small farmers, tenant farmers. and landless rural labourers. These activities, too, are contributing to an ecologically dangerous situation in the foothills.2

There is little doubt that grave dangers exist if these activities of the Thai lowlanders in the northern foothills continue to expand at their present explosive rate. In the past, economic growth in Thailand occurred as expanding population was able to take more and more land under cultivation, and this was usually done independently, without government concern or assistance (Ingram 1971; Judd 1964). This laissez-faire policy worked splendidly as long as plentiful land was available. Under present conditions, such a policy is no longer adaptive. It is very doubtful, however, that the foothills can be protected by lawenforcement means alone. What is likely to be needed is a change in institutional arrangements such that the Thai Government becomes more actively and beneficially involved in the plight of the small farmers, tenant farmers, and landless labourers, in order that viable economic alternatives to further "extensification" can be found. It would seem that comprehensive efforts at land reform will be a necessary (but not sufficient) component of such a programme.

1.2.2. The Hill Peoples

The present study is aimed not at Thai part-time swiddeners but at those groups who practice swiddening as a major livelihood and who have welldeveloped, time-tested ''group styles" to do this (Bennett 1976, p. 850), people whose cultures and societies are intimately connected to these practices-in short, people who swidden as a way of life. These are the so-called hill peoples of Northern Thailand. In Conklin's (1957) terminology they are "integral" swiddeners, not only in the sense that the food-production system is integral (Conklin's usage, as opposed to ''partial," where some major portion of the agricultural produce is obtained through some other system, such as wet-rice for the Thai partial swiddeners) but also in the sense that the type of society and the method of agriculture are (and have been for centuries) intimately related. In the latter sense, integral swiddeners are attached to their way of life and this attachment is reflected in their beliefs and values (see Watters 1960, p. 66). They possess a great deal of highly sophisticated information about swiddening which has been gained through long experience and is carefully taught to each succeeding generation (Ruddle and Chesterfield 1977; 1978). Swiddening is their primary. occupation, receives the majority of their labour, and is the basis for countless discussions, legends, and stories, and problemsolving. Such groups do not simply do swiddening, they are swiddeners. As long as they can make a living from swiddening, to give it up would be unthinkable, even assuming viable alternatives existed.

Integral swiddeners in Northern Thailand can be conveniently classified according to Conklin's basic distinction of ''established" versus "pioneer" (Conklin 1957, p. 3; Walker 1975, pp. 5-6). "Pioneer" swiddeners are those that prefer to swidden in primary forest when they can. In general, they use their swidden plots in a more exhaustive manner than the "established" swiddeners and move their villages to new areas when yields become insufficient. In Northern Thailand, they include Hmong, Yao, Lisu, Lahu, and Akha-all "Sing-Tibetan" groups (LeBar et al. 1964). Subgroups of these categories also are indigenously recognized, identified by differences in dress, custom, kinship and alliance, and sometimes linguistic traits. Linguistic variation also occurs on a geographical basis not directly aligning with the named subgroups most commonly adhered to by the peoples themselves.

Geographical distribution of the Sino-Tibetan groups is not confined to Thailand but occurs widely throughout northern Southeast Asia and southern China (see ethnic distribution maps in LeBar et al.1964)-an apparent result of pioneer swiddening movement patterns, many within approximately the last 100 years. The increased geographical mobility and rapid dispersion during this time was probably facilitated by the growing of opium as a cash crop (see Grandstaff 1979; Geddes 1976; Dessaint 1972). The role of opium and the nature of movement patterns will be dealt with in more depth below. It should be made clear at the outset, however, that there is little swiddenable primary forest remaining in Northern Thailand today, and thus the vast majority of the "pioneer'' swiddeners no longer farm primary forest. This has had decided effects on their movement patterns and other aspects of their lifestyle, which will be discussed in greater detail below.

The "established" swiddeners in Northern Thailand include the Lawa, Khmu, and T'in (Mon-Khmer groups) as well as the Karen (a Sino-Tibetan group; see LeBar et al. 1964). Established swiddeners live within relatively fixed swiddening village territories where they farm secondary forest on a rotational basis. Many of these groups have farmed the same lands for centuries. Many of the villages also have constructed small numbers of wet-rice terraces which they farm in order to supplement the swidden rice regime. Because of this, a classificatory question arises as to whether such groups ought to be referred to as "integral" swiddeners. Probably the term "integral" does apply here, in that (1) these groups have a long history of swiddening; (2) for the vast majority, swiddening is the main occupation and preoccupation; (3) in most villages, even those who own terraces all still swidden regularly; (4) the attachment to and importance of swiddening is reflected in their beliefs, values, educational systems, social organizations, etc. The term "integral," then, although perhaps not fully appropriate, serves well to distinguish them from such partial swiddeners as the lowland Thai who have been recently impelled to adopt swiddening as a necessary supplement to a clearly preferred societal and agricultural style that is very different in orientation.

The groups mentioned as established swiddeners in Northern Thailand are also to be found in other countries of Southeast Asia. Recognized "subgroups" marked by dress and custom also exist. However, because of the relatively "established" orientation, affinity to the locale and to those members of the group living locally is probably more important than identification with others of the "same group" living elsewhere (cf. Marlowe 1969). Linguistic variation also occurs on a geographical basis and is probably more relevant in setting off one geographical group from another than it is among the pioneer swiddeners, who, in their migrations, tend to "rectify'' initial linguistic variation and devalue its importance.

1.3. Complexities, myths, and misconceptions

Before proceeding to examine Northern Thailand pioneer and established swidden systems in more detail, it is advisable at the outset to deal with a few popular hoary generalizations regarding these groups to ensure that the more detailed discussion to follow is not obscured by any unwarranted predispositions.

1. Do hill groups destroy millions of collars' worth of teak reserve each year (a commonly voiced supposition in Thailand)? Integral swiddeners (the hill peoples) prefer to swidden in Evergreen Forests, where greater biomass, faster regeneration with greater species diversity, and relatively greater moisture can be expected to produce better yields for cropping a field several years in a row or to allow them to return to it after a relatively short regeneration (fallow) period. Tectona grandis (teak ), however, is found primarily scattered throughout Mixed Deciduous Forests, and also (generally less commercially valuable teak) in the Dipterocarp Forests. In terms of altitude, teak does not grow above about 700 m elevation, and relatively few hill-group swidden sites are below this level. But Mixed Deciduous Forests are being increasingly swiddened by lowlanders, as mentioned above. A map study, conducted by the author, of swidden sites in a valley near Chiang Mai revealed that none of the swiddens in Mixed Deciduous Forests could be attributed to the integral swiddeners in the area. All the swidden sites in this type of forest were in the lower portions of the forest, near to the Thai villages. Nevertheless, it is still unlikely that even Thai partial swiddeners themselves are responsible for the massive teak losses attributed to swiddening. In the first place, it seems likely that the figures are questionable, not only because many of these "reserves" are not really economic assets in the foreseeable future but also because of the extreme difficulty in assessing nonplantation teak assets. In its natural state, Tectona grandis is individually scattered throughout the Mixed Deciduous Forests in irregular patterns, making swidden loss assessment a most difficult task. There is little doubt, however, that exploitative hit-andrun logging practices by unlicensed commercial enterprises are responsible for much teak loss in Northern Thailand, and for no small degree of environmental degradation as well.

2. Do hill groups destroy other commercial timber reserves? This question is not as simple as it appears and cannot be simply answered. It is certainly true that most primary forest in Northern Thailand has disappeared due to population pressure, commercial logging in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and swiddening. The really big trees and virgin forests are a thing of the past, not only in Northern Thailand but, increasingly, throughout the world. With the lumber requirements that the modern world imposes, it is unlikely that such pockets that remain would make much of a dent in our needs and there is a far better argument for conserving them as biogenetic reserves (Dasmann et al. 1973, p. 26). It is clear, then, that forest industries will have to adapt themselves to the harvesting of secondary forests if needs are to be met (Dasmann et al. 1973, p. 70). Some swiddening practices have been lavish in forest usage, and areas of Imperata and scrub have resulted. Although some timber reserves have thus been destroyed, it should be pointed out that most sites were generally located far back in the mountains and thus would not have been available for commercial use in the foreseeable future. Among the Karen (who form the majority of integral swiddeners in Northern Thailand), however, secondary forest swiddening practices are highly conservational. Secondary forest reserves in Karen areas are not "lost," although commercial harvesting of timber on Karen lands must be carefully considered, since forest regeneration is essential to Karen agricultural practices. This subject will be returned to in more detail below.

3. Could growing population among integral swiddeners result in ecological cataclysm? Archaeological and historical records point in the direction of ecological catastrophe for populations dependent on riverine economies when highlands are deforested, perhaps due to excessive swiddening. Pendleton (1939, pp. 45-48) has made this argument for Angkor and Meso-America, while Gourou (1949, p. 9) has constructed similar arguments concerning areas in China. The basic argument is usually alluded to in most general discussions of swiddening. The scenario envisions a growing population in mountain areas with consequently increased swiddening, causing fallow periods to steadily decrease until virtual deforestation has occurred. Loss of ground cover then results in laterization and massive erosion during heavy rains. Loss of water-retention capability causes flooding and heavy siltation in the lowlands, destroying lowland fisheries, waterways, and agricultural irrigation systems and disrupting cropping patterns, followed by dry-season drought. Resulting famine then causes the total collapse of the lowland civilization. The scenario is a convincing one. Indeed, "before and after" pictures for a valley in China are said to have convinced Teddy Roosevelt and the Congress to establish the US Forest Service (Eckholm 1976, p. 35).

There are two important facets to this ecological catastrophe argument: one deductive, involving the concept of carrying capacity in swidden agriculture; the other inductive, involving the historical lessons of past catastrophes. The first facet will only be touched on here but will be dealt with more fully in the later sections: it may be possible that such a catastrophe could occur if some absolute swiddencarrying capacity were exceeded, although a number of alternative outcomes could conceivably occur that would be less catastrophic. The argument does have merit, however, and must be kept constantly in mind when proposing any sort of "development" in swidden systems (see Geertz 1963; Farnworth and Golley 1973, for discussions of the fragility of swidden systems under population pressure). The second aspect deals with the historical lessons of the scenario. To my knowledge, we have no evidence that integral swiddeners ever caused such a catastrophe. More than anyone else they are constantly aware of the absolute necessity for forest availability if their agricultural system is to be continued. A rapidly expanding valley population, however, might, in desperation, have turned to the hills, where hyperbolically increasing hit-and-run swiddening, firewood-cutting, charcoal-making, or other subsidiary practices could conceivably have caused such damage before people realized (if they ever did) the effects of their rash actions. Permanent-field agriculturalists, unschooled in the complexities of swiddening, could easily cause such damage without realizing the extent to which they were "fouling their own nest."3 At any rate, since nearby large lowland populations existed in all the cited cases, it makes sense to include their influence on their surroundings in a more interrelated form of explanation, rather than breaking the situation into independent parts and placing the blame on ''swiddening" per se. Perhaps the evidence could be re-examined with this in mind.

No such massive damage to watersheds has yet occurred in the Northern Thailand mountains. It makes eminent sense, however, to monitor riverine ecosystems for trends in this direction as a standard tool of ecologically informed resource management (see Dasmann et al. 1973; Van Dyne 1969). In regard to the likely causes of watershed deterioration, several researchers feel that commercial interests (Dasmann et al.1973, p. 63) and modern ''bulldozer technologies" (Ophuls's phrase, 1977, p.116) are likely to be of more danger in this regard than is traditional agriculture. As Dasmann et al. (1973, p. 175) put it: ''In the more humid tropics, overpopulation relative to carrying capacity is more likely to be evidenced by malnutrition ... and environmental deterioration may not be so dramatic under subsistence methods of resource exploitation ... it will very probably be modern methods of agricultural and forestry exploitation that are doing the more serious damage."

4. Is swidden agriculture a primitive and unsophisticated form of agriculture, practiced by peoples who don't know how to do a better job of it? Among those who have studied swidden systems in detail the unequivocal answer to this question is no. Even by the early 1950s researchers set about refuting this common allegation (see Judd 1964, p. 5), and, soon after, detailed works such as those of Conklin (1957) and Freeman (1970; first published 1955) had shown that integral swiddeners possess incredible amounts of information concerning their environment and have developed highly skilled and adaptive methods, utilizing complex decision-making processes, for practicing swidden cultivation. A spate of articles has since followed stressing the logic and adaptive value of swiddening under appropriate environmental conditions and population densities (see, e.g., Leach 1958; Reed 1965; Geddes 1970). In Africa, colonial authorities found to their dismay that indigenous swidden systems were far better suited to their environments than (actually more simplified ) forms of "modern" agriculture which the Europeans were unsuccessful in applying in the local environments. As a consequence, in some areas modified versions of local swidden systems were adopted instead (President's Science Advisory Committee on World Food Production 1967, il. pp. 496-497).

Evolutionists have generally taken the position that swidden agriculture probably preceded permanentfield agriculture and is in this sense more primitive (i.e., older). In many areas of the prehistoric world (but probably not all ), environmental conditions (extensive forests) and local population levels would have favoured swidden agriculture over permanent-field agriculture and would probably have involved less work per yield for the practitioners (see Boserup 1965; Brookfield 1972). Whatever the case, swidden societies have evolved through the same lengths of time as other societies and we have no reason to assume that their knowledge and ability to cope with their surroundings have not kept pace in adaptive sophistication. In Southeast Asia it is probable that swidden systems and wet-rice systems have existed side by side for thousands of years, and it would therefore be entirely unwarranted to assume that swiddeners have not adopted wet-rice because they were generally unaware of its practice and benefits.4 Rather, they have continued to swidden because they found this method of agriculture highly suitable to local conditions and were able to make a good living from it. Swiddeners unskilled in the intricacies of wet-rice agriculture would, of course, have to learn and practice it to do it most effectively but, when needed, sources of instruction were always nearby. In constructing wet-rice terraces, for example, the Karen have readily made use of nearby Thai and Lawa expertise in learning the system (Kunstadter 1970, p. 80; Hinton 1970, p. 4). Conversely, the recent Thai partial swiddeners would undoubtedly have a far easier time of it if they were able to learn some of the techniques in which integral swiddeners are already well versed.

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