Saturday, February 13, 2010

The power of words

The term “swidden” is defined as “an area cleared for temporary cultivation by cutting and burning the vegetation.”

Now consider how differently we might react to the following two sentences:

  1. The Akha people practice small-scale swidden agriculture to grow food for their families.
  2. The Akha people use slash-and-burn methods to clear land to grow food for their families.

Both have the same meaning—but the choice of one over the other certainly conveys a different message. And if #2 is chosen in a government report about the impact of the Hill Tribe people on the environment, how can it not imply a bias?

This is but one of the problems facing the Akha people of northern Thailand. Even if it were initially unintended, the bias gets picked up by subsequent bureaucrats and the media—and before you know it, it becomes “common wisdom” that deforestation and the subsequent water shortage causing imminent rice crop failures are due to primitive practices of the Hill Tribe peoples.

But could these problems be the result of climate change and long-term precipitation cycles? Or be accelerated by the loss of vast tracts of tropical forests plundered for their hardwoods by “friends” of governments in the region? Such alternatives are harder to explain to an electorate than to set up a scapegoat.

IMG_1789The swidden methods certainly look pretty scary when you see haze in the air or get close to a fire as it blazes through dry bamboo. However, such burning also kills weeds and insect pests, while restoring some nutrients to the soil. Traditionally, the plot would be used, then allowed to go fallow for many years before the cycle repeats.

IMG_1796The official solution to the declining forest resources (and subsequent assumed water problem) has been to move villages (often forcibly) to lower areas, and to declare the uplands as forest reserves. In many places, this has meant reforestation with pine trees—hardly a native species, but suspiciously like a future cash crop.

Like many, I reacted with horror to the burned areas we saw as we explored the hill region. After learning a bit more, and seeing how the people use swidden methods, I’m not so sure it is such a bad thing.

The alternative of farming intensively in the same spot with herbicides, pesticides and fertilizer is unlikely to be a more suitable solution.