There are approximately 736,000 members of different ethnic groups living in northern Thailand.About half of those people are ethnicKaren. Most of the others belong to one of five groups: Hmong, Lahu, Akha (Hani), Lisu, and Yao (Mien). 320,000 Karen151,080 Hmong100,000 Lahu70,000 Akha (Hani)55,000 Lisu40,000 Mien (Yao)
Most of those groups live in the highland areas of the upper north region of Thailand.Their communities are generally located at elevations between 500 and 1600 meters.
Traditionally, these groups lived in isolated communities.The only means of travel between villages was by walking.They grew their own food using a system of shifting cultivation. Every few years they would abandon an old field and clear a new plot of land for growing crops.Periodically, entire villages would move to a new location as soil fertility and forest resources near the village declined. Land was plentiful and population densities were low.
Because of the isolation of the villages, they received only limited government services.Most villages had no schools. The few schools that were located in villages were very basic.Health care was also limited in highland villages. There were no local hospitals and only limited health clinics. When someone was sick or injured, such as after a motorcycle accident on a mountain road, they had to travel long distances to seek medical care.
Another impact of the isolation of the highland communities was that they had only limited access to lowland markets.That meant that it was difficult to get any cash crops to market. Getting supplies from urban markets was also a problem. Many households would walk to the nearest town only once or twice a year to purchase essential goods such as salt, pots and pans, and material to make clothing.
Major changes to the lifestyle of the hilltribe groups began in the 1960s and 1970s.Opium had long been a minor cash crop for some communities, but during that period world demand increased significantly.Rather than being smoked in a pipe in the traditional fashion, the opium was refined into heroin for export to the west.[10 kg. of opium yields 1 kg. of heroin.]
Western nations together with international organizations and the Thai government started programs to encourage hilltribe communities to produce other cash crops to replace opium. Among the most successful crops was Arabica coffee. Other crops included red kidney beans. The crops could all be transported down the rough mountain roads without damage.However, because the crops were new and the production methods were new, it took a number of years before these substitute crops provided significant income to highland communities. This process is continuing today: just last month, I was a member of a team evaluating a highland coffee production promotion project.
At the same time that new crops were being introduced to replace opium, the Thai government began a program of more strictly enforcing regulations to protect the highland forests. The stricter enforcement meant that hilltribe farmers were no longer allowed to clear forests for new fields. Shifting cultivation was replaced by settled agriculture.Villages could not move to a new location when local resources became scarce. They had to stay permanently in one place.
The changes in land use regulations meant that highland farmers had to learn a whole new way of producing food for their families.Because the same plot was used year after year, natural soil fertility declined. But most hilltribe farmers lacked the money to purchase fertilizer.Because villages could not move to a new location, edible and useful forest products were over-harvested in the areas near villages.The result of these changes was a general decline in the quality of diets of members of highland communities.
In part because communication among different agencies was limited, the health impacts of the changes in the lifestyle of hilltribe communities were not immediately noticed.When a study of hilltribe health was conducted in 1987, the survey found serious problems in children:- Stunted growth (using WHO standard for mid-upper arm circumference-for-age for children 6 to 60 months old) Iron deficiency (paleness around the eyes) Angular stomatitis from vitamin B deficiency (chronic sores in the corners of the mouth)In addition to the malnutrition problems, to earn cash income some families turned to prostitution. That resulted in the spread of AIDS in some highland communities.
Not only was communication among different agencies limited, communication between the agencies and members of the hilltribe communities was limited as well. Each ethnic group has their own language. Because of the lack of schools and the difficulty in travelling in the hills, many individuals spoke little or no Thai. Agency representatives spoke none of the hilltribe languages.The fact that each ethnic group had its own distinct culture added to the communication problems.
Communication problems related to language and culture had directimpacts on the lives of the communities.Development agencies sought out individuals who had some Thai language ability. The Thai speakers tended to be the younger people. So rather than dealing with the older, traditional leaders, agency representatives worked with the young individuals.This turned the traditional leadership hierarchy of the communities upside down.Unethical business people tried to take advantage of the naiveté of the hilltribe peoples. For example, loan sharks encouraged hilltribe farmers to borrow money at high interest rates, up to 5% per month.The two signs on the post are advertisements by two informal loan organizations.
When electricity was extended to highland communities, communication increased. Many families bought radios and televisions.Listening and watching Thai programs helped improved their Thai language ability.It also providing information about the outside world. However, this was primarily one-way communication.
Telephones were extended into highland areas in the late 1990s. Cellphone service came soon after that, followed by internet access. These changes made possible two-way communication between highland communities and the rest of the country.
Gradually, paved roads were built to nearly all highland communities. With paved, all-weather roads, farmers could transport their crops and livestock to lowland markets.They could also easily obtain necessities from towns.
When paved roads provided easier access, more schools were built in hilltribe communities.And more school teachers were willing to work in the formerly isolated villages.Learning from their children, community elders became fluent in Thai. They were then able to communicate directly with government agencies.The traditional community leadership system based on seniority gradually returned.
Projects helped build systems to deliver clean water to villages.Health centers were built in many highland communities.These heath centers greatly increased the accessibility of medical assistance in cases of disease or accident.The health center staff in turn helped train Village Health Volunteers. The Volunteers then taught members of the community about how to improve health and nutrition.Agricultural extension agents were able to make more frequent visits to highland communities. They taught highland farmers about keeping pigs in stalls rather than roaming free, reducing parasitic infections.They also provided vaccinations for livestock, improving both human and animal health.
Over time, communication among the agencies working in the highland areas increased.They saw how the work of one agency increased the effectiveness of other agencies.Groups of young people joined with agricultural agencies to reforest hillsides.The Water Watch Institute taught highland communities how to monitor the quality of their streams. With this growing transdisciplinary communication both among agencies and between agencies as well as with highland communities, their understanding of each other grew.Activities became more participatory, and the level of equity increased.The end result of the transdisciplinary communication has been a continuing synergistic increase in the efficiency and effectiveness of highland activities and an improved quality of life of the highland ethnic communities.
Transdisciplinary communication: Impacts on heath and vulnerability of Highland ethnic communities in Thailand
Transdisciplinary communication:Impacts on heath and vulnerability of Highland ethnic communities in Thailand EcoHealth Conference, Kunming China 2012 Chongchit Sripun Robert And G. Lamar Robert EcoHealth Resource Centre Chiang Mai University, Thailand