Capturing sustainability: how the guardians of the forest define it

Rural communities, suburban and urban areas are what make a city a city. But imagine if all rural communities, and the aforementioned urban areas are becoming more environmentally sustainable, the city would then be made of a true sustainability. We have actually learned so much about sustainable living in both rural communities and cities but yet to witness it truly in action. This photo story aims to take you through a journey of highland people in a rural community that has turned sustainability aspirations into concrete actions many city people dream of having.

Rural communities, suburban and urban areas are what make a city a city.

But imagine if all rural communities, and the aforementioned urban areas are becoming more environmentally sustainable, the city would then be made of a true sustainability. Nonetheless, a city that is people-centered, produces low carbon emission, resource-efficient and socially inclusive is seemingly still in the making. Our relentless work on climate justice and energy transition have been promoting the social-ecological transformation in so many cities across Asia. Some cities have already achieved it half way but others are still pursuing sustainable and just urbanizations where people and nature take a centre stage. We have actually learned so much about sustainable living in both rural communities and cities but yet to witness it truly in action. This photo story aims to take you through a journey of highland people in a rural community that has turned sustainability aspirations into concrete actions many city people dream of having.

I travelled up-country to the northern region of Thailand on a photography assignment.

My mission is to capture what is visually portrayed as a sustainable relationship between the forest and its people. The visualization should transcend the negative connotation of a shifting cultivation mostly understood as what the highland people of this area do, and rather highlight the true meaning of what it means for them to co-exist sustainably and peacefully with nature.

The highland people of South-East Asia

have long been stewards of their mountainous landscapes, cultivating unique lifestyles that intertwine harmoniously with nature. In countries like Vietnam, Laos, Thailand, Myanmar, Malaysia and The Philippines where a large number of indigenous communities have developed sustainable living practices using their local wisdom that not only ensure their survival but also contribute to the overall ecological balance of the region.

The ethnic Karen village of Huay Hin Lad Nai lies cocooned

in the mountain valley of Wiang Pa Pao city, 850 m above sea level consisting of a close-knit community of around 23 households. A small stream running from the mountainous spring and through the village is one natural indicator that this human settlement is situated in the deep forest.

                                           ‘During harvesting season, I used to hold the sickle so tight, my hands would tense up.

                                                                     We had to work against the deadline of the mother nature.

                                                                             The rain could shower this rice field any minute

                                                                   and we knew it instantly by the sound of a muster of cicadas

                                                                         that we have never been ready to reap what we sow.’


                                                                                      Anan Vejjakit, an ethnic Karen farmer.

The repercussive thudding sound of cutting wood

guided me to uncle Anan who is among the 23 ethnic Karen households residing in this small traditional village where for a century the land has always been theirs to live on, and cultivate. 

Anan told me

that his illness has prevented him from working in the rice field along with his fellow countrymen. He holds out his weathered hands saying how strong they once were when holding a sickle to swiftly cut the mature bunches and straws above the paddy field.

He continued saying that this firewood is the source of energy

that keeps people here warm, stomach-full and ignited. I asked him gently, “So it means you cut down all the woods in the forest then?” He looked into my eyes and answered, “We have to because this is how we maintain how it grows back to become a tree again.” 

Anan’s ancestors settled in this area in the early 1900s. Today, the lush forest around Huay Hin Lad Nai makes it nearly impossible to imagine how completely it was destroyed by loggers in the 1970s and 1980s (Mellegård, V. & Malmer, P., 2018). The devastating deforestation led to the stream atrophying to a mere trickle. By the time the logging policy ended in 1989, all that remained of the surrounding forest were barren stumps (Trakansuphakon, P. 2016). Instead of turning their backs to the dying land, like many other highlanders faced with the same predicament throughout northern Thailand and aforementioned countries in South East Asia, Huay Hin Lad Nai villagers led by a figure named Father Preecha, took it as their duty to resurrect the forest back to its previous conditions.

One of ancestral Karen’s re-forestation techniques

was introduced and implemented by the wisdom of Father Preecha, then passed down to his son Prasit Siri and all of their fellow Karens is through rotational farming. “Rotational farming has been the core of successful stories behind ethnic Karen’s forestry management” explains Dr. Prasert Trakansuphakon, the Director of Pgakenyaw (Karen) for Sustainable Development and Advisory Board Committee of Asia Indigenous People Pact Foundation. Preecha as well as Prasert spoke with me telling the same story as researched by Dr. Prasert Trakansuphakon.

“While shifting cultivation forces farmers

to abandon the land after it has been exploited to the level that crops cannot grow any more, rotational farming balances their as well as the forest and other animals’ needs. It ensures food security for every single life in this forest. Firstly, they choose a plot of fallow land for rice cultivation. A delicate process starts with how villagers pick and choose based on the merits and good spirits of that land plot which cannot be too high up the mountain or too low down. To prepare the land, they slash down the trees but not uproot them. Around a meter of tree trunks is left with hydration that allows it to naturally regenerate and grow back again. The sound of the cicadas, everyone there knows, will tell them when to cut down trees and that’s also the signal of the rainy season to come so they must hurry. And then before they burn the land, they will build firebreaks bordering area between the cultivated land and the forest and they will burn it from the rim so the flame is spread to the middle and this cautious and precise burning process will take only ten minutes.”

According to Trakansuphakon, the net carbon storage from fallow fields,

covering 236 ha, left to recover for 1-10 years account for 17,348 tonnes, while CO2 emissions from the burning of rotation fields are only 480 tonnes. Therefore, rotating fields do not cause climate change but maintain the balance of the ecosystem, and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Next door to Anan, lives a spiritual whisperer of the village.

I met Nu Papa while he was sharpening the only tool he uses in the forest by grinding it on a whetstone. This brief moment led to a conversation when he reflected on the philosophy of Karen sustainable management through rotational farming captured in a poem. “Live with the water, care for the river, live with trees, care for the forest. Live with the fish, care for the spawning grounds, live with the frog, care for the cliff” (Trakansuphakon, P. 2016). Karen people are Buddhist-Animists and they do not only believe that humans co-exist with and depend on nature, therefore they need to protect it, but they deem a worship of spirits of the forest necessary. I questioned him if his Karen faith is truly unshakable. Affirmatively holding a steady gaze, he said a full-grown tree has its bark, sapwood and hardwood and we must have faith in sustaining this cycle of growth.

Like a city girl who has never set foot much beyond Bangkok,

I slowly trudged up the hill albeit wearing hiking boots while a Karen young woman with sapwood skin tone in front of me just waltzed through the slushy and leafy trail up and down that very same hill. Sirinthip, known as Ning, is Nu Papa’s daughter. She was my personal guide through the forestland she and her family call home.

Seasonal ears of golden rice are just one of the attributes of Karen rotational farming.

“We selectively collect seeds and preserve them for the next cultivating season,” said Ning. “Vegetables, tea leaves and even honey are our foods originated from this forest just like rice, so we never spend cash on staple food. We only go to the market once a month just to buy cooking oil and additional ingredients that we cannot grow in our backyard.” She effortlessly and eagerly showed me her playground where I stumbled upon a cowherd with a herd of wild cattle. A fallow land where vegetables can grow and wild animals can live is the land that awaits cultivation in the years to come. This rotational farming cycle sustains not just the forest itself but the lives of humans and animals who depend on it.

Another gentle Karen woman I met while she was chopping vegetables

to raise her chickens and pigs convinced me to taste some raw leaves. I didn’t have the courage to swallow the raw paper mulberry leaves not out of disgust, but out of concern not to deprive her livestock of feed. 'Paper mulberry leaves are rich in protein so villagers often make them into silage for their home-grown livestock like pigs and chickens. Feeding mulberry leaves to pigs tend to improve meat quality as well (Zhu, Z. E. N. G., 2019).'

“We do not just slash, burn, collect what we need and leave,” Prasit concluded.

“We maintain and keep this cycle of faith and growth as our spirits, the soil and the forest are entwined. We don’t leave any footprints up in the mountain. Scars have never been found. The cicadas will call us back in the next rain to come. We will hear them sing again.”

Phatsurang Dechabuddharungsi (Candy) has a professional background in producing and directing documentary features and short films. With more than ten years of experience in reporting news, producing documentary series for many renowned national as well as international media outlets, Candy enjoys executing her passion for creative photography, creative writing and 'storytelling communications' for FES Asia. As Regional Communications Coordinator based in Bangkok, Thailand, she contributes her experience and creativity to drive positive change for sustainable futures in Asia. Candy's photos were exhibited at Bangkok Art & Culture Center (BACC) under the theme 'People and Forest' Photo Exhibition organized by the Pulitzer Center and REAL Frame photographers' group. The exhibit illuminates the underreported lives of Thailand’s forest-dwelling villagers who have been marginalized and villainized by the state’s forest policy (Pulitzer, 2023).


Trakansuphakon, P. (2016) Mobilizing Traditional Knowledge, Innovations and Practices in rotational farming for sustainable development: A contribution to the Piloting of the Multiple Evidence Base Approach From the community of Hin Lad Nai, Chiang Rai, Thailand. Sweden: SwedBio at Stockholm Resilience Centre. https://swed.bio/reports/report/mobilizing-traditional-knowledge-innovations-and-practices-in-rotational-farming-for-sustainable-development/


Trakansuphakon, P. (2016) Rotational Farming, Biodiversity and Food Security and Climate Change in Northern Thailand. Freunde und Förderer des Seminars für Ländliche Entwicklung (SLE) e.V. https://www.sle-freunde.de/app/download/20784433/4-WSG-RotationalFarming.pdf


Mellegård, V. & Malmer, P. (2018) Hta: How Karen Farming Saved a Forest in Thailand and Its Poetry Changed International Policy. Sweden: SwedBio at Stockholm Resilience Centre. https://terralingua.org/langscape_articles/hta-how-karen-farming-saved-a-forest-in-thailand-and-its-poetry-changed-international-policy


Zhu, Z. E. N. G., Jiang, J. J., Jie, Y. U., Mao, X. B., Bing, Y. U., Chen, D. W. (2019). Effect of dietary supplementation with mulberry (Morus alba L.) leaves on the growth performance, meat quality and antioxidative capacity of finishing pigs. Journal of integrative agriculture, 18(1), 143-151. https://doi.org/10.1016/S2095-3119(18)62072-6 or https://www.pig333.com/swine_abstracts/feeding-mulberry-leaves-to-growing-finishing-pigs_14783/

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