Having recently visited the hills of northern Thailand to be with old friends at the Upland Holistic Development Project (UHDP), I have had time to soak in the beauty and productivity of the agroforestry plantings at the UHDP Center. This setting has naturally led to my recollection of early agroforestry efforts during the late 1990s and early 2000s.
The Palaung and other hilltribe communities that we worked with were concerned with the degradation of their permanent hill fields and home gardens. Having migrated from Burma to an area during the 1980s that was soon to be declared a national park, these farmers were prohibited from practicing traditional rotational farming. Known also as swidden farming, this practice involves clearing fields from the forest and cultivating them for a season or two before allowing the land to naturally return to a forested condition. While new temporary fields are cleared nearby, the reforested fields are often left fallow for several years or more. Such rest restores the soil and enables an ongoing agricultural cycle in which hill fields are cultivated over the short-term and fallowed/rejuvenated over longer periods.
However, to make up for the loss of forest fallow opportunities, these farmers innovated the use of certain green manure cover crops (e.g., viny legumes) with marketable beans to improve the condition and fertility of their permanent fields. Despite this generally sustainable approach, many of the steeper fields with rockier soil were unable to maintain production over the long term.
To sustain crop diversity and productivity in their small field and garden plots, a new “forest farming” approach using a mixture of hardy annual and perennial crops would be needed. Considering valued plants that might be utilized, the farmers and gardeners suggested various indigenous, but hard-to-find, plants; especially species that grew wild in the vanishing forests. These plants included rattan, bamboo, fishtail palm (edible hearts) and prickly ash pepper which provided food as well as weaving and construction material in addition to other uses.
Locating as many of these species as possible, the UHDP team began to plant a few test plots that contained mixtures of such plants. However, we were playing with a new idea that would require time and space before any obvious benefits would emerge. Initially, there were only a few farmers (e.g., early adopters) who were willing to take a chance with this new forest farming approach on their precious, small plots of land.
Meanwhile, we had heard rumors of another hilltribe farmer who was reportedly growing many indigenous forest species along with regular field crops such as upland rice. After finally determining his whereabouts, our UHDP team traveled by truck, boat and then foot to locate his remote community. We were not disappointed.
Tisae, the patriarch of this community, received us and enthusiastically led our team to observe his approach to food and forest product production. Hiking up through his upland rice fields and then descending through slopes on which improved forest fallows grew, we saw mixtures of crops (polycultures) in various stages of development. These plantings were comprised of different strata of plant height such as ground level (understory) plants, mid-level species as well as the tallest canopy trees and vines. Tisae was growing a complex and productive mixture of agriculture and forest species; an agroforestry system of his own design. As a result, he, his family and community had a continuous supply of food, spices and other products to eat and sell.
This was proof of concept for us. Returning to UHDP, we began to tweak our model to more accurately reflect the successful Tisae way. We also invited other farmers and gardeners to travel to his community to meet Tisae, learn and then develop their own way of forest farming and gardening. Everyone who accompanied us was both charmed and challenged.
Returning home by boat during one such trip, a Palaung woman sitting in front of me turned around and expressed her amazement as well as discouragement. Her point was that Tisae had so much land while her people had so little. So how can we make this work? I didn’t know what to say except, “Just use what you’ve got.”
Ultimately, that’s exactly what happened. Inspired by Tisae – a agroforestry positive deviant – we were all informed and challenged. His local example led to hundreds of UHDP partner households adopting and adapting his approach to suit their needs and opportunities.