The highlight of fourth week at ERI was the field trip to Nong Tao village. Students started this week by learning about climate change and climate justice, one of the key global issues for ERI. This field trip focused not only on global warming and climate change, but also on human rights violations. We met people from two different communities, both trying to protect their land from government projects.
Nong Tao has a long history of community forestry and villagers have been distressed for a while now. They belong to Karen ethnicity and are a minority group. They have been wanting to pass a Community Forest Bill to protect themselves and their livelihood. Since the government proposed an expansion of Inthanon National Park across the forest in 1969, these villagers have had a conflict with the government.
A community of leaders
Nong Tao is the center of this community forest. One of the leaders from here, Jorni Odochao, told us about his ongoing ordeal, right from when he was born. He had lost his siblings to war and is the only one in his family who made it this far. Coming from a poor family, he would take care of others’ buffaloes to get rice in exchange. Born during WWII, he suffered from colonialism at a young age. What the colonialists did then was no more oppressive than what the government is trying to do now. These people are being ripped off of their land in the name of economic development.
Having lived under such extreme conditions for over eighty years, Odochao is exhausted and cannot fight anymore. He believes the new generation should keep fighting for what is theirs the way he has done so far. They need to find creative solutions “to the world’s issues”. But with better opportunities, they move to the city, or enrol in a government school, moving farther away from the traditional customs and the land they were born in.
According to Odochao, the constitution signed in 2017 mentioned community rights but rarely has anything worked in their favor. Karen people depend on their land for food and shelter. They get their medicines, cleaning agents, hygiene products (basically everything) from the forest. They appreciate nature and are attached to it in ways that we wouldn’t understand unless we live like they do. Anything and everything they do is ecologically good.
Given the number and variety of rituals in India, I was curious to know more about how Karen community celebrates occasions. The role of festivals, as my grandpa says, is to make the family spend time together. Last semester, I had a gen ed class with Dr. Balina, where we discussed Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy. The entire class would share their views and I remember having a slightly challenging task, which was making everyone understand that rituals are good in a way. They were made for a reason. In the end, Tolstoy’s criticism of a ‘ritualized life’ convinced me of Dr. Balina’s point of view.
Anyway, when I asked about the rituals in their community, Odochao spoke about a 3-day ritual where the family is supposed to stay in peace. They make sure they don’t have any conflict and appreciate the joy that being together in harmony brings. One other ritual that is unique to the Karen community takes place during childbirth. The family puts the umbilical cord inside a bamboo and buries it deep under the soil. In this way, they share their connection with nature.
This was a one-time opportunity for me and I am so grateful to ERI for arranging this field trip. When I applied for this internship, there was no mention of field trips. One of my goals for college was to not only focus on my major but also learn as much as I could outside Computer Science. Though (almost) everything I do here is completely unrelated to my major, it is still so important. (Speaking of that, I feel I should start taking some time out to revise and practice programming, if possible.) In the next post, I talk about his son, Phrue Odochao.
Image credits: Jamon Sonpednarin