Mae-tha Sub-district is in Mae-oon district, Chiang Mai Province, which comprises 7 villages with a total of approximately 4000 people in 1330 households. In the past, it was one of the remotest areas of Chiang Mai Province making it difficult to be accessed by governmental facilities. Kamnan Anan told us that because they were abandoned by the state, they became a strong community through self-reliant development.
Mae-tha community is one of the most famous models of community-based development which applies an integrated and holistic view of development, especially sustainable agriculture and watershed conservation as well as cultural and educational aspects. This explicit success has passed through many difficulties along the way. Since 1901, the forest areas in Mae-tha and nearby communities have been under timber concession. Then, a few decades later, another company had been permitted by the central government to harvest other remaining valuable timbers. Lastly, the Railway Authority of Thailand had been permitted to gather wood for railway construction. These three concessions have caused heavy degradation of most forest areas except for some areas that people requested to reserve for watershed protection. In addition, cash crop production has influenced the heavy decrease of forest and has caused environmental degradation. Many cash crops, like tobacco, peanuts, and baby-corn, have been introduced. As a result, chemical fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides have been also introduced to the area. Many people became sick due to the toxicity. Social interconnection has also changed through the production system. While working hard for a few decades, communities were still in poverty. They may have more in cash, but they remained under-supported and in debt.
Under this situation, Mr. Phat Apaimool, a key senior leader and initiator of alternative agriculture in Mae-tha, started to question this way of life. He started to collect data about the effects of conventional farming. Later, he gathered a small group of farmers to learn about the problems caused by conventional farming, especially impacts from excessive chemical use. Mr. Phat and his friends found that under conventional farming, farmers are considered cheap labor who produce raw materials for factories. The more you work, the more you are in debt. Mr. Phat said, “I made account tables to see my incomes and expense. After a year, I found only debt.”
While it began as a small group of people, today the Mae-tha Cooperative of Sustainable Agriculture has been well-established to manage diversified organic products, control the quality of products and share funds with over a hundred members. The Cooperative is able to develop their own markets with bargaining power, as well as to reach the international standard of organic products. However, this financial success is small when compared to the success of moral and spiritual development among the members. The farmers under sustainable farming in the Mae-tha community have shifted their worldviews and practices to be harmony with nature and care for other livings on the earth.
After excessive timber extraction through three-time concession and adverse impact occurrences in general, the government shifted their policy from ‘forest for economic’ growth to ‘conservation.’ The effort declared the remaining forests ‘protected areas,’ like
national parks, wildlife sanctuaries, and headwater protection. The remaining forests which are under customary protection of Mae-tha community were planned to be declared as a national park. People led by Mr. Anan Duangruankao had protested. The Mae-tha community has proposed that the forest areas nearby should be community forests. The community in collaboration with many communities in Thailand have demonstrated and proposed for rights to manage the community forests legally.
The community in collaboration with many communities in Thailand have demonstrated and proposed for rights to manage the community forests legal. Although the ‘Community Forest Act’ has been in negotiation for over a decade, it is still not fully effective. In spite of this, the lessons and experiences of Mae-tha community’s management have been widely recognised by both government and non-government agencies.
Happiness today for the Mae-tha community is based on securing the livelihood of the following issues:
- possession of land
- diversification of edible plants
4. gaining freedom and choice for livelihood
In addition, the collective happiness of Mae-tha community is the sharing of their experiences within their own community, from generation to generation. They also appreciate sharing their learning by empowering other communities. They believe in lifelong learning.