Thung Yao Village Revolution

I had read about Mae Pakkhi in the papers, about how she and the women of Thung Yao, Lamphun had worked together to assess the value of the mushrooms, bamboo shoots, and edible and medicinal plants they gathered each year from their village’s community forest. The result was astounding: the women found that the value of their forest products amounted to 998,785, or nearly a million baht a year. Thung Yao has since become the focus of much attention from folks interested in the role of women in rural economies, and the value of community-based forest conservation.

None of this, however, prepared me for the warm and spirited woman who ran out to welcome our small group of visitors to Thung Yao. Mae Pakkhi is in her early 60s, with soft curly hair and eyes that belie her quick wit and good humour. She took me by the hand and led us down a quiet village lane to her home, a large teak house raised high off the ground. Bringing out a seung, a kind of Northern Thai guitar, she played a song or two for us as she told about how the Yong people, who make up the majority population of Lamphun province, migrated down from Sipsongpanna in Southern China during the time of her ancestors. The Thung Yao community was originally known as Thung Jin Haeng – the field of drying meat – for the vendors who hung meat on poles to dry in the hot sun during their long trek across the area’s open fields. “A rather ugly name,” Mae Pakkhi laughed, “so we changed it to Thung Yao, meaning long fields.”

I awoke the next morning to the sweet smell of sticky rice steaming. It was only just 6 a.m., and already Mae Pakkhi’s cheerful voice rang out from the kitchen. I wandered in to find her surrounded by the crew of a popular Thai TV documentary series, and a couple of writers from Sarakadi, Thailand’s equivalent of National Geographic. I sat down in my pajamas, toothbrush in hand.

“The industrial estate here in Lamphun spells death for our communities,” she was saying, referring to the Northern Region Industrial Estate, formed in Lamphun in 1985 and made up of over sixty joint venture factories with Thai, Japanese, Korean, U.S. and Swiss investors. As of the mid ’90s, the industrial estate employed around 16,000 workers, 10,000 of them women, mostly in their 20s and 30s. During that time, a rash of mysterious deaths among young workers at the industrial estate brought about a public controversy that remains bitter in the villagers’ memories.

Workers, academics, and environmentalists cited hazardous working conditions as the cause of the deaths, pointing to the accumulation of toxic metals, such as manganese, lead and aluminum, in the workers’ bodies. After a year-long investigation, however, Thailand’s Public Health Ministry concluded that the victims had died of AIDS-related complications, a conclusion  that spared the well-connected industrial estate from paying hefty worker compensation fees.

While the government provides incentives to the industrial estate in the form of roads and discounted water and electricity, locals complain, the government fails to secure minimum wage payments and health and safety regulations, and the Central Labour Court dismissed worker compensation claims. Disillusioned by what they saw as blind indifference to the workers and farmers who regularly pay the price for the country’s industrialisation, this group of Thung Yai villagers have turned to an alternative development model..

We care for the spirits of the land, making ready to receive them when the land is rehabilitated and they return

Forest Shrine

“We set up the community forest nine years ago, in 2540. Our village head called a meeting, and we decided to start up the community forest to regulate our use of forestland. Ours was one of the first community forests in the north,” Mae Pakkhi said proudly. “We started with forty members, and have now grown to eighty or ninety, working together to look after the forest. We meet to decide on which forest products, such as medicinal herbs, mushrooms, and bamboo shoots, can be gathered in each area, how much wood may be taken for home construction each year, and the fines to be charged to transgressors of our conservation laws. Anyone who removes orchids from the forest, for example, is fined 2,000 baht. And they are punished by social isolation – we make them feel ashamed. We bring transgressors to our committee meetings, and urge them to reform by becoming members.

“We guard the land, keeping the ceremonies alive. We care for the spirits of the land, making ready to receive them when the land is rehabilitated and they return.” Why are women so prominent in the group, I wanted to know. “We women never neglect the spirits. It’s our way of caring for the family and the community, holding things together. It’s part of women’s nature to be especially attentive. It’s not that men are bad, but we can’t just leave them to their own devices – we have to help them think. Every ninth month of the Lanna calendar we all gather together – villagers, students, foreign visitors, the entire community – and conduct a forest ordination ceremony, wrapping holy saffron robes around the trees in the forest. We do blessing ceremonies for the phi faay – the guardian spirits of our handmade irrigation dams – for the spiritual health and longevity of the village, and for the spirits of our ancestors. We sacrifice chickens before planting the first rice seeds in recognition that we must give back what Mother Earth has given us. It’s important not to miss a holy day. When someone misses a day, they fall sick, and must ask the spirit medium what aspect of the ceremony was neglected. But that doesn’t mean we don’t go to modern doctors,” Mae Pakkhi was quick to add. “We do that, too!”

Auntie Wee

“When we come together for big ceremonies, all the women gather to cook in the community kitchen, and we all talk and laugh together, helping each other to solve problems. This is our way. With the success of our community forestry model, there’s now more respect for women and the work that we do. The women’s group is making sure these ethics are passed down to the new generations by collaborating with the local school. We go in and teach forestry classes every Friday, and we’re developing a standard curriculum for elementary schools. I’m getting old now – I don’t have much time left. I want to do something good for society.”

Mae Pakkhi’s words reminded me of Mala Khamchan, one of Lanna’s most beloved novelists. Mala’s favourite backdrop for his stories are villages set deep in the forest just as the tunnel was blasted through Doi Khun Tan to make way for the north’s first railway, and the outside world came crashing in to Chiang Mai. Through his creepy stories of banshees wailing from the depths of murky jungle pools and strange beings emerging from within caves to punish hunters who failed to request permission before seeking shelter, Mala relates a complex system of social mores and environmental consciousness enforced through continuous rites performed for the spirits of the natural world, a system now facing tremendous change.

After a lunch of fragrant het lom mushrooms, sticky rice, and grilled frogs stuffed with lemon grass, Auntie Wee led us out on a trip to the nearby forest preserve. “You’ll notice there are no fences in our community,” she pointed out proudly as she led us down a path connecting one kitchen garden to the other, listing out the names of dozens of plants as we walked. After about twenty minutes, we crossed a fallen log over a clear rushing stream and reached the heart of the community forest, where a large shrine housed the guardian spirits. Auntie Wee brought the cameraman over to kneel before the shrine and ask permission from the forest spirits before shooting footage. He laid his video camera on the ground and knelt down obediently. I looked up at the vines that wound from the high canopy down to the dark forest floor. White cotton thread had been strung from tree to tree, marking sacred territory. Millions of silver termites busily devoured their way through a rotten log at my feet. I leaned down and listened to their soft chewing sounds.

On the way back, the conversation drifted once more to the villagers’ discontent with official efforts to draw the community away from their traditional livelihoods and into the market economy. “Outsiders suck all the money out of our community,” Auntie Wee said. “We go outside to work at the industrial estate and make the owners rich, while we get further in debt. People eventually see that it’s better to return to the village and live like our ancestors.”

kop ping

“At the industrial estate, they just work and sleep, work and sleep, like machines, both mothers and fathers, so they can buy more and more consumer goods that require constant updates,” complained one uncle.

“Look at the water crisis this past year in Rayong, when water was diverted from agricultural land to support the factories,” another uncle said of the Eastern Seaboard, an area dubbed by industry supporters at ‘the Detroit of the East,” a dubious honour, I told the group, who laughed as I attempted to describe the post-industrial wasteland that is my hometown of Detroit, Michigan.

“Especially after the economic crisis in ’97, people who had abandoned their rice fields went back to farming – now nearly everyone here plants their own rice,” said Auntie Wee.

“There’s no shame in children returning to the village to farm, and to care for their elderly parents, after having gotten an education outside. You can do just fine, and grow rich slowly but surely through self-sufficient farming,” argued another villager.

I glanced around at the new tile roofs and satellite dishes in this rather prosperous village, and wondered how much of the local income came from young people’s paychecks from the industrial estate, and how much from the sales of produce from small family farms and wild mushrooms.

“Those who work at the industrial estate – they leave their homes and their land behind, empty. But in the end, they have to come back. We elders who are left here have to care for the village. We can’t blame young people for migrating to the cities in search of income and becoming lost to us if we don’t make a viable community for them to return home to.”

     It you’d like to visit Thung Yao Village, you can contact the Community Forest Support Group at 053-810-402. To find out more about the Lamphun industrial estate, read the article ‘Working to Death in Thailand’ by Noel Rojesh at

“Outsiders suck all the money out of our community,”


by: Sabrina Gyorvary

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