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 Nature is the greatest teacher
Interview with Tuenjai Deetes
by Monte Leach

An interview with Goldman Environmental Prize winner, Tuenjai Deetes, who co-founded the Hill Area Development Foundation to help the hill tribe communities of northern Thailand. They are now national models of sustainable agriculture and resource conservation.  

For the past 150 years, the hill-tribe people have fled ethnic wars and hardships in Burma and Laos to settle in the sensitive border region of northern Thailand, a mountainous area where drug trafficking is common. More than 560,000 hill-tribe people live in this region. They have been perceived as a security risk by Thai authorities because of their nomadic movement across the frontier. Approximately 40 per cent of this population still lack citizenship and consequently do not have legal rights to the land they farm.

The hill tribes have traditionally practised either rotating or shifting agriculture. Government policies in the region encouraged logging until 1989 and promoted commercial cash crops as well as tourism. These practices and population growth in the region led to severe soil erosion and deforestation of important watersheds in Thailand.

In the mid-1970s, while a university student in Bangkok, Tuenjai Deetes began working with the hill tribes as a volunteer, teaching the Thai language and improving relationships between the hill tribes and the Thais. After 12 years of working in the region, she co-founded the Hill Area Development Foundation (HADF) in 1986. As Secretary-General of HADF, Deetes has initiated sustainable development efforts in 28 villages of four tribal groups. HADF has carried out a variety of activities to further the hill tribes' education and strengthen community leaders and their organizations in the villages. Deetes has helped the hill tribes protect the fragile upland area by introducing reforestation projects and sustainable agricultural practices appropriate for steep slopes.

These communities, now acknowledged as national models in sustainable agriculture and resource conservation, are gaining government recognition and, for some hill-tribe people, Thai citizenship. Overcoming the barrier of citizenship will make the hill-tribe people's struggle for basic rights easier in the future.

Share International: You began working with the hill tribes of Thailand when you were a university student. Why did you want to work with them?

Tuenjai Deetes: Because I am a nature-lover. When I saw the hill-tribe people living in a pure environment, I wanted to encourage them to be proud of their environment. I also appreciated their unique culture and wisdom. I didn't want them to assimilate into the bigger society without being proud of their history and culture. They can adjust themselves to changes in society, but they should change in a positive way, based on the fundamentals of their culture.

I compare the hill tribes with trees. Just as trees have deep roots, so people should start from their roots, and then the branches and leaves can spread out. In Thailand we have the mango. If we start with the native mango, we can mix with other mangoes from different areas. One mango tree can produce many varieties of mango fruits.

SI: And you found when you first visited there that they didn't have strong roots?

TD: I think they had, but because they are called a minority, and don't have their own country or government, nobody speaks on their behalf. They needed some people who could act as go-betweens between themselves and outsiders. I did that in the beginning. But after that I helped them to speak for themselves.

SI: What did you find were the biggest environmental problems when you came there?

TD: In the beginning, I didn't see many problems. I just wanted to protect the beautiful life of the hill tribes. But after that, when I visited many hill-tribe areas, I found that in some places they used a lot of land for farming crops like corn. They cut and burned forests.

I felt very sorry, because the big trees were disappearing, and the price of the crops grown there might have been just 10 cents per kilogram. That price cannot compare with the forest that was destroyed. So if the people can practise a better agricultural system, or can be trained for some other occupation, like handicrafts based on their own culture, they can live there and preserve the forest as well as their culture. Culture and nature are related to each other. In their New Year's ceremonies, many tribes worship the mountain god, the river god, and their forest god. If there were no more forests, there would be no more river. Their ceremonies and culture would disappear.

SI: Is the environment different now from when you started there?

TD: The problems are now greater, because in the past the hill tribes just lived by themselves. They did not relate much with outsiders. It was not so difficult to create a shared long-term vision of people and nature living together. But now the hill tribes face the same problems as many developing countries, because they have to deal with the symbols of materialism. They are exposed to advertising which creates more greed. In the past they lived in small bamboo huts. They might have only two or three cloths, just enough to protect them from the sun and from the winter. But now the young people want to wear blue jeans or buy a motorcycle or car -- the same as the people in the city. For people in the city, one car is not enough, one house is not enough. The hill tribes learn from outsiders also.

And now the people in the city want the people who live in the forest just to look after the forest, and not get the benefit from it. They say the hill tribes should not go to the forest and get mushrooms or fire wood. But the hill tribes can use the forest in a sustainable way. They rotate and recycle.

In Thailand, it is not clear to the government or the Thai society what the environmental policies should be. We need to develop industry in Thailand, so we need more electricity and all kinds of infrastructure. But if Thailand develops in that way, big dams will have to be constructed on the rivers. Can we use electricity and other energy in a better way? Maybe we can use machines that use less electricity, or develop solar energy. Scientists, engineers and industrialists should be more concerned about this.

Everywhere in the world we should create greater awareness that people have to protect nature, because nature is the greatest teacher. That is what I want to do in the future -- not only for the hill tribes, not only for Thailand: network with people throughout the world, to change their mind and their way of life. The environmental challenge is not only to support the hill tribes or the people who live in the forest, and to protect the forest, but to deal with the people in the cities everywhere in the world. They have to conserve and care more -- what they eat, what they use, what they waste every day.

Government leaders of First World countries are also very important. If First World countries care only for their people, care only for the benefit of business people and industrialists, we cannot solve any problem -- human rights, population, or the environment. We need to have leaders who are very concerned with spiritual development as well as scientific and technological development.

SI: You are talking about a spiritual perspective, and this comes from your Buddhist background.

TD: Yes. My first objective is to make my spirit very pure, and not self-centered, because ego-ness creates a lot of problems in the world. Many countries have leaders who are very greedy and addicted to power, and do not seek the benefit of the poor people.

I have found on this trip to Europe and the US that many people in the cities are concerned with spiritual development and meditation. They find that to live only for materialism creates an empty existence. Life has no meaning and people don't know why they were born. We have to create a better society where people are concerned with the meaning of life, not just materialism.

SI: And one of the meanings of life is to help others.

TD: Yes. To help other people, to care and love, and to share more. The hill-tribe people can be a good model of people living in harmony with nature, while keeping their identity and the uniqueness of their culture. I have learned a lot from the hill tribes. I have learned we can change in a positive way if we work together from the heart.

From the  April 1997 issue of Share International 

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First published April 1999, Last modified: 15-Oct-2005