Life of the Pakayaw People

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This blog was written by Som, a student at the EarthRights School. She is a Karen woman from Thailand. Special thanks to EarthRights School Fellow Hom Kham for her writing support.

“Aw Te Ka Taw Te, Aw Kaw Ka Taw Kaw” is a phrase in the Pakayaw (Karen) ethnic language, meaning “If we drink water, we have to save it.” When Pathi Jorni, a Karen elder in Ban Nong Tao village, Thailand said this, it was not new to me – I heard it many times in my own Karen community of Tha Ta Fang village, on the Salween River. It is a phrase that older people say to the children, generation after generation, because they want the young people to know about the value of the environment and protect it forever.

“Humans can’t live without the environment, but the environment can live without humans.” – Pathi Jorni

Nature offers a lot of things to humans but they repay nature by cutting the trees, destroying the forest, and damaging the environment. However, at least some groups of indigenous people are still protecting the forest. They have lived with nature since they were born and their lives depend on the forest in many ways. The forest is like the blood of their life.

As a student at the EarthRights School, I recently went to Ban Nong Tao village to learn from the group of people known as “Pakayaw.” Karen is the name given to them by Thai people, but they have their own, original name already: Pakayaw. If we call them Pakayaw, it is honest and polite to them as indigenous people. They like the simple life they have. They don’t want outside people to come to destroy this life by developing their area – they like it the way it is and the way it has been.

As they have lived in the forest for a long time, they have built their beliefs around it. All people show respect to the spirits and whenever they have a ceremony, they go to the spirit house. When their animals get loose, they go to pray at the spirit house. When a child is born, the father places the placenta inside the bamboo and ties the umbilical cord around a tree. This represents how the tree is the life of that child. No one can cut that tree because you are killing the child when you cut that tree. The Pakayaw also believe that they have five spirits inside their bodies and 32 spirits in their environment. Their ancestors are also always with them in their mind, even if they passed away a long time ago. Their beliefs are very strong, literally tied to saving their environment.

The Livelihoods of the Pakayaw

Most Pakayaw communities do rotational farming and shifting cultivation for their livelihoods. This means they depend on the forest for their farming and also to gather wild vegetables. The Ban Nong Tao community begins the rotational farming cycle in April by burning and clearing the fields. After that, they leave the place for around 10 days to let the grass die and get ready to plant. During planting time, people know when they should plant what crops – in the morning, afternoon or evening – because their minds are connected to the spirit. To complete the process of rotational farming, after they finish with one plot, they leave the place for 7 years and then return. Rotational farming is very good for the environment and keeps it healthy for the future.

Though the Pakayaw people have very few negative impacts on the environment, many urban communities see them as one main group that destroys the forest. Because of this, urban people blame Pakayaw communities for contributing to climate change and making more pollution in the region by doing their burning. But rotational farming is a good thing to keep the natural environment healthy. Though the Pakayak cut down trees for planting,  they don’t dig up the roots, so it can re-grow in the next year, releasing oxygen and absorbing carbon and nitrogen dioxide. It is not like the enterprises and corporations who are looking out only for their own profits, without considering how their pursuit of wealth will impact the lives of others.

So, I ask:

  • Why don’t we focus on the huge projects that are always damaging people’s lives and driving climate change?
  • Why do we always look down on the ethnic groups who are already marginalized by the urban communities?
  • Why don’t we find the real perpetrators who are behind damaging development projects and climate change?
  • How do we push for equality among human beings while also finding the best solution to mitigate pollution and climate change?

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