Living in Harmony with the Environment

Over the last 100 years, due to emerging national borders and rules about environmental conservation, a large group of ethnic Karen have been required to give up their traditional, semi-nomadic way of life to settle in mountain villages. Approximately 400,000 Karen people now live in Northern Thailand, having accepted the government’s offer of Thai ID allowing them to become citizens.

A theme of the work KHT does with the Karen is to ensure they can continue living in the mountains in harmony with the environment. Now that the Karen are settled, they no longer leave villages and repeatedly build up new ones. Instead villagers are working hard to access vital resources such as water, food and education in village which were built in Thailand two to three generations ago. However, they face numerous challenges in doing so.

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Sustainable Food Security

Many Karen farmers do not produce enough food to feed their families, resulting in the majority of the Karen living significantly below the Global Poverty Line. We have been working with Karen farmers for over 10 years to make sustainable changes that not only overcome poverty but also minimise the impact on the environment.

Mountain climates produce countless challenges for farmers. Dams built to aid irrigation are frequently destroyed by flooding, causing harvests to fail. In recent years climate change has produced even tougher conditions, with severe flooding and drought. Forests are also being damaged as dams are built and replaced using teak and bamboo.

Our Food Security projects today are working to minimise this reliance on wood to provide sustainable structures. The main material used is concrete. The amount of concrete is always kept to a minimum however, so that the structure can fit in the river bed without disturbing the banks of river. The objective is to provide flood resistant irrigation while maintaining balance with the surrounding ecosystem. These systems also minimise dependence on traditional slash and burn farming methods, lowering the levels of deforestation.

Through working with our Karen staff we have designed these irrigation systems to ensure they meet the needs of the Karen and minimise the effect on the environment.

The Variety of Life

This improved irrigation has resulted in crop yield increasing fivefold. Not only are farmers able to grow more, but also with greater variety.  

The Karen are now able to grow an increasing number of cash crops, for example, garlic and onion. This not only results in increased income and variation in diet but also a lesser reliance on producing corn to feed animals to sell. Across the planet, an increasing number of forested areas are being cleared to make room for agriculture but only 55% of this goes towards feeding people directly[1]. In Asia this is particularly prevalent with the UN recording Asia as being one of the fastest growing meat consuming regions in the world[2]. Corn for animal feed requires huge areas to be cleared and is this which we wish to work towards diminishing.

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Our work with the Karen thus plays an important environmental role whilst also contributing towards disaster risk reduction. Our hope with our projects is to work towards Sustainable Development Goal 15 helping to ‘protect, restore and promote sustainable use of ecosystems and sustainably manage forests’[3]. We recognise that we live in age facing a plethora of challenges to food security which must be balanced with living harmoniously in the global environment.  

[1] National Geographic Magazine. (2016) The Future of Food. Available from: www.nationalgeographic.com/foodfeatures/feeding-9-billion/
[2] UNEP. (2012) Growing Greenhouse emissons due to meat production. Available from: www.unep.org/pdf/unep-geas_oct_2012.pdf 
[3] UN. (2016) Sustainable Development Goal 15.  Available from: www.sustainabledevelopment.un.org/sdg15