Service-learning & the future for the tribes of Thailand

Southeast Asian countries are home to many tribal ethnic minorities, many of which can be found in Thailand’s further reaches. These vanishing tribes, like their contemporaries in other Southeast Asian countries, are faced with issues of cultural preservation and physical survival, as they feel the press of a modern world.

The tribes that inhabit this corner of Asia once thrived in this region, long before European colonialists arrived and established hard borders, which devastated these people and their ability to thrive. Today, most of these tribes, and their brethren who can be found in neighbouring Myanmar, Laos & Vietnam, live predominantly in remote valleys etching out a living farming and as labourers to local plantation owners. The minority groups face economic hardships and daily challenges due to their mountainous lifestyle, lack of higher education and minimal transport options to and from employment.

Whilst some of Thailand’s indigenous tribes continue to flourish ( Yao, Lisu & Aka), those who have arrived in Thailand in recent years such as the Palong, having fled unrest in neighbouring Myanmar, face the greatest hardship. After several generations of residing in Thailand, village elders still struggle to come to terms with the concept of private land ownership or its importance. Local NGOs explain that it is easy for greedy developers to convince villagers that the government didn’t give them permanent land rights and that the government is about to take the land back. Subsequently, a commune or village chief is given a payoff to approve the sale of the land gifted to them, but the Thai government, who they ultimately lose faith in and believe that they have no rights.

According to a local Thai consulate source, Ms Ranoppin Kapittai, “the tribes’ people are told they are stupid if they don’t sell, and that they are backward if they keep with the ancient ways. People have to move out of the village, and then the structure begins to deteriorate. When they move, they must clear new forests, which is both backbreaking and illegal and the government will take the land away from them. Eighty per cent of the tribal people don’t speak Thai, and even fewer are literate. This gives the tribes minimal recourse to the law.”

To survive, some tribes have resorted to leasing artificial villages that are easily accessed by foreign tourists. These contrived places are the last economic refuge for many of the Stateless refugees from the Burmese civil war. Like the exotic-looking Long Neck Karen hill-tribe women who are only permitted to remain in Thailand because of the tourist dollars they bring in. A portion of the money from the sale of tickets or souvenirs filters down to the women.

A role for your students

These people’s situation is not entirely hopeless, nor is all interaction with foreigners all negative and exploitive. There is much gained from the interaction between these tribes and foreigner visitors, and this is something we think about constantly in a world that is increasingly opting for monoculture. Local people wish for foreign interaction and crave the solidarity and efforts of well-meaning people from outside who wish to assist them in sustaining their way of life. They are also very aware of how positive foreign attention can help support their way of life and of course, how tourism can be a positive force if done sensitively.

If planned wisely, as we do, Northern Thailand around Chiang Mai and Chiang Dao offer a plethora of meaningful and sustainable service-learning projects ideally suited to the energy (and skill levels) of a diligent group of motivated students. This carefully planned interaction initiated after consultation with regional leaders and senior tribespeople can take many forms and is always designed to be of maximum value to the tribespeople and, consequently, all our visiting student groups.

Such efforts can be planned to facilitate habitat rejuvenation, where we plant native shrubs and fruit trees around water sources to provide food for the animals and prevent soil erosion. We can arrange water reservoir construction projects to control the water flow, enabling wildlife and the minority tribes’ access to water all year round, sanctioned by the local government and park rangers. Student groups can help establish social enterprises such as sewing clubs to maintain traditional costumes or set up pig and other livestock small enterprises.

These people’s situation is not entirely hopeless, nor is all interaction with foreigners all negative and exploitive. There is much gained from the interaction between these tribes and foreigner visitors, and this is something we think about constantly in a world that is increasingly opting for monoculture. Local people wish for foreign interaction and crave the solidarity and efforts of well-meaning people from outside who wish to assist them in sustaining their way of life. They are also very aware of how positive foreign attention can help support their way of life and of course, how tourism can be a positive force if done sensitively.

If planned wisely, as we do, Northern Thailand around Chiang Mai and Chiang Dao offer a plethora of meaningful and sustainable service-learning projects ideally suited to the energy (and skill levels) of a diligent group of motivated students. This carefully planned interaction initiated after consultation with regional leaders and senior tribespeople can take many forms and is always designed to be of maximum value to the tribespeople and, consequently, all our visiting student groups.

Such efforts can be planned to facilitate habitat rejuvenation, where we plant native shrubs and fruit trees around water sources to provide food for the animals and prevent soil erosion. We can arrange water reservoir construction projects to control the water flow, enabling wildlife and the minority tribes’ access to water all year round, sanctioned by the local government and park rangers. Student groups can help establish social enterprises such as sewing clubs to maintain traditional costumes or set up pig and other livestock small enterprises.

A carefully planned, community sanctioned building or renovation effort is also a remarkable undertaking, provided we are not simply building another unwanted toilet block. Key to this effort is travelling to where the help is needed, and not just the village with the best access or the nicest accommodation facilities. This presents challenges when organising service activities for high school-aged students. These efforts are really only suitable for students who are well prepared mentally for the task and willing to endure the hardship of limited shower facilities and several long days of often laborious tasks to make for an effective outcome.

All service projects we facilitate are intended to build an ongoing relationship in these remote villages for the coming years so that your school can return to build on previous years achievements.

As with any service-learning or learning-service project we facilitate for our student groups, the project’s benefits will be explained in detail. Students will learn exactly how a project is chosen, who benefits, whether the project is sustainable, and how the project success is measured? All our projects are collaborative, where we will work alongside the locals, assisting them in what they need while we provide the physical labour, resources or efforts. We always use local tradesmen, locally sourced supplies, and employments for village cooks, helpers, accommodation providers (in a homestay), and transport providers (vans and trucks).

Aside from the awareness and insight a visit to Chiang Mai Province and Chiang Dao District brings, it also offers students incredible trekking experiences, bamboo rafting, and other programs designed to develop water resources awareness. The district’s stunning natural geography combined with an array of outdoor pursuits and a service-learning community project will make for a significant and enjoyable program for any school group wishing to understand Thailand and its complexities.

Having spent time in Chiang Dao and staying in a local minority village for serval days, students will have learned about Thailand’s minority groups, resettlement issues, project management skills, a greater understanding of the local education system, current environmental issues and possible solutions.

For further information about Chiang Mai Province or Chiang Dao District options, please contact our office at info@studenteducationaladventures.com or head to the Destinations link on our website and click on Thailand to see some sample travel itineraries.