“I don’t think we can plant rice in our fields this year as there are no rains. We used to have enough food for my family for the whole year but nowadays our farming life gets more difficult yearly.”
His name is Kwan, and he is a father of five children, belonging to the ethnic community of Han Si in Karenni State in the eastern region of Myanmar.
Kwan’s community mainly grow rice and corn for their livelihoods. Seasonal rainfall and water from mountain streams are the main sources of water. But this year, the rains have been infrequent. Even though it was the last week of August, Kwan’s family still did not have enough water for their rice fields.
Karenni State, with an area of only 4,582 square miles, is one of the smallest and least populated states in Myanmar. The mountainous region of Karenni State, in addition to the ethnic Karenni community, comprises several other small ethnic groups. All the ethnic communities depend for their livelihoods on rainfall along with non-timber forest products.
The ethnic communities in Karenni State follow their own system of conservation and management of forests based on their traditional beliefs.
Ethnic communities conserve and protect their forests
The region’s forests have always been the physical and spiritual home of the ethnic people living in Karenni State. The forest lands are an integral part of the identity of the ethnic communities. The ethnic communities manage their land and natural resources according to their traditional customs and beliefs that are handed down the generations.
“We have been living in this village for more than 70 years. The forests and rivers of this village have been used and managed since the time of our ancestors. According to our ethnic Kayan tradition, we believe every single type of natural element has its own spirits trees, bamboo groves, and farmland,” said one farmer in Wan Ban Blo village.
The ethnic communities have a system for classifying their forests according to their customary forest management systems. Although there may be some differences in customs and tradition, generally, the forest classifications are village-owned forest, community-owned forest, individually-owned forest, protected forest, and sacred forest.
Forests are protected and conserved based on the demarcation of the village and forest areas. The groups responsible for forest protection comprise the ethnic elders, community leaders, and youth leaders. They together discuss and solve any conflicts that arise from land or forest use, with the decisions taken on mutual trust and respect for the customary forest laws.
In the community forests, cutting and logging of trees is prohibited. Some limited amounts of wood can be taken for housing and firewood or for traditional festivals based on the community’s agreement. These rules help to protect the forests from exploitation for personal or commercial gains.
The forests are deeply intertwined with the lives of the ethnic communities. They value the forests like a deity and believe that all animals and living beings are connected to their ancestral spirits. They believe that protecting the forests and their living beings will bring good fortune to the community.