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close this bookConservation and Development in Northern Thailand. Proceedings of a Programmatic Workshop on Agro-forestry and Highland-Lowland Interactive Systems, Held at Chiang Mai, Thailand, 13-17 November 1978 (UNU, 1980, 114 pages)
View the documentEditorial note
View the documentPreface
close this folderIntroduction
View the documentProgramme on the use and management of natural resources
View the documentHighland-lowland interactive systems in the humid tropics and subtropics: The need for a conceptual basis for an applied research programme
View the documentNorthern Thailand: The problem
close this folderResearch reports
View the documentImplications of socio-economic, demographic. and cultural changes for regional development in northern Thailand
View the documentAgricultural intensification and the role of forestry in northern Thailand
View the documentProblems of land use and recent settlement in Thailand's highland-lowland transition zone
View the documentCartographie de la dynamique des paysages dans les hautes et basses terres du nord de la Thaïlande
View the documentMapping landscape dynamics in the highlands and lowlands of northern Thailand
View the documentClimatological, pedological, and geomorphological processes in tropical mountain ecosystems
View the documentLocal climatological differences between highlands and lowlands in Thailand
View the documentLand use and its relationship to agriculture in Pangsa, Chiang Rai: A case study
View the documentIncreasing farm production in the highlands of northern Thailand
close this folderResearch and training requirements
View the documentResearch and training in southeast Asia in relation to priority areas of the programme on the use and management of natural resources
close this folderOn the significance of the watershed management approach in studying highland-lowland interactive systems
View the document(introductory text...)
View the documentReview of current research on agriculture in the highlands of northern Thailand
close this folderSubcommittee reports, plenary discussion, and recommendations
View the documentReport by the subcommittee on documentation, training, and personnel
View the documentReport by the subcommittee on mapping and cover-type data requirements
View the documentReport by the subcommittee on climate, soil. and soil erosion data requirements
View the documentReport by the subcommittee on socio-cultural, demographic, and economic aspects
View the documentPlenary session
View the documentRecommendations
close this folderHuai Thung Choa highland project
View the documentThe Huai Thung Choa highland project: Status and opportunities
close this folderAppendix
View the documentWorkshop participants, observers, and staff
View the documentOther UNU publications

Increasing farm production in the highlands of northern Thailand

Peter Hoare

Lowland-Highland Population Pressure

About 90 per cent of the Thai population of 4.4 million in the nine provinces of the Northern Region of Thailand-Chiang Mai, Chiang Rai, Phayao, Lampang, Lamphun, Nan, Phrae, Tak, Mae Hong Son-lives in the lowlands. The overall rate of population increase is 2 6 per cent. The average population pressure in the lowlands (9,000 km²), representing only 10 per cent of the area, is about 500 persons per km² on crop land. 65 per cent of which is irrigated rice and 10 per cent double-cropped.

The uplands (27,000 km²) and also the highlands will become increasingly important in feeding the lowland population increase because of the limited potential for further lowland irrigation development for multiple cropping.

In the highlands (54,000 km²), ranging in altitude from 500 m to 2,500 m above sea level, the population is estimated at around 500,000 with at least 300,000 hill people. The highland population density is about 10 persons per km² However, because of the physiography of the highland region, past immigration, and present political problems, over half the present hill population is engaged in bush-fallow farming systems at population pressures in excess of 50 persons per km²

Farm crop production in these bush-fallow farming systems with the traditional technology probably cannot be sustained under such a relatively high population pressure. A study of the nutrient cycling in these bush-fallow systems is urgently needed to determine the population density which can be supported.

Hinton (1975) calculated the physiologic density in four villages and three satellite villages of Karen subsistence farmers to be in excess of 50 persons per km² The Karen are the largest ethnic group who practice a bush-fallow sedentary farming system. and make up more than 50 per cent of the hill population. The high population density compelled farmers in the villages studied by Hinton to operate a mean bushfallow cycle of 5.6 years compared with a desirable minimum of 12 years. His opinion was that the population pressure was not confined to the study area because of the even spread of population in relation to agrarian resources in Karen society.

Some of the more mobile hill ethnic groups in other highland areas are farming tropical bush-fallow systems at population pressures in excess of 50 persons per km² (e.g., Doi Muser. Tak Province, because of a security problem).

The Starting Point for Highland Agricultural Change

Government and also non-government agencies are working to bring about change in the present highland farming systems. particularly with the most mobile ethnic groups. Many highland farmers are well aware that relatively rapid agricultural change is inevitable due to increasing highland population pressure. However, agricultural officers have. in general, failed to understand and measure the productivity of the highland farming system which they are trying to change. Because of lack of experience in tropical bush-fallow farming systems, the reaction of many agricultural workers is to reject the technology of the existing highland farming systems as worthless, and to try and replace the indigenous technology with introduced, and often less relevant technology

These agricultural officers fail to tap a plant gene pool in the highlands. This plant material has been selected and tested at a range of altitudes in an ongoing process over several centuries by immigrant farmers, and carried from country to country as they moved their farms. Hinton (1975) reported 20 rice varieties in the seven Karen villages studied. and Somphob Jarchrojna (personal communication 1978) in one nearby Karen village reported ten rice varieties (five paddy, three hill rice, and two hill glutinous). Lahu farmers have highly developed technologies for the intercropping of the staple crops of rice with pigeon pea, and corn with cucurbits.

It would seem that collection and selection offers opportunity for the most rapid agronomic advance for the staple crop hill rice, and most other crops. Collection and testing of hill rice varieties has recently commenced (Tiyavalee, Insomphun. and Chamberlin 1978), A cocoyam variety brought from Burma by the Lahu and collected by the author, yielded at the rate of 20 tons per ha without fertilizer at the upper cropping level of 1,400 m above sea level and could be an important carbohydrate source for these higher altitudes.

This plant material and the agricultural technologies are often exclusive to special hill ethnic groups. For example, even though the Karen farmers mix cucurbit. brassica, and other vegetable seeds with their hill rice as understory crops, the Lahu association of pigeon pea mixed with hill rice is unknown to them. With little extension input the Lahu technology could substantially raise the level of human dietary protein obtained from the Karen farming system. There is a wealth of agricultural technology already available, once a better understanding of the highland farming systems is obtained.

Some Options for Increasing the Productivity of Highland Farms

Some options for increasing the productivity of highland farms of the least mobile group (Karen) and most mobile group (Hmong) of the highland bush-fallow farmers are discussed, and for the highland Thai farmers who grow native tea (miang). Most of the available information on highland farm calendars and labour work days comes from the work of anthropologists and geographers. However, they have only studied part of the farming system. and information is lacking on the level of farm employment and the ability of present farming systems to supply the subsistence needs of highland farmers. Techniques used successfully in Papua New Guinea to gather this information on the present farming systems have been tested in the

Northern Thailand highlands and these basic data on all highland farming systems could be obtained within a short time (J. Lamrock. former Dep. Dir. Agric. PNG., personal communication). In the proposed UN University-Chiang Mai University project area Karen and Lisu ethnic groups are represented. Part of the early programme could be to measure the existing farming systems.

Karen farmers

Preliminary investigations of subsistence farmers in Mae Ka Nai Karen village (Piriyamasakul. personal communication 1978) showed that rice provided over 85 per cent of energy and about 75 per cent of the human dietary protein. Daily protein consumption was as little as 30g/day. Even though there was an average ownership of five pigs and seven chickens per household, and 70 per cent of the villagers owned cattle (Imong and McKinnon 1975), less than 10 per cent of the human protein intake came from domestic livestock. which were only killed for religious or festive occasions.

Land is a constraint. All the available area for paddy fields has been developed. Paddy rice cropping provides 25 to 50 per cent of the family rice production. Fire control over bush fallow and some grazing control are practiced.

Some options for increasing farm productivity are:

  1. The increased use of grain legumes such as in hill rice pigeon pea association which could provide about 300 kg/ha of pigeon pea grain (23 per cent protein), probably without reducing hill rice yields; and in the fallow phase to provide legume grain and help maintain fertility in the shortening bush-fallow rotations.
  2. Use of fertilizers to increase the yield. Fertilizer costing 250 baht resulted in added value of 2,000 baht on paddy fields at 800 m elevation (Wichian Pooswang, personal communication). The economics of fertilizer on hill rice may be less favourable than for paddy rice, and new rice varieties responsive to fertilizer inputs may be needed
  3. The scope for increased domestic livestock and ruminant production seems limited because of the pressure on land resources to grow food crops for direct human consumption. An area of about 0.4 ha for good nutrition for the five pigs per household is needed. This is more than the area needed to feed one person, as 57 per cent of the energy and protein would be lost in feeding the rice and pigeon pea to the pig. The role of pigs in the Karen system will be limited to scavengers.
  4. Permanent tree crops

Hmong farmers

The Hmong are the most mobile of the group of the bushfallow farmers (Geddes 1970) Rice is the staple crop supplemented by corn. The average daily food consumption of 14 families in four Hmong villages at Pa Kia over two periods in May and August were: rice 852 g. potatoes 152 g. and protein 86 9 Over half the daily protein intake came from rice, with most of the remainder from domestic livestock and wild animals. Domestic animals were killed mainly for religious occasions (Piriyamasakul 1978)

The options in moving towards a more sedentary agriculture and increasing farm productivity seem to be:

  1. The development of available paddy areas. The greater return for labour from rice production on paddy land is recognized by most Hmong farmers (''from paddy land the yield is double the hill rice yield for the same labour input''-Nai Tu, Middle Pa Kia farmer interview, 1976). Every hectare of paddy land takes about 30 ha out of the bush fallow hill rice farming system (1 ha paddy = yield of 2 ha of hill rice x 15 year fallow period).
  2. The cultivation of permanent tree crops The most promising is coffee (UNPDAC Crop Replacement Project 1977). In Papua New Guinea the promotion of highland small holder coffee resulted in some villages making a complete change from bush-fallow farming to coffee (J. Lamrock, personal communication).

Thai native tea growers

Over 100,000 highland Thai depend on the native tea economy with average farm sizes around 2 ha and supporting a population density of about 80 persons per km² (Keen 1972; Oughton 1971).

Two options for increasing farm productivity are

  1. a legume cover crop of greenleaf desmodium (Andrews 1977)-with grazing control the yield of tea leaf should be increased and
  2. diversification of the farming enterprise. with (a) coffee interplanted with the native tea, or (b) ruminant production where sufficient grazing land is available (Falvey 1977)



Andrews, A. 1978. Thai-Australian Highland Agricultural Project Third Report. Australian Development Assistance Bureau

FAO 1972 Food Composition Table for Use in East Asia

Falvey, L 1977. Agrosociological Study of Highland Ruminants. Thai Australian Highland Agricultural Project Tribal Research Centre, Chiang Mail Thailand

Geddes. W R 1973. Migrants of the Mountains. Oxford University Press

Hinton P. 1975 ''Karen Subsistence: The Limits of a Swidden-Economy in North Thailand' Ph.D. thesis, University of Sydney.

Ho, R, and E C. Chapman, eds. 1973 Studies of Contemporary Thailand Canberra: Australian National University.

Imong, N., and J M. McKinnon 1975. ''A Karen Swidden Project. ''Tribal Research Centre, Chiang Mai, Thailand Roneoed

Keen, F G B 1972. Upland Tenure and Land Use m North Thailand SEATO Cultural Programme, Bangkok.

Oughton, G.A 1971 ''Nikhom Chiang Dao Resources and Development Survey.'' Tribal Research Centre, Chiang Mai Mimeographed.

Piriyamasakul. R. 1978 ''Food Consumption in Meo Villages at Ra Kia'' Faculty of Agriculture, Chiang Mai University, Thailand Roneoed

Tiyavalee, D., et al 1979 Thai Australian Highland Agricultural Project Fourth Report Australian Development Assistance Bureau