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close this bookShifting Cultivation in Northern Thailand (UNU, 1980, 44 pages)
View the documentPreface: some underlying assumptions
Open this folder and view contents1. The mountains of Northern Thailand and their inhabitants: some issues
Open this folder and view contents2. Two types of swidden systems
Open this folder and view contents3. The development of swidden agriculture
Open this folder and view contents4. Swidden improvement in Northern Thailand
View the documentAppendix: upland rice yields in Northern Thailand
View the documentNotes
View the documentReferences

Preface: some underlying assumptions

This study considers the development of swidden cultivation in general and of swiddening in the mountain areas of Northern Thailand in particular. To define ''development" explicitly is troublesome, although the term is used widely and frequently. It seems that most people feel that they intuitively know what development is: the attainment of a better lifestyle, greater market participation, greater material wellbeing, or the assurance of the basics (adequate food, shelter, medical care, etc.)-the abolition of poverty. Each of us has general, often deeply held, emotionally influenced ideas about what the good life is; but we seldom make the effort to explore the basis of these rather non-explicit concepts, or to determine whether our own ideas or goals in this realm match those of our neighbour or whether constellations of such ideas and goals within our own culture match those in other cultures. Rather, their very non-explicitness offers us a degree of comfort that other people are indeed much like ourselves, that improvement of the human condition is thus conceivable and desirable, that our world is moving forward or at least can move forward through our own efforts and the efforts of others.

Despite their obvious communicative sophistication, human beings have always had a good deal of trouble understanding each other. At times, differences have been so great that one group of people has classified another as essentially nonhuman, so startling are the different customs, beliefs, and practices. At the opposite extreme is the oftenvoiced belief that human beings are pretty much the same everywhere, a belief that has often resulted in ascribing to others characteristics which they do not possess. Indeed, it has been argued that it may be better if different cultural groups do not have the opportunity to find out too much about each other: that xenophobia is best avoided by formalized (minimum) interaction, so that each group is able to deceive itself that the other is essentially similar. In between, a sort of ongoing dialectical process takes place whereby differences come to the fore and are dealt with through learning and re-evaluation, and a new idea of essential sameness is then assumed until it too is challenged.

It is unlikely, then, that we will ever arrive at a definition of development that is both explicit and universally applicable. If there is a category to be called "development,'' it should, primarily, be flexible, subject to revision, specifiable only in particular circumstances and in reference to particular people. "Aid" is perhaps a better term- aid that is responsive to its clients' needs, involves a large number of options, and is organized primarily as a channel for providing needed and desired information and assistance at an element or step level rather than at a package level. Packages tend to be either failures or else coercive (or both), since their "selling power" is often in terms of their ultimate goals, while failing to apprise their clients of the many comprehensive sorts of change necessary to reach those goals. Were these clear, otherwise enthusiastic clients might have reservations about the path to which they were committing themselves.

Development's primary role, as seen in this case study, is to provide information-information of a sort that increases ability to deal with local problems and increases awareness of available options. Development's second role is to provide assistance in the form of education, training, and access to needed and desired technology. But it is the relation between these two roles that is perhaps most crucial: the second should be provided at the desire of the client, based on his access to the first. In other words, it is the decision of the client that is the most important, and this decision is not a onetime thing whereby he commits himself to a given course of action but. rather, an ongoing process. Seen in this light, what is required of developers is a strong sense of humility, an awareness of the inherent difficulty in understanding the goals of others. The problem is not how to convince clients to participate in the development venture; it is rather how to design and continually modify the content of development channels so that they meet the needs of the client. In a real sense, this is not development at all. It is, instead, service, the sort of service that governments or public institutions ought to provide. Its underlying assumption is that some forms of scientific knowledge may be of use to those who do not now have access to them, and that this access should be available. When the application of development in swidden agriculture is discussed in this study, it is application in the availability of knowledge that is referred to. The purpose of the study is a consideration of the sorts of knowledge that could be assembled and made available, and some appreciation of the possible effects such knowledge might promote, so that planning for technical assistance might keep pace with anticipated needs. The author does not suggest that swiddeners in Northern Thailand be organized to get on with some programme. Indeed, it seems to me virtually certain that such organization would meet with failure, as have virtually all past development schemes that have dealt with swidden agriculturalists.

Three types of development knowledge will be important in this study. One is a consideration of improved productivity among swidden cultivators. The assumption here is that presently over-taxed swidden systems could benefit from better yields, in terms of both labour and land. (Related to productivity but not to be discussed in detail here are returns from cashcropping and ways to get better profits for the farmer. )

A second type of concern will be "viability," by which is meant the ability of a production system to be elaborated and continued over long periods of time without running out of essential input resources or causing environmental degradation.

Thirdly, the study will be concerned with the relationship between the particular agricultural adaptation and socio-cultural characteristics of the group involved, particularly goals and values. Any consideration of technological changes in a production system should also involve an ongoing consideration of the effects of such changes upon the society itself. That such effects exist should hardly be in question now, but the more precise delineation, extent, and direction of these effects is highly problematic. It is the least understood of the topics to be covered in this study, yet it seems essential to make an effort to deal with it, despite a lack of the tools to do so. The subject must ultimately be approached as best it can, since any provision of assistance knowledge to swiddeners must include as realistic an assessment as possible of the probable effects on the society of the various options proposed. Only with such information, sketchy as it may be, can people make informed decisions about their own futures.

Much of the documentation relied on in this study is the result of painstaking research by a multitude of scholars in Northern Thailand, many of them anthropologists, their experience spanning decades. The format and methodology of the study, however, were conceived by Kenneth Ruddle and Terry B. Grandstaff (1977; 1978) to test the utility of a particular way of evolving policy recommendations for development. Briefly, the approach envisioned a focus on the details of resource usage in such a manner that their interconnections with both their biophysical and socio-cultural environments could be concurrently examined. The whole of these interconnections could then be viewed as a resource "system" and examined, across time, to see how the system had evolved to its present state and what would be likely to happen to it under various alternative scenarios, or in light of various goals.

Obviously the magnitude of this task prohibits detailed or quantified modelling of such a system. Instead, what is attempted is to examine the shaping or configuration formed by the interconnections, rather than to focus on individual parts at the expense of their effects on other parts. Why such a formidable task is worth the effort should become clear from the reasoning contained in the study: it is the interconnections between environment, resources, and society that matter in development. just as much as technological expertise.