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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)
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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

Northern Thailand: The problem

Jack D. Ives

Northern Thailand comprises Region Five, the administrative division of the North, which includes the provinces of Mae Hong Son, Chiang Mail Chianq Pail Nan, Lamphun, Lampang, Phrae, and Uttaradit. The national census definition would add to these eight provinces the bordering provinces of Kamphaeng Phet, Nakom Sawan, Tak, and Uthai Thani. Geographically this is a region of mountains and hills with relatively narrow valleys and occasional intermontane depressions forming a highly complex relief merging across the international borders of Burma and Laos and, further north, into Yunnan, China. Situated between latitudes 16' and 20 north. it experiences a pronounced monsoonal climate with heavy summer rains (mid-May or June to October) followed by a cool dry season (October to February). then a hot dry season. culminating in April/May with temperature maxima exceeding 40°C (cf. Yoshino, this volume. for a more detailed account of aspects of Northern Thailand climatology). The main physical lineations trend approximately north-south. The largest, and central, part of Northern Thailand is drained by the main headwaters of the Chao Phraya southwards into the Gulf of Siam, the northeastern sector into the Mekong. and the northwestern sector into the Salween and Irrawaddy, and so through Burma into the Andaman Sea.

For centuries large sections of this region constituted a no man's land of dense primary forest and extremely rugged relief sparsely populated by many ethnically distinct hill peoples that existed in a self sufficient manner. 1-his involved the practice of a variety of forms of slash-and burn (swidden) forest shifting agriculture with land to spare so that prolonged forest fallow allowed cyclical regeneration of soil fertility At the same time the lowlands were occupied by ethnic Northern Thai who practiced intensive irrigated rice cultivation supplemented by a wide variety of other crops. One of the main south-flowing tributaries of the Choa Phraya is the Ping, which drains the Chiang Mai depression, one of the largest areas of northern lowland, and the surrounding forested mountains that frequently rise 1,800 to 2,000 m above the lowland The town of Chiang Mai is Thailand's second largest city, but with a population of little more than 100,000 it is diminuitive compared with the giant southern megalopolis of Bangkok Fig 1 is a general geographical sketch of Thailand

Given the nearly 2,000 m of local relief it follows that the natural vegetation can be divided into a series of fairly distinct altitudinally arranged ecosystems, somewhat complicated by edaphic types on the steeper slopes and local climatic varieties in rain shadow areas. Above about 1,000 m to the highest summits at 2,600 m a Lower Montane Forest predominates consisting of oaks, false chestnuts, laurels. and birches. amongst others. Commercially valuable species are entirely unexploited because of rugged relief and inaccessibility. Annual rainfall is 1,500 to 2,000 mm. although sparsity of climatological stations in this upper altitudinal belt would lead us to anticipate somewhat higher amounts on the more exposed windward slopes. The Coniferous Forest is an edaphic type usually occupying steep slopes and exposed ridges between elevations of about 800 to 1,600 m. It is dominated by the two native pines, Pinus merkusli and P. kesiya which provide the source for much of the highland reforestation currently in progress. Oaks. false chestnuts, and other evergreen species occupy an understory beneath the dominant pines, while dipterocarps enter at lower elevations Somewhat lower elevations are occupied by the Dry Evergreen Forests, overlapped again at still lower elevations by several varieties of Deciduous Forests and Moist Mixed Deciduous Forests which extend down to the foothills, the upper river terraces, and plains These latter contain the economically vital and seriously over-exploited teak and other commercial species

Traditionally the lowlands have been characterized by the intensive irrigated rice culture of the ethnic Northern Thai and relatively little contact. at least on a regular basis, was maintained with the hill peoples These somewhat stereotyped landscapes and their human associations are shown schematically in Fig. 2. During the last 50 years. however, and especially since the end of World War 11. introduction of medical health measures, successful combating of malaria and other diseases, amongst other causes. known and unknown, have set off a major population expansion. both amongst the ethnic Northern Thai and the eight or nine ethnically distinct hill peoples The 1970 census showed a total population of approximately 7.500.000 and an area of 170,000 km². for an average density of only 44 persons per km². that is, about a fifth of the nation's population in about a third of its area. Total ethnic population in the area probably lies in excess of 300,000 These figures. however, are very misleading: the richer lowland areas have rural population densities up to 800 per km² while the hill peoples' dependency on swidden agricultural forms is extremely land extensive and requires long-period forest fallow Also, population growth rates approach 2.7 per cent with rate exceedinq 3 0 per cent amongst the hill peoples.

This population growth in recent decades has been accompanied by increased urbanization, development of an extensive road and general communications system. and an increasing degree of incorporation of the entire area into the world market systems Added to this is the increasing immigration across the frontiers with Burma. Laos, and Cambodia and a concurrent expansion of opium production Ethnic Northern Thai are penetrating the hills and mountains as land hunger in the lowlands grows, little primary forest remains, even at the highest elevations, and increasing numbers of originally subsistence highlanders become dependent upon a partial cash crop economy or supplementary wage labour to maintain their increasingly marginal subsistence. Serious land shortage has reduced the traditional periods of forest fallow so that the old systems are on the verge of collapse. Soil erosion, decreasing soil fertility. increased variation in the hydrologic cycle with progressive deforestation and spread of Imperata grasslands are all contributing to a critical situation in the mountains, which also has increasingly heavy impacts on the settled agricultural systems of the lowlands. As Kunstadler and Chapman (1978, p. 17) have so eloquently expressed: "Land. of course, is not a free good. and even if it were an unlimited resource, use of the uplands would affect (through loss of watershed and soil erosion) the land resources at lower elevations. Thus the population planning motives of individual swiddening families may not be in harmony with the needs of people living in other ecological zones, or even with their own needs or the needs of their descendants.''

FIG. 1. Outline Map of Thailand and its Neighbours

Thus the problems, sketched here only briefly, are readily apparent and are discussed in much greater detail in the papers that follow The United Nations University. as only one of several agencies and institutions, has decided to attempt a major contribution to resolution of this complex of problems which involves a mix of the human and environmental sciences that are embodied in its agroforestry and highland-lowland interactive systems projects. This is to be developed through direct relations with the UNU Associated Institution of Chiang Mai University and the Royal Forestry Department. The broad objective is to adapt and enlarge upon the pre-existing Huai Thung Choa highland project, and to collaborate with all other interested agencies and individuals

Some of our primary concerns are: (1 ) reduction of watershed deterioration, (2) improvement of the welfare of the hill peoples and ethnic Northern Thai, (3) preservation of the richness, colour, and meaning of the traditions and customs of the local peoples, (4) contribution to the stability and security of the region as a whole, and (5) reduction of the hill peoples' dependency on opium production, in concert with several other appropriate agencies. To achieve these objectives many secondary goals of a substantially self-evident nature will have to be met. We must also recognize some of the serious constraints and stresses, however. that will arise, and indeed are arising, if we fail to adopt a fully holistic approach. The major problem, of course, is that the existing population pressures are too great for the current land-use practices. Yet intensification of agricultural production by. for instance, introduction of additional cash crops, multiple cropping, or intensification of irrigation, if labour intensive, as is so often the case. will merely serve to augment the rate of population growth. One of the great post-war disasters of developed-nation goodwill was the widespread attention to medical welfare and disease eradication without adequate thought about what to do with the increasing numbers who avoided infant mortality.

FIG. 2. Schematic Highland-Lowland Transect for Northern Thailand. (From P. Kunstadter and E.C. Chapman, "Problems of Shifting Cultivations and Economic Development in Northern Thailand" in Kunstadter, Chapman, and Sabhasri 1978, p. 8, Fin. 1.1.)

Our involvements must extend into the legal problems of land ownership, human perception of environment and personal and group welfare, education, religion, politics, commerce. and marketing systems, amongst others, since all these are integral parts of the essential holistic view. No easy panaceas are apparent; we may only help to delay the catastrophe, or slow the progressive deterioration of environment and associated individual and community well-being. But, in collaboration with other agencies and individuals, we may be able to do more than this and, concomitantly produce an applied research model that can be of value to other regions with similar environments and comparable problems. Within the spirit of the United Nations University's Programme on the Use and Management of Natural Resources, however, we cannot afford to avoid the attempt through fear of failure; and success may be closer than we may presently perceive.


Kunstadter, Peter, and E.C. Chapman. 1978. "Problems of Shifting Cultivation and Economic Development in Northern Thailand.'' In Kunstadter, Chapman, and Sabhasri 1 978.

Kunstadter. Peter. E.C. Chapman, and Sanga Sabhasri, eds. 1978. Farmers in the Forest. Honolulu, Hawaii. USA: An East-West Center Publication. The University Press of Hawaii.