Highland cash crop development and biodiversity conservation : the Hmong in Northern Thailand




Tungittiplakorn, Waranoot

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This study explores two interlinked aspects of human-environment relationship—cash crop development and biodiversity conservation—by examining the situations of the Hmong people, the largest traditional pioneer swidden group in the Thai highlands. Cash crop adoption among the Hmong have occurred in two main ways. The first involves the adoption of low-input upland crops and a shift to high-input vegetable crops. This pattern is found in the Lower North and spread to the Upper North, particularly in Tak, Phrae, Nan, Payao and Chiang Rai. The adoption is closely linked to the development of roads into the uplands and the diffusion of maize cultivation in the lowlands. The second pattern is a direct shift from opium to high-input crops, particularly cabbage. Large scale cabbage growing began in the early 1980s as a response to the demand for off-season vegetables. The most important driving factors behind cash crop adoption were the government poppy eradication activities, the contacts between market agents and the Hmong and the increased accessibility of Hmong villages. Adoption was facilitated by favourable market prices at the initial period and by the Hmong clan network. Each type of cash crops has had its particular effects on the Hmong socio-economy. Cut-flowers bring small but regular income into a household while cabbages bring a lump sum, a few times a year. Cabbage production induces high level of truck ownership leading to increased mobility, rapid diffusion of innovations, changing cultural values and increased uses of lowland services (such as health care, schools, market, etc.). Flower production, on the other hand, allows women to take active parts in marketing. The study also found a type of movement not discussed in earlier literature, the temporary migration of households or parts of households to take advantage of successful cash crop cultivation in other villages for a period of 1–2 years. The examination of four cash crops: opium, maize, cabbage and carnations shows that the Hmong have gradually shifted from land extensive to land intensive cash crops. This move to economize on land is, however, recompensed by the need for high inputs in agriculture. The more land intensive the crop is, the more fertilizers and pesticides are used. Comparisons between crops on three variables: population-land ratio, income and pesticide used per unit area, suggest that cut-flowers may be a superior crop, if measures to reduce pesticide uses can be found. Cash crop adoption affect the relationships between the people and wildlife in three ways. First, the labour-intensive nature of cash crop production prevents farmers from spending as much time in the forest as in the past. Second, cash crops provide incomes which allow the people to obtain meat from the market and thus reducing the needs for wild meat. Third, cash crop economy orients people toward the lowland, resulting in weakening traditional knowledge about wildlife behaviours, hunting or trapping. Most Hmong view hunting as a leisure activity, and some, particular women, see it as a waste of time. Reduced hunting, however, has not lessen the pressure on wildlife as the population of all species are reportedly declining. Many Hmong villages have rules against hunting some species, particularly gibbons. This rule is respected by most people but not all. Since the people do not feel that their livelihood is greatly affected by the disappearance of wildlife, the direct relationships between economic improvement and conservation is not clearly apparent.



Biodiversity, Biotic communities, Biodiversity conservation, Crops, Land use