Academic journal article Ethnology

The Articulation of Culture, Agriculture, and the Environment of Chinese in Northern Thailand (1)

Academic journal article Ethnology

The Articulation of Culture, Agriculture, and the Environment of Chinese in Northern Thailand (1)

Article excerpt

The Yunnan Chinese who settled in northern Thailand's Golden Triangle after 1964 used their traditional knowledge of hill farming and crop diversity, plus their extensive ethnic networks based on multi-layered Chinese identity, to establish viable communities in a mountainous region. By focusing on producing cash crops such as lychee nuts, tangerines, ginger roots, and bamboo shoots, they established a sustainable rural livelihood that is environmentally friendly, economically profitable, and socio-culturally self-renewing. This study addresses issues of sustainable agriculture and livelihood. (Sustainable agriculture, The Golden Triangle, Thailand, Chinese diaspora)


This article reports on an investigation of the sustainability of agricultural systems established by Chinese in the Golden Triangle of northern Thailand. Several interrelated issues or controversies are embedded in the concepts of sustainable agriculture and development in northern Thailand. One is the nature of slash-and-burn agriculture. Scholars have debated whether this is viable and environmentally friendly in tropical rainforests (Fox 2001; Hansen 1994; Reed 1990; Young 1998). Most anthropologists view this practice as maintaining tropical agro-ecological systems and biodiversity, and critical for the survival of marginal tribal cultures (Anderson 1993; Bates 2001; Fox 2001; Geertz 1963; Young 1998). Others disagree, and point to its negative effects in soil erosion, destruction of vegetation, and as wasteful of natural resources. For example, an article that appeared in a widely circulated conservationist magazine asserted that the people living in the Ranomafana rainforest of southeastern Madagascar are the forest's worst enemy, slashing and burning huge swaths of trees to clear land for crops (Knox 1989:81).

A second issue relates to the conflicting demands on tropical rainforests, such as environmental preservation and biodiversity, population pressures, and long-and short-term economic development (Anderson 1993; Fox 2001; Young 1998). Alarming views about disappearing rainforests include examples of endangered species that have lost their habitat and soil erosion due to slash-and-burn agriculture (e.g., Wright 1993:451). With these disparate views, the question comes down to who should have the decision-making power in formulating forest use policies: the land-hungry farmers, the conservationists, or the economic development officials.

These issues are related to sustainability. While the concepts of sustainable agriculture, sustainable livelihood, or sustainable development have broad appeal, there is little consensus about what are the necessary and objective criteria with which to measure sustainability (Francis 1990; Gold 1999; Hatfield and Keeney 1994; Helmore 2001; OECD 1995; Roling and Wagemakers 2000).

Although these issues defy simple answers or uniform criteria for objective assessments, sustainable agriculture may be regarded as capable of providing everlasting value to society. So defined, a sustainable agriculture must be ecologically sound, economically viable, and socially just (Ikerd 1992). The chief concern of the present study is to find out how members of a society realize the goals of environmental soundness, adequate material benefit for life sustenance, and justice for all parties.


The Golden Triangle is a region bordering on Thailand, Myanmar (formerly Burma), and Laos. Covering approximately 200,000 square kilometers, the area encompasses dramatic topographic features, including major rivers, rugged mountains, lowland basins, and river valleys (Anderson 1993; Geddes 1983; Kunstadter 1983; Lewis and Lewis 1984; Young 1962), and is ethnically and biologically diverse. A vertical human adaptation pattern consists of: Thais and Shans, who farm rice paddies for subsistence in the basins, and Karens, who construct rice terraces in the valleys above. …

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