Sunday, May 10, 2009

A all expense paid trip to Huai Hee

As an occasional instructor for hire, this past week I had the opportunity to accompany students from ISDSI's ( Political Forest Ecology course for a portion of their two-week long field visit to Karen forest communities in the remote mountains of Mae Hong Son in extreme northwest Thailand. Specifically, my visit was limited to the village of Huai Hee, a small settlement of a few dozen households at the base of Doi Pui, Mae Hong Son's highest mountain.

If I were to drive one of three road options to Huai Hee from Chiang Mai (none of which are fully paved) the trip would require 1-2 days. However, a Thai airlines flight over the rugged and still largely jungled mountains from CNX to Mae Hong Son required only 40 minutes with a 1.5 hour journey back to Huai Hee by four wheel drive. So having left my modern Chiang Mai home a little before 10:00 a.m., I suddenly found myself in remote, Huai Hee by 1:30 p.m. The ISDSI group arrived by foot from the closest community of Nam Hoo (a satellite village of Huai Hee) an hour later.
The next three days were full of activities that focused on the local forest environment as well as traditional rotational farming and other forms of livelihood such as Karen cuisine and the use of natural dyes to produce beautiful homemade textiles. In addition, I had to grade 17 essays and journal entries.

Sunday's activity was a hike to the summit of 5,160 ft. Doi Pui. Sounds impressive (and it was a steep trail), however, Hui Hee rests at an elevation of roughly 3,000 ft. So there wasn't an excessive amount of up and down that day.
Except for the bald summit, Doi Pui is covered with impressive forest. The higher the elevation the more evidence of cloud forest with an abundance of moss and orchids covering the evergreen trees. In fact, the people of Huai Hee, fighting the illegal harvest and trade of rare native orchids, have established an orchid conservation area that covers hundreds of acres of local forest.

Almost to the top of mountain, our local guides pointed out the wreckage of an airplane. By no means an aviation expert, all that was obvious to me were ancient leftovers of a propeller and pistons (with an I.D. plate without a serial number) as well as some scorched fragments of what appeared to be aluminum aircraft skin. I would have like to poked about a bit more but the wreckage was guarded by some very zealous leaches.

I've heard two stories related to the wreckage. One is that the plane was a WWII American warplane that bought the farm on this remote peak over 60 years ago. Another more intriguing tale is that the craft was a "bank plane" full of gold that crashed many decades ago. The locals, finding no survivors and gold bricks scattered about....(you can guess the rest of the story). Anyhow, given that the Second World War didn't spare this region and that there's reportedly no one left in the community that remembers the crash, I personally subscribe to the WWII air crash theory.

Only a few hundred yards past the air crash site the forest suddenly transforms into an alpine meadow. As the elevation is still too low to be a real tree line, my guess is that the combination of thin soil, dry season fires and free-range cattle is what keeps the mountain top in a bald state (similar to the high elevation balds of my native southern Appalachians which become "unbald" in the 20th century following the advent of effective fire control and the ban on free-range cattle).
The 360 degree view of Mae Hong Son was indescribable. The view contained rugged mountains, remote valleys, a single thread of road and a distant, tiny community. Scattered within the vast forest were some swidden fields where Karen rice is grown. Each patch is surrounded by woodland in various stages of succession. These diverse stages of regrowth reflect the forest fallow that follows a single year of traditional Karen crop production for each swidden field.

Following lunch, a brief group activity and a photo taking spree, threatening clouds forced our retreat back to Huai Hee.

Over the next two days we accompanied the people of Huai Hee to witness the annual planting of upland rice (yes, the rainy season has begun) and to participate in other aspects of their livelihoods.

During the last evening in Huai Hee, the ISDSI students entertained the local residents with their silly camp songs. The Karen retaliated with renditions of their own. At one point, one of our female hosts jumped up to lead an rowdy tune. But within a measure or two, the American and Canadian students began to recognize the performance. Suddenly, the entire bamboo gazebo was rocking with a vigorous bilingual session of Father Abraham.
On the last day I watched the ISDSI students, laden with heavy backpacks and other gear (and a few Karen guides with only a shoulder bag each) trudge up the mountain in the direction of Huai Tong Kaw, their final destination. I stayed behind to await my 4WD ride back to Mae Hong Son town. 1.5 hours later, still waiting on my ride, I decided to hire a motorcycle to drive me and my two bags back to the city. However, given the steep terrain and rough stretches of road, I was greatly relieved to meet the truck only a few miles outside of Huai Hee.
The flight back to Chiang Mai on a tiny 12 seat plane was the perfect ending to my five-day visit to Mae Hong Son. Flying slow and low over the mountains, I enjoyed an eagle's view of the rugged terrain that sustains the people of Huai Hee and dozens of other communities between Mae Hong Son and Chiang Mai.

I'm already scheming up another visit.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Confronted by Barking Deer Intestine Hash and Bangkok Unrest (But at Least the Mangoes are in Season)

It's been a few eventful and interesting weeks since I've had a chance to blog.

First of all, I was invited by Bob Morikawa, from Floresta (, to assist in a survey in neighboring Burma and Cambodia. We were accompanied by Kim Roberts, a Floresta intern currently based at UHDP and Jamlong, one of UHDP's co-directors.

I’ve looked forward to one day visiting this corner of Burma since arriving in Thailand 15 years ago. And I wasn’t disappointed.

The road to Chiang Tung from the border town of Thakhilek wasn't bad although little other infrastructure exists in the region. My estimate is that less than 10 percent of the population in the region is connected to the electrical grid.

However, we observed that thousands of households are powered by cheap Chinese-made micro-hydro generators that can produce 1-5 kilowatts of electricity. With roughly 3-5 households connected to each generator, there is enough juice to illuminate a few light bulbs and operate a TV or radio in each home. Apart from a generator, basically all that's needed is an adequate amount of falling water; quite plentiful in this mountainous region.

It was in one of those micro-hydro powered homes that we were treated to a fine Lahu meal. Wherever I've been, local food is usually quite interesting. All in all, there's very little that I've found to be unappetizing or inedible. Sometimes the main concern is whether certain foods have been cooked adequately. One such example is larb dip, a raw pork salad that's fairly popular in northern Thailand.

The most memorable dish served by our Lahu hosts was a delicacy made from barking deer (Muntiacus muntjak) intestine and contents. Unlike other species of deer in the region which are now rare due to over hunting, the diminutive barking deer is still rather common. Served as a
condiment, although the well-cooked barking deer dish was somewhat bitter it was made more flavorful with a strong dose of aromatic prickly ash (Zanthoxylum rhetsa) seed. Not bad.

Further south in Cambodia, Bob and I enjoyed getting to know Khmer cuisine, somewhat similar to Thai. However, the presence of baguettes in many street food stalls in Phnom Penh is evidence of France’s culinary influence.

Speaking of local food, one of my perverse thrills is to peruse English versions of menus. Many times menu entries apparently fail to capture the full meaning of the original item. Not that I’d do any better should I attempt should I attempt to translate an English menu into Thai or Khmer. However, on this trip, the Lost in Translation winner was “Fried Rat With Ingredients.”

Following the trip to Burma and Cambodia, our family had planned a low-cost getaway to Bangkok during the Thai New Year. This holiday is a lot of fun if you like getting dosed with cold water and having your face smeared with powder. However, for our family, that sort of activity is fun for about five minutes. Then we’re ready to hide like cats until the last slosh of water has dried.

Since Chiang Mai is epicenter of Thai New Year water madness, we decided that we’d indulge in a large air conditioned room at the Bangkok Christian Guesthouse, take in the weekend market and do a bit of sightseeing during lulls in the water battles.
And now, in (hopefully) the last few weeks of the hot, dry season, a number of mangoes are ripening in the tree in our garden. Just the thing to tide us over until the rainy season begins.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

A Little Dry-Season Rain

The smoke and haze that's been covering Chiang Mai has been extraordinarily bad this year. We hate to think what this is probably doing to our health. But as March leads up to the climax of horrible air pollution and extreme-dry conditions the inner optimist keeps saying, "In two months time it will all be past."

Fortunately, as the heat and humidity has increased over the past few weeks some thunderstorms and scattered showers have broken out, giving most spots at least a sprinkle. And though this doesn't mean the end of the hot, dry season (actually, the worst is yet to come as far as heat and humidity are concerned), the showers have cleared the air significantly and rinsed the dust off any remaining foliage.

Even with minimal moisture, it's quite amazing how quickly certain plants are responding. Of course, the big greening that occurs every May hasn't happened yet. But the wild grass growing in the goat field has begun to express tiny, new shoots. And the goats are loving it.

What's in the garden?

Right now I'm appreciating the new leaf shoots of several bird's nest fern (Asplenium nidus)that are growing in our garden. You can find these fern tucked in the crotch of a few fruit trees. And some serve as ground cover of sorts in the mixed border that grows along the garden wall. Residing in the irrigated portion of our garden, they continue to thrive despite the present dry conditions.

Though not native to northern Thailand, bird's nest fern grows wild in more equatorial, humid climates such as in Thailand's south. In their native forests, being epiphytes, these ferns grow on trees and logs. Their natural basket shape enables them to capture and compost fallen leaves that collect within, yielding nourishment. Various leaf litter-dwelling insects and other creatures also make their home in the habitat created by bird's nest ferns.

Extremely easy to maintain, the bird's nest fern offers a bit of the rain forest for our garden.

As soon as I'm done writing this blog, I'm catching a bus for Chiang Rai and then hitching a ride with Kim and Jamlong from UHDP before meeting up with Bob Morikawa (from Floresta) at the airport. Our plan is to spend the night in the border town of Mae Sai and then enter Burma for a two-day trip to the Shan State town of Chiang Tung. There, I'll be offering some consulting assistance for Floresta.

And then on Wednesday, Bob and I plan to travel down from Chiang Tung, cross the border back into Thailand and then catch a flight in Chiang Rai for Phenom Penh (via Bangkok). Again, Bob and I will be making some Floresta-related contacts among several Cambodia-based NGOs. I'll also have the chance to do a bit of ECHO promotion before I return to Chiang Mai on April 5.

Hopefully, I'll have a story and a picture or two to share from the journey.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Our Yarden

Although our Chiang Mai home comes with a two-acre lot where we raise some goats and chickens the actual garden space adjacent to our house is quite small; approximately 14 x 11 yards. Roughly 88 square yards of this area is what one might generously call a lawn. In other words, though small, it's open and somewhat grassy (at least during the rainy season).

Planted between the three-sided garden wall and small lawn, the rest of the this area is a U-shaped mixture of tropical ground covers, gingers, bananas, vines and small trees. And many of these perennials offer edible products.

Back home it seems that American homeowners often work from a landscape trichotomy that's divided into three three fairly distinct zones; the lawn, what we call "the garden" (i.e., a plot of annual flowers and/or vegetables) and shrubbery plantings (either beds of woody perennials or scattered individuals). But without a doubt the major feature of most American landscapes would be the lawn.

These days, though, lawns are increasingly criticized as wasted space and often money holes. Either planted in pure stands of various lawn grasses or tended as mixtures of such grasses and weeds, American lawns can be vast, requiring considerable labor and expense to maintain. In this period of economic hardship, with threats of food insecurity, urban or suburban farmers reason that lawn space might serve us better as areas of small-scale food production. So what's to stop us from growing annual and perennial food crops or even rearing small-scale livestock such as chickens, rabbits and even goats?

Guess I forgot. Neighborhood associations would have a cow issuing warnings and threats towards anyone considering such a bold move. After all, conventional wisdom holds that agriculture and high home values are incompatible.

Yet American homeowners (and would be backyard farmers) might be surprised to learn that raising small home flocks of chickens, pygmy goats or hives of bees is permissible in many metropolitan areas (check out the recent National Public Radio story "City Folk Flock To Raise Small Livestock At Home"

Still, converting wasted lawn space into an edible landscape, or so-called yarden, is probably a much easier, less controversial option. After all, who can build a case against a yard full of peach, pear and apple trees or grape vines?

Fortunately, our Thai neighbors aren't too high strung about urban and peri-urban agriculture. It's common to see fruit trees and small container gardens in neighborhoods throughout Chiang Mai. And I dare you to find a place out of range of a rooster's crow.

Until the goats arrived we tended a garden in the corner of the large vacant lot adjacent to our house. To be honest, I put a lot of time, effort and expense into developing the small plot.

I learned that one of the easiest food-producing options is to plant local varieties of perennial vegetables; basically bushes that produce edible greens and pods. These plants require minimal maintenance and only a few bushes can provide significant veggies.

Still, Ellen is a real Southern cook and we like our comfort food. Fortunately, okra's easy enough to grow. But tomatoes, sweet corn, cabbage, snap beans and other back home crops are often hit-and-miss. So I ended up putting considerable time into evaluating vegetable varieties (both local and imported) that are adaptable to Chiang Mai's climate.

Unfortunately, there was no one willing to carry on vegetable garden efforts when our family was away for extended spells (furlough, etc.). And I became discouraged with the state of the garden each time we came back home. So we decided that goats, being fairly low maintenance and very effective against the annual rainy season onslaught of biomass, would be a better long-term choice for the vacant lot.

Within the walls surrounding the house our yarden is compact with little sunlight. And being the domain of dogs and boys, the potential for significant vegetable production is limited. Squeezed in with a tiny, low maintenance lawn the best gardening option within such a small space would be to make the vegetative strip as hardy, biodiverse and potentially edible as possible. Our models would be the local forest as well as traditional northern Thai home gardens.

Today the landscape of our rented home includes a canopy of four types of tropical fruit trees and a few tall palms with edible/usable products. The understory is made up of a viny yam variety, two species of native trees that yield edible shoots and flowers and two wild cousins of black pepper. Stalks of garden and forest banana are also scattered within. And purely ornamental plants, such as bird's nest fern, orchid, heliconia and various palms, are included as well.

With so many potentially food-producing plants it would seem that we wouldn't need to go to the market again. But truth is we rarely eat the produce (except for the fruit). There's rarely enough for a meal. And it's all so lovely that we pretty much keep things ornamental (which feeds the soul). But if push comes to shove...

A Walk in the Woods

Chiang Mai is a growing city full of markets, malls, schools and homes. And it's often easy to lose sight of its most prominent natural resource, Doi Suthep (Mountain of Angels). Over a mile high, this mountain is still covered with some decent tropical forest and offers a valuable watershed for the area.
This past Saturday a group of friends and I enjoyed a day-long hike originating from near the top of Doi Suthep (at its famous temple) whereby we followed a stream known as Huai Kaew (Crystal Springs) to the Chiang Mai Zoo at the bottom of the mountain.

With dry season air quality being so bad within the city, we enjoyed the lush, cool montane evergreen forest at the upper range of the hike. And we encountered several impressive water falls as we descended into the dry deciduous forest at the base of the mountain.

A mysterious, but friendly red dog of large proportions joined us the entire way, eagerly serving as a back up guide. We had no idea where Red Dog came from or where he was ultimately headed but he showed absolutely no anxiety about accompanying us on our jaunt through the forest.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

A Different Kind of Farm

One of my ECHO Asia duties is to seek out local venues for possible training and exchange. Truth be told, getting out of the office to visit potential resource sites in and around Chiang Mai isn't a bad way to spend the day.

Last week I visited the farm of Patrick and Jaem Perringaux, a French/Thai couple who attend our church. A natural experimenter, Patrick has been evaluating various varieties of exotic Mediterranean crops, including fig, olive and raspberry, to see how they might fare in the sub-tropical climate of northern Thailand.

Dozens of species of wild fig grow in Thailand's forests; some of which are valued by locals for their edible fruits and leaves. However, unlike "Brown Turkey," a popular variety found in gardens of the southern US, Thailand's wild figs aren't known for their dessert fruits.

So over the years Patrick has imported lots of garden fig varieties for evaluation. And most have fallen victim to the extreme humidity and soaking rainfall that occurs during the six-month rainy season. Still, Patrick reports that at least two exotic varieties have proven to be hardy and productive in the local environment, the fruits of which can be sold for a premium price in the finer restaurants of Chiang Mai and Bangkok. And he expects to add at least a few more varieties to his roster of tried and true figs.

And there's vanilla. A type of orchid native to Mexico, according to Patrick, vanilla pods grown in Madagascar sell for a few hundred dollars a kilo (2.2 pounds). Although his two-year old plants are still a year away from production the vines appear to be very healthy. Patrick reasons that if vanilla actually proves productive at his Mae Ping valley farm then the crop will be even more promising in the cooler hills. In fact, Patrick thinks that vanilla would be an ideal agroforestry crop for forest communities as it can be grown under the tree canopy.

The Perringauxs have also been importing and evaluating exotic rabbits, chickens and ducks. These breeds, when raised well, grow much larger than the hardier but smaller local breeds. And again, fancy restaurants are reportedly happy to reward Patrick for his meat products.

Admittedly, I'm generally partial to local biodiversity. But I'm extremely impressed with Patrick and Jaem's integrated farming approach which avoids waste at all costs. For example, Patrick has built an array of attractive stone terraces which run along the contours of his sloping farm. These terraces and ditches funnel practically all of the rain that falls on the farm to a pond where the ducks are raised.

And all the animal manure and plant biomass produced on the farm are composted to produce natural fertilizer that nurtures the soil on which fruits and vegetables are grown. The greenest stand of sweet corn you've even seen is testimony to Patrick's compost. Even the moisture that drains from the compost pile is collected and utilized as liquid fertilizer.

There's one other notable benefit related to Patrick's approach. He sells as locally as possible. Compared to similar foods sold in a relative handful of restaurants in Bangkok and Chiang Mai that cater to the well-heeled, Patrick's products (e.g., figs, raspberries, rabbit, poultry) come with a much smaller carbon footprint than those imported from distant lands. In other words, his products travel a much smaller distance. And this results in not only cheaper shipping costs but significantly less emitted carbon.

Though their farm is small it's one of the most diversified operations I've ever seen. One could easily hang around with Patrick and Jaem for days just to get a handle on their work.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch...

I'll be danged if he didn't do it again. Bucky jumped the wall Saturday night.

Earlier that day he seemed to be getting a cold. I feared pneumonia. Stressed goats, especially those which have been recently moved, get sick easily and can go down fast.

Consulting my favorite internet sites, I decided that we'd better prepare for the worst. I rounded up an antibiotic, an anti-inflammatory, vitamin B12 as well as some parasite medicine. Then we sequestered Bucky in the "sick pen" next to the wall and took his temperature. 106 seemed too high (a healthy goat's temperature runs between 102-103). So William and I held Bucky while Ellen dewormed him and administered his injections. Leaving him with some fresh water, forage and feed we urged Bucky to get some rest.

Come Sunday morning, Bucky was no where to be found. I peeked over the wall and there he was, wandering about the vacant lot.

Let me take this opportunity to offer a correction to last week's blog. I stated that Bucky had jumped a six-foot wall. However, Ellen pointed out that if I could peek over the wall while standing on my tiptoes then "the wall wouldn't be six-feet high, would it?" Good point. Make that a five-foot wall. And if there's anything that a stressed out goat loves move than a six-foot wall then that would be a five-foot wall.

Anyhow, Sansuk, our Hmong neighbor had also discovered that Bucky had escaped. Together we strategized how we might capture him. Unfortunately, Bucky didn't agree with our plans. And having made a miraculous recovery, Bucky was able to dodge and run with vim and vigor. Headed out of the vacant lot towards the four-lane highway, I figured the goat was about to meet his demise. And I'd be responsible.

However, just before reaching the road he made a wise left turn. He ran 100 yards, evading surprised neighbors and angry dogs and made another wise left turn. Trailing by 50 yards, Sansuk followed Bucky when he made a final wise left turn into the lane that borders our goat yard. Sansuk quickly opened the gate and Bucky ambled back into the coral.

Anyhow, so much for the "sick pen." Ellen and I decided that Bucky was well enough to rejoin the herd. Unfortunately, he's due a follow up shot on Thursday. Pray for us.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

The Burnettes Have Worms!

It's official. Our family now has worms. No, not that kind (at least as far as we know). We're raising red wrigglers that our friend Scott, an accomplished backyard worm farmer, gave us this past Friday.

I know what you're thinking. "Exactly why would you want to raise worms?"

Actually, we're not producing big, old night crawlers that we could use for fish bait like my Uncle George used to raise. Although I haven't gotten them properly identified, our worms fall into the same category as the tiger worm (Eisenia fetida) and red tiger (Eisenia andrei). These are basically composting worms. And that's exactly why we want them.

Every week our kitchen produces a bucket or two of vegetable scraps, leftover fruit and coffee grounds. We always kept these biodegradables out of the garbage can, generally spreading them around garden plants where they slowly decompose. However, this lazy form of composting is unsightly and not very intensive. By simply spreading the kitchen waste around the garden we got less bang for the buck.

But under our vermiculture (worm farming) system, as waste from the kitchen decomposes the wrigglers will ingest extremely tiny bits of the scraps. But the worms main food source is actually various types of microorganisms that break down the kitchen waste in our vermi-compost system.

So not only are the kitchen scraps being composted for future use as soil amendment within our garden, we're also gaining nutrient rich worm castings; basically worm excrement. The late Mary Applehof, author of "Worms Eat My Garbage", explains that vermi-compost (the desired end product) is "a dark mixture of worm castings, organic material, and bedding in various stages of decomposition, plus the living earthworms, cocoons and other organisms present."

Over the past few weeks I've been preparing soil in a round three-foot wide cement tank (which we previously used to raise catfish) as the future home for our wrigglers. This tank actually sits atop another tank just out of reach of the nosey goats. For starters, I bought a sack of potting soil and added several pounds of goat manure and spoiled goat feed. After moistening, the mix quickly heated up as the organic material began to biodegrade. With occasional turning, the mix eventually cooled resulting in a very rich soil compost.

After the worms were introduced on Friday we began adding kitchen scraps, keeping the whole thing covered with a layer of cardboard. So far so good. No mass wriggler die off or escape.

Never Underestimate a Stressed Out Buck

When we began raising goats almost a year and a half ago we decided we wouldn't keep a buck around. With bucks being somewhat smelly we didn't want to take the chance of offending our neighbors. Grown bucks can also behave aggressively, so I didn't want to put the boys or neighborhood kids at risk. And they have certain unmentionable habits.

That being the case, we either sold off or castrated the bucks in our small herd. In the end, however, these practices are unsustainable, especially if one wants to maintain a herd over the long-term. So we decided that a couple of times a year we'd borrow a buck from Mr. Piak, the man who sold us our first goats (and buys occasional spares).

By the way, in most parts of Thailand, you won't see many goats. As Thais aren't partial to goat meat, the animals are rarely encountered except in Muslim or other minority communities. Mr Piak, who is Muslim, raises a fairly large herd of mixed breed goats on the east side of Chiang Mai.
Anyhow, some time ago I made a deal with Mr. Piak that I would borrow a buck from time to time. If he'd provide a young healthy male, I'd do my best to feed and care for the animal.

So on Friday, after picking up my first batch of worms from Scott, we headed over to Mr. Piak's. He had picked out a fine young buck that I hauled back to the house. After settling Bucky into a new pen that we had constructed in the corner of the goat yard, I gave him some water and feed and told him to make himself at home.

A few hours later, while trying to finish up e-mails at the office, Ellen called and said for me to come home immediately. The buck was MIA. It wasn't in the goat yard and was presumably in the large, overgrown lot adjacent to the pen.
So how the heck did Bucky get out? The wall is six feet high. Ellen pointed out that I had brilliantly left three sacks of goat manure against the wall. That provided a two-foot tall spring board that the adrenaline-powered buck used to his advantage.

Fortunately, by the time I got home, Ellen and Bui Loi had located the buck in the corner of the Hmong neighbor's backyard farm. Because he was quite exhausted from the day's ordeal, we caught Bucky fairly easily and hauled him back over the wall.

The sacks of manure have been removed.

Mission Accomplished

Saturday was the first day in weeks that I had the chance to tackle the tall dry grass and brush standing in the adjacent vacant lot (where Bucky made his escape). After hours of hacking away at the vegetation with a machete and stacking the biomass about 10 meters away from our wall, the area in question is now cleared of combustible material and I can sleep at night without fear of a sneak wildfire igniting either our thatch and bamboo animal pens or our house.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

And you said farming would never pay off...

Should anyone have scoffed at our efforts to achieve sustainability by raising goats and, most recently, chickens in our backyard then it's time to eat crow. Or egg. Actually a very small egg. Behold...our first egg. Apparently laid by the bantam hen. Starvation narrowly averted.

Interesting People - Impressive Projects

One of the main reasons we proposed establishing the ECHO Asia Regional Office in Chiang Mai was fairly convenient access to regional agricultural activities that might be of potential interest and value to others in ECHO's global network. Over time we expect to make contacts throughout Southeast Asia as well as adjacent parts of South and East Asia. But for starters, northern Thailand has its own share of interesting people and impressive projects. These are just a few of whom I've met over the past couple of weeks.
Jo Jandai - Jo and his wife, Peggy Reents, co-founded the Pun Pun community( in the Mae Taeng district just north of Chiang Mai in 2003. In a short time, Pun Pun has gained quite a reputation for innovating sustainable living approaches, including the promotion of earthen (e.g., adobe) homes and sustainable agriculture. On Feb. 13 Jo hosted a few of us who are interested in Pun Pun's seed saving activities. As ECHO Asia is in the process of setting up a regional seed bank, various open-pollinated vegetables being bred at Pun Pun are of particular interest to us. By the way, Jo and Peggy are slated as speakers for the upcoming ECHO Asia Agricultural Conference to be held in Chiang Mai (Sept. 21-25, 2009)
Josh Kearns - While at Pun Pun, we met Josh Kearns, a young American who represents Aqueous Solutions (, a non-profit based in Huntington, West Virgina. The mission of Aqueous Solutions is to "enable households and communities to ensure the safety of their drinking water in a self-reliant and sustainable manner." Such work includes rainwater harvesting, solar disinfection of water and water filtration systems. Pun Pun serves as a base for Aqueous Solutions in Thailand. While at Pun Pun, we saw Josh's recent effort to build a low-cost solar shower system for the community. Using black tubing, a glass cabinet to heat the water-filled tubes and a gravity-fed water system, the solar shower at Pun Pun costs less than $100 US. The water heats up nicely, particularly on sunny days.

Clement and Amee Doyer - The Doyers established their farm in the Chiang Dao district of Chiang Mai several years ago. Clement, a French-Canadian, and Amee, a Lisu-Thai, spend part of each year in Quebec tending their business, Labo Solidago Inc. Otherwise, they're engaged in a natural farming venture in northern Thailand that incorporates pig production, a tangerine orchard and paddy rice production. Our group of 12 traveled to the Doyer's farm on Feb. 19 to see the production of cooking oil expressed from Niger seed. Relatives of Amee brought Niger seed into Thailand from neighboring Burma a few years ago. Although basically unknown in Thailand, in parts of Burma, Niger seed is produced for not only cooking oil but also for export as wild bird seed (known otherwise as Nyjer seed or "thistle" finch seed). Anyhow, the Doyers, along with numerous Lisu and Kachin neighbors, are pressing the locally grown Niger seed into cooking oil. According the Clement, within a few years, the numbers of local farmers growing their own Niger seed for cooking oil has grown from one family (the Doyers) to approximately 600 families this year. And many more are expected to begin production in coming years. Clement also presses oil for the local growers. Apart from a small fee, Clement retains the seed cake (reportedly containing 32% protein) for use as pig feed. And his hogs certainly looked happy, fit and sleek. Anyhow, ECHO Asia will definitely be following up on the potential of Niger seed as a cooking oil source and animal feed.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Wedding on the Border

Truth be told, I had some other things I'd rather be doing on Saturday. We're right smack in the middle of the dry season and the dessicated grass and brush in the empty plot next to our house has me worried. This area actually caught fire during the same period two years ago sending a two-story wall of flame rushing towards our two-story house.Bold Ellen was was recovering from a sick tummy and I was away in the hills with a group of UHDP volunteers. Fortunately, a small brigade of friends handling three garden hoses was successful in keeping the flames from reaching our house.

That's one of the main reasons we got goats in late 2007. We figured they'd keep the biomass in another adjacent lot (that comes with our rented house) under control. And they do. But we're not at liberty to release the herd into the plot with a history. We're grateful that Hmong neighbors have cleared some of the plot in which to conduct their "guerrilla urban farming." But I still need to cut a large band of dry grass and brush that runs between their garden, our home and the combustible bamboo/thatch chicken house and goat sheds in the other plot.

The Wedding

So early Saturday morning I picked up UHDP interns, Ruth and Brandon, at appointed spots in Chiang Mai for the trip to Baan Mai Samakhi, a community in the Chiang Dao District; a stone's throw from the Burma border. The residents of BMS are primarily Kachin, a minorityamong Thailand's numerous minorities. In fact, BMS is one of only two rural Kachin communities in northern Thailand. Most of the original residents were displaced from Burma's distant Kachin State that lies between China's Yunnan Province, Tibet and northeastern India.

The groom is Da, a former colleague at UHDP, who works with the project's documentation and citizenship efforts. His bride, Pimpapawn, is a lifelong BMS resident. They met when Da came to assist the Kachin of BMS with improving their legal residence status. By the way, Da is a Karen from Chiang Rai. Pimpapawn, despite growing up in Kachin culture, was born to Akha and Lahu parents. Can't get much more cosmopolitan than that.

And it was a great ceremony with tons of folks wearing variations of Kachin, Karen and Lahu tribal dress in attendance. A Karen pastor conducted the ceremony. Mac, a young Kachin leader, served as the master of ceremony. A Karen choir sang followed by a Kachin choir. And three hymns, all traditional western melodies with wedding theme lyrics, were robustly sung simultaneously in Thai, Kachin and Karen.

Vows were said with the congregation laughing it up each time the pastor, bride or groom flubbed a line. Rings were exchanged and then the Karen groom was presented with a Kachin ceremonial sword and shoulder bag, symbolizing his acceptance into the clan.

I had been asked to share a brief vignette. I truly did my best, reading a scripture passage and offering an insight or two based on almost 22 years of marriage.

The event concluded with a lunchtime feast. Great Kachin food and table conversation before the trip back to Chiang Mai.

So it's Sunday and I don't feel inclined to chop away at the dry brush today. But I'll keep the three water hoses handy just in case.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

The Big Dry

At least three months of dry season remain in northern Thailand. Since late October the North-East Monsoon has brought cooler, drier air into the region. It's been rather pleasant, even nippy at times. However, from late February or early March the temperatures will begin their annual climb. And with still no rain, the landscape will become increasingly dessicated and the air heavier with smoke from countless fires burning throughout the region. March through April are notorious months. Even mild, pleasant people turn testy from the heat, dust and smoke while waiting for the rainy season to commence.

When the rains finally begin to fall sometime in early May the results will be astounding. With a good initial dose of moisture the biomass will explode transforming the landscape from muted earth tones of brown and red to more shades of green than I can describe. The air will clear with forgotten mountains coming back into focus.

Maximizing their access to regular rainfall, the hilltribe farmers will plant their fields in upland rice, corn and numerous secondary crops including pumpkin, melon and sesame. And lowland Thai farmers, having harvested dry season soybean, garlic or onions will begin preparing for the main crop of paddy rice to be planted between July and September.

Such rainy season magic is still months away. But there are paddies and hill fields to prepare. And gardens still need tending.

Burmese Grape

One of northern Thailand's native plant species that's currently in full bloom is the Burmese grape (Baccaurea ramiflora). Known locally as mafai, Burmese grape really isn't a grape at all. The only thing grape-like are profuse clusters of yellow, cherry-shaped fruit that hang off of the branches and trunks of the small trees.

When ripe in May (or June for wild cousins in the forest), although a bit pithy, the meat of the fruit is juicy and refreshing.

Last year, though, when a friend and I treated ourselves to a rather large quantity of not-quite-ripe Burmese grape from the tree in my garden, our teeth became painfully sensitive. Unfortunately, this condition lasted for several days. So this year I'll be waiting until the mafai are fully ripe before indulging.