POINTING at his appendicitis scar, a 50-something hilltribe villager Apa Chermue said: “If I still lived up there, I would have died.”
Up there is a three-hour 30km hike from Baan Apa, a village named after its chief, Apa, who is from the Akha community – a minority group living at the mountainous region of northern Thailand which borders Myanmar and Laos.
About 15 years ago, the Thai government ordered Apa’s clan members to vacate their village, which was located on a mountain ridge, in order to protect a water catchment.
Abandoning his self-sufficient life, Apa found living at the foot of the mountain tough.
“The jungle provided everything we needed. We used to hunt wild boar. But here we need money to buy pork,” he explained.
Gradually, Apa found the convenience of living in “civilisation”, as his home was now close to the city and electricity.
For instance, a few months ago, when he felt a sharp pain in his appendix, he was rushed to the hospital in less than 15 minutes, as Baan Apa is linked by road to Chiang Rai city.
“If I had to walk downhill for three hours to seek treatment, probably my appendix would have burst,” said Apa, who owns about 0.8ha of land planted with lychee, longan and pineapple.
Apa is one of the success stories of the Thai government’s relocation of the hilltribe communities from their mountainous dwelling to the lowland. Others – from the Akha, Lahu or Karen communities – face an uphill task adapting to their new environment, however.
“They do not speak Thai, as they grew up speaking their own language. This language barrier is making it difficult for them to integrate with the mainstream,” explained Parisudha Sudhamongkala, the 37-year-old project director of Mirror Foundation, a Thai non-governmental organisation.
“The problem confronting the hilltribe communities is the government’s misguided policies to protect the environment. It does not believe that the people who have been living in the mountain for generations can live harmoniously with nature,” Parisudha noted.
Instead, the government forced them to relocate closer to the city. “The hilltribe folks do not have the skills to eke out a living in the city and this make them an easy target for exploitation,” she said. “They are a source of cheap labour.”
Girls from the hilltribe communities also fall victim to human trafficking. “Some of them just disappear when they are lured into seeking a job in the city,” Parisudha related.
To overcome the problems confronting the uprooted hilltribe communities, the Mirror Foundation (http://www.mirrorartgroup.org/) offers several programmes such as Thai language and HIV education courses and helping them apply for Thai citizenship.
Another project is eco tourism, where villagers turn their house into homestay for tourists to experience a hilltribe lifestyle.
In Baan Apa, a stone’s throw away from Apa’s house is the home of Atu Ayi, a 57-year-old farmer who is participating in the homestay programme.
Unlike the other 35 wooden houses with Akha architecture, Atu’s home is constructed of concrete. He smiled shyly when he explained that his French son-in-law had designed it.
Speaking in simple Thai, Atu told his houseguests that he missed his former village. There, he explained, he had more than 4ha of land. “Here the government gave us only 0.8haWhat can I do with 0.8ha?” the homestay host asked.
Did you plant poppies when you were living at the mountain? I asked, remembering what Parisudha told me about the drug habit of hilltribe communities who lived in the golden triangle – an area in Thailand, Myanmar and Laos which used to be the number one drug producer in the world.
Again, he smiled shyly. “Those days after a hard day toiling our land we took the drug so that we can relive our aches,” he related.
Atu lamented that the villagers were losing their tradition. And he related a story about his nephew not worshiping his ancestral spirit house.
“His wife died from a car accident, and a few weeks later his brother died at the same spot in a motorcycle accident because he refused to respect the spirit,” he related.