Preserving a Heritage

Written by Plant With Purpose on July 14, 2010 in General

by James Ellett, Grant writing intern

Everybody loves a good family heirloom.

When I was about 15 years old, I received from my father my very first heirloom: my grandfather’s old hunting knife. With a handle inlaid with beautiful wood and a mountain lion engraved on the 5 inch blade, it was truly a majestic tool. I was in awe that I was now in possession of this ancient relic that conjured up images of frontier beaver trappers and rugged cowboys. What I decided to do with my piece of family history truly helped to preserve the history and memories that it held.

I used it to practiced my knife-throwing skills.

As you can guess, my 15-year-old self—all 5 foot 10, 100 pounds of me—did not actually have any knife-throwing skills. After bludgeoning many a tree with the knife’s handle and chasing after hundreds of errant throws (they didn’t miss by much, I swear), I learned to treat the knife with the proper amount of respect it deserves. This object had been handed down through generations. It had first been my grandfather’s, then my father’s, and now it was mine. It had travelled the very road that led to my own creation. To be stripped of this heirloom would not just be losing a knife, it would be losing a story of my heritage—of where I, James Ellett, came from.

The people of the hill tribes of Northern Thailand are being stripped of an heirloom that provides much more than stories: their land. The lands occupied by these tribes have been handed down to them through generations, and are absolutely crucial to their way of life, as they are used for villages, medicine, food, and construction materials. Unfortunately, most governments don’t recognize ancestral ownership as legal, and the Thai government is no different. Just as I cannot prove that I own my grandfathers knife with a receipt or certificate of ownership, these people cannot prove that the land belongs to them.

In fact, according to the Thai government, the land of the tribespeople—who are not Thai citizens—is a forest reserve, and it is being occupied illegally. Authorities have begun prosecuting these rural farmers, claiming that their communities and agricultural practices are destroying these “forest reserves” and contributing to global warming. Some farmers are facing fines of up to $49,000 USD, and are even being charged criminally. In reality, the hill tribes do not destroy their native terrain. Their belief in the holiness of the land and of spirits occupying all of nature causes them to treat their environment with the utmost respect. Their rotational farming actually helps the soil by re-fertilizing it. They are an ally of their land, not a threat. Be these facts as they may, the oppression continues because they have historically had nobody to advocate for them. These rural farmers are being forced off of the land of their ancestors, leaving them with no place to go.

Since 2005, Plant With Purpose has been working with the hill tribe people of Northern Thailand, facilitating training on property and citizenship rights, as well as innovative agriculture and business training. We realize that all the agricultural and economic training in the world will do very little good if the people have no land on which to live. That is why, in 2009, Plant With Purpose assisted 134 hill tribe members in the process of receiving Thai citizenship as part of the ongoing battle against injustice in the northern highlands.

Please keep your prayers with the people of Northern Thailand and with the work that Plant With Purpose is doing there. The hill tribes are being stripped of an heirloom that tells the story of their very identity and supplies the resources that they need to live. Let us pray that God will keep the people and the land together, and proceed to heal them both.

Leave a Reply