Villagers take communal action to restore degraded watershed

Lychee tree seedling in Doi Mae Salong

Current water shortages in Doi Mae Salong (Chiang Rai Province) are a constant reminder of how valuable fresh water has become.

Khun Arpee Mualeku, tribal village leader of the Anglaw Akha, one of the poorest villages in the Doi Mae Salong, says that the villagers have seen a drastic decrease in water levels in recent years. “Our main source of income is cash crops” explains Arpee Mualeku. “Thus the lack of irrigation water has had a negative impact on our livelihoods. None of the 36 households in Anglaw Akha have enough water for household consumption on a daily basis.”

With all of Thailand currently suffering from an unusually dry season, inhabitants of the heavily populated provinces in the central region are seeing dramatic affects of the shrinking water levels.

A major cause of water shortages in the country is the severe deforestation Thailand has experienced in the past. Trees provide the canopy needed to retain the rainwater in the soil beneath. This forms a reservoir of ground water that can be used for agricultural and household purposes.

Solutions to Thailand’s regional water crisis begin in key areas like Doi Mae Salong. The local watershed feeds into Mae Chan River, a tributary of the Mekong. The quality and flow of these headwaters directly affect the condition of the Mekong. Therefore, the restoration of watershed functions requires local, regional and intraregional cooperation.

Some of the most severely damaged forests are located within Doi Mae Salong. But lack of water hasn’t put a damper on the villagers’ efforts to restore the degraded watershed. In fact, it has strengthened their resolve to participate in a local reforestation project supported by the Royal Thai Armed Forces (RTAF) and the IUCN, International Union for the Conservation of Nature.

The reforestation project is more complex than one may think. Although villagers realize the positive impacts that planting trees will have on their livelihoods, their immediate need is land for crops. Since overpopulation has caused an increase in the demand for agricultural land, there is a limited amount of land available for both farming and reforestation.

A committee of all the shareholders involved discussed the issue in an attempt to find solutions to bring water levels in Doi Mae Salong back to their previous stage. A compromise was needed that would enable farmers to keep up their source of income while allowing the landscape to recover. As the trees grow, watershed functions and biodiversity would also be restored.

One promising solution that was proposed is “agroforestry.” This concept targets the areas that cannot be fully reforested due to land scarcity and high population pressure. A mixture of carefully chosen cash crops and indigenous forest species, which best resemble the original forest will be planted on the plots. Farmers choose from a wide range of fruit trees that can be sold as cash crops, including Macadamia nut, jackfruit, mango, banana and avocado.

“The cash crops ensure that the agroforestry plots yield enough profit for local villages” says Tawatchai Rattanasorn, project coordinator at IUCN. “Reforestation is therefore not associated with the feeling of land loss, but rather with income generation. Through the agroforestry plots, we are able to link poverty alleviation with improved natural resources management”.

The structure of the plots - with trees as the highest layer, shrubs underneath and wild herbs on the ground - encourage indigenous animals and plant species to mingle with the newly planted species, enhancing the biodiversity. Species which were previously displaced by deforestation can spread again and stabilize the newly established ecosystem and its functions.

In addition to agroforestry, Anglaw Akha villagers have recently focused on generating another alternative income: ecotourism. Visitors in Doi Mae Salong can participate in home stays with the villagers where they will have the opportunity to observe their way of life. “We lead hiking tours through the forest, villages and rice fields. Within a few years, these hiking trails will lead through lush, prospering fruit orchards” describes Arpee Mualeku.

Visitors can also participate in tree planting activities with the villagers. In doing so, they can support the responsible land use practice of the villagers. By planting these trees, tourists will also be a part of the global fight against climate change.

Many in Northern Thailand are beginning to see that sustainable development is not just about saving the environment, it is about preserving the culture, heritage and lands of their people for years to come.