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"The people who are farming are the people who are balancing on top of the bamboo," is a proverb used amongst the Karen. Rotational cultivation is complex and heavily dependent on the weather, forest and land conditions. Like the proverb says, the farmer has to balance cultivation practices very carefully in order to achieve good results. By strictly following customary practices and rules you can stay balanced and be successful.
Karen upland farmers begin cultivation after clearing and burning the area. Each rice field holds many other species. In one community, in Lu Thaw Township, researchers identified 120 different kinds of edible plants used in rotational farming. In the past, about 180 species were used. Some examples include tobacco, cotton, chilies, eggplant, sesame, yam, taro and other vegetables. These additional crops can be cultivated throughout the early stages of rice cultivation and harvesting.
Planting begins in April/May and ends with the main harvest in October/November. The size of the area cleared for planting depends on the size of the family, the amount of seed available and the soil quality. The better the quality of the land, the fewer seeds that are needed because each seed will have a higher yield and so can be spaced further apart in the field.
After the main harvest, the land (Thi) is used as a seed bank for the Karen farmers. Perennials planted during the cultivation period continue to be harvested for several years. Chili, eggplant, yam, taro, cassava, herbs and other crops are left to grow on the fallow land for one to two years before the land is left to completely regenerate. Banana, papaya and pineapple can be reaped from the Thi for three or four years afterwards. These gardens allow the land to return to its natural biologically diverse state quickly. During the fallow period farmers will control the vines and thorn bushes to make future cultivation easier.
Cassava and millet are planted around the edges of the fields as a buffer between the forest and the rice crop or to separate different fields. These buffer crops protect the main crops from wild animals and birds who eat the buffer plants first.
The farmers are very careful about preventing forest fires and control their burning during cultivation. Traditionally, if there is an unforeseen fire on a piece of land that is ready for planting, the farmers have to wait another seven to ten years before they can use the land. With their belief system, the entire area cannot be used for cultivation during the waiting period and firewood and dry plants must not be collected from the land.
In Karen culture a “collective labour” system is practiced where different families work together and share responsibilities. Families help each other especially when it comes to labour intensive work that is hard to manage by one family. Clearing new sites for cultivation, planting and harvesting are done communally. The “collective labour system” extends also into other aspects of livelihood. The construction of a new house is done with the help of many. During labour intensive periods, villagers concentrate their efforts in the fields and do little hunting or fishing. Thus if one person goes fishing, hunting or collects forest products the profits are shared with the community. When it comes to “collective labour” all individuals are treated equally regardless of age; all are expected to participate and co-operate. Some villagers who have planted earlier than others share their yield with those that are waiting for their own crops to be ready.