Swidden Honey

After one or two seasons of cultivating a swidden field, it is fallowed, or set aside to rest, for the forest to return. After six, ten or even twenty years, the tall trees of the fallow are cut down again, as the swidden-fallow cycle continues.

The village of Hin Lad Nai is an indigenous Karen settlement in the Chiang Rai province of northern Thailand. The wooded hills around it look like a wilderness, as lush as the national park we drove through on the way north. Yet the villagers here practice “shifting cultivation,” an age-old and worldwide practice of clearing patches of forest to plant crops for a few seasons, then letting the woods return. It’s also called “swidden agriculture.” But “slash-and-burn” is the pejorative term that captures how many foresters and development experts, both in Thailand and around the world, perceive this tradition. The jar of local honey I am holding in my hand, though, tells a different story. “Hin Lad Nai forest has remained remarkably healthy, despite centuries of shifting cultivation,” says Prasert Trakansuphakon, a Thai social scientist and Karen himself who has worked with the village for years. “And, at a time when numbers of honeybees are declining worldwide, local wild bees are thriving.”