Transformations in the Agricultural Ecosystem

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This egalitarianism and freedom from lineage kinship obligations had becomerare by the end of the twentieth century. When Alema told me shehad to marry a boy with land, she was strategizing in the face of a radicalchange in the fundamental system of the household economy. That changewas the result of the end of the opium economy and the extension of Thaistate control over the mountain lands on which Lisu lived. Alema’s predicamentencapsulated the fundamental changes in the agricultural economy ofLisu in northern Thailand: land had become scarce, labor was now cheap,land and other valuables (capital) had to be inherited. Permanent status andclass differences among Lisu households were emerging. No longer was itpossible for Alema to marry and create a home and household with her husbandthrough their own labor on open lands. She had to find a boy with landor other forms of wealth, which meant she had to find a boy whose familyowned land that he could inherit.As it grew and consolidated, the Thai state increased its control of territorywithin the boundaries of Thailand (boundaries that were created underthe forces of colonialism), in part through forestry law (see Vandergeest andPeluso 1995; Thongchai 1994). As a result, land had become a scarce commodityby the early 1990s. Under Thai state control, all “unoccupied” landwas declared to belong to the state unless legal ownership could be proven.Most farmers, and especially upland minority farmers, did not have thatkind of paperwork and so lost the right to legally cultivate land. More recently,all mountain lands with a slope of over thirty degrees were decreedclass 1A watershed land on which there was to be no human settlement,farming, timbering, or even collection of branches and plants in the forest.Land ownership was also constrained by the fact that few ethnic minoritypeople had “blue cards” giving them legal residence in Thailand; fewer stillhad outright citizenship. Legal status therefore became a key factor in thechoices a girl and her family could make about marriage.In fact, Lisu and other upland minority peoples found ways to stay onmountain land—where else was there to go? But they were put in a positionof dependency vis-à-vis government officials who now had the right toforcibly resettle them, or to tell them what they could and could not plant.In parts of northern Thailand, it was possible to buy land (illegally, but thiswas rarely an impediment where bribes were accepted). Those with ready capital bought land in many different parts of northern Thailand as securityin the face of shifting development plans and policy.CroppingChanges in the cropping system put further pressure on this economic system. Opium had supported a relatively large population in the mountainsby opening a new econiche that brought in resources through involvementin global markets. The ecological system could not produce enough rice andcorn to fill subsistence needs. Opium had been a subsistence-oriented cashcrop; its profits were used first and foremost to buy rice and a few other necessities.Rice crops were more heavily dependent on nutrients in the soiland had to be rotated out more frequently. With the enclosure of land inthe mountains (and alienation of land by timber companies or lowland migrants),there was not enough land to grow rice because farmers could notrotate their fields. This occurred contemporaneously with the interdictionof opium. Thus, Lisu farmers desperately and anxiously sought new cropsthat had a stable and profitable market. These new cash crops—potatoes,strawberries, barley, and others—required capital inputs of pesticides andfertilizers, and the seeds had to be bought. Crops became far more expensiveto produce; the means of production were not open to everyone due tothe land and capital investments needed, as well as due to the specific kindof labor requirements these new crops entailed.The end of the opium economy and the closing of the forests engenderedgreater risks and insecurities for Lisu households, straining the managementof household production. The demographic cycle of Lisu householdswas altered, as were inter-household relations.

 

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