Fellow Since 1990
Hill Area Development Foundation (HADF) Thailand
This profile was prepared when Tuenjai Deetes was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 1990.
The New Idea
One of Tuenjai's first objectives is to help these previously shifting slash-and-burn tribes settle down and adopt sustainable agricultural practices. Rapid population growth and forest disappearance leave little choice, either for the tribes or for the environment. Tuenjai and her co-workers are pressing tribes to adopt valley contour cropping on their eroding hillside fields. Sturdy, valuable, often nitrogen-fixing bushes are planted in horizontal lines along these fields, breaking up run-off and encouraging absorption during rains. She also encourages crop rotation in each alley. One year tribes will plant cassava and the next year soy beans, in order to maintain soil nutrients. As more of the tribes' fields remain fertile, less of Thailand's remaining watershed forest will go under cultivation. One of the Akha tribal communities with whom Tuenjai has been working has now taken to valley cropping, a major breakthrough especially because the Akha are exceptionally traditional. It is also a well-timed success as hunger has been visibly gaining ground over the prior several years. Other groups have started to ask how they can do the same thing. Tuenjai's second major thrust is specially adapted education. She has helped 70% of the children in the villages where she's working learn rudimentary Thai. Children also study other subjects that will give them the opportunity to enter government schools. Tuenjai's schools also build on what these children know from their own environment and culture, thereby strengthening their own cultural identity, which can prevent crippling feelings of alienation. Formal schoolwork is supplemented with programs closely fitted to the community environment. For example, while running the community seedling nursery, the children learn all the region's tree varieties and how they can be used sustainably. Adults are also being served by Tuenjai's village schools. Evening classes introduce parents to Thai language and help them understand how to access government services. This knowledge can be used to help these formerly nomadic people gain citizenship. This leads to greater security for the tribes and for Thailand, which is increasingly concerned about cross-border migration. Tuenjai's work has attracted the attention of the Thai media and also of the government. Thailand's Education Ministry has recently approached Tuenjai for help in learning how to adapt the Ministry's educational efforts throughout the northern hills. Tuenjai has also received the cooperation of others in the area, including military officials concerned with security along Thailand's sensitive and drug-affected borders with Burma and Laos. She has also drawn many others to this difficult work, both from the tribal community and from universities throughout Thailand.