The villagers of Pu Rua, Loei Province, sharing the common practice of the Esarn or Northeastern region of Thailand, go about their farming by tilling the land, then waiting for the rain to arrive before planting their seeds. Unlike the low lying areas, however, Pu Rua is nestled amongst a sea of mountains and farming is done on the slopes of these mountains, which allow the tilled top soil to be washed away easily and rapidly by the rain, leaving a barren slope devoid of nutrients after only a few years. The villagers then move on to find new fertile ground by encroaching on forest land. This cycle has seen continuous acceleration since Thailand started exporting farm commodities such as corn and cassava, to the international market, causing the gradual disappearance of the lush tropical forests of Pu Rua.
Chachanat Woodland was initiated in 1990, originally on a 33 rai (13 acres) piece of neglected farmland, with a strong inspiration to plant trees and transform it into a forest! This land is located in sub-district Ta Sala, and can be accessed from the Loei-Pu Rua main road at the 36 km milestone, which is a T-junction with a dirt road (now a proper paved road) leading off en route to the Pu Luang National Park and passing the Woodland at about 1 km from the junction. The area around this 36 km location is the famous sub-district San Tom, which, as children 50-60 years ago we were taught in school that “the coldest place in Thailand is the sub-district San Tom, in Pu Rua district, Loei province”. Revered monks who meditated in the forests in those days have told us that in the winter time they would suffer cuts on their shoeless feet from the ice sheets on the ground at San Tom.
The air at Pu Rua is something quite unique in Thailand. Being 700 meters above sea level and surrounded by mountains, the air is cool and breezy in the summer or hot season, and vey cold (for Thais) in the winter. “Mae Ka-ning” is the local word for icicles or frost and we see in the news that it is quite a common although unwelcomed phenomenon because for villagers it means sleepless nights and frost-burnt crops. Some years we even get sheets of ice on the wooden patios in the mornings. But for visitors, all these are the charm and the fascination of Pu Rua!
Our two recruits for the reforestation project was a husband and wife team from the village of Ta Sala, by the names of Kampoo and Kampa. Both are incredibly intelligent to the degree of being wise men of the village (more on Kampoo and Kampa at the end of this article). These people could not understand why “Bangkokians” would want to buy land that has been laid waste, without top soil and with very hilly contour unsuitable for agriculture. “Planting a forest” was even more of a mystery, and a very ridiculous concept at that time, 1990-91, since for the local people a forest is for cutting and burning, definitely not for planting!.
The first saplings to be planted amidst the thicket of wild grass in Chachanat Woodland were purchased from the forestry department’s nursery, and included pine, teak, red wood, rose wood (Pradu) etc. The planting was orderly, in rows as advised by Kampoo to facilitate grass cutting. We found that planting tree saplings on 30 rais of land at 400 trees per rai was indeed no mean feat!.
Even though the planting was done during the monsoon season which ensured water for the saplings, they still had to struggle hard to compete with the wild grass for food from the arid land. After one month we still could not see them and were parting wild grass looking for them.
By the end of the first winter more than half of the saplings had perished and had to be replanted. This went on for 2-3 years before we could see little plants dotting the land. At this point we began to doubt the possibility of reforestation and became uncertain as whether to quit or to continue. Then the owner of the beautiful adjoining 50 rai land offered to sell. With this new acquisition we gained complete access to the stream dividing the two pieces of land which enabled us to dig a large reservoir. This “lake”, apart from providing water for reforestation (today expanded to cover about 200 rais of land) and domestic use, adds a lovely tranquil and picturesque landscape to our growing forest. It is amusing to note here that the local villagers genuinely did not understand the reforestation activity of the Bangkokians and words went around that a “crazy professor” had bought useless impoverished land and instead of planting fruit trees or cash crops was planting forest trees! However, a few years later, when our land began to look green, the Thai government announced the “Five Million Rai Reforestation Project in Honour of H.M. the King” with a big effort to educate people on the importance of forests. This same crazy professor, once the laughing stock of the village, then received the elevated status of a “genius” who is very far-sighted in the eyes of the villagers! Planting all kinds of trees at the elevation of 700 meters on poor soil and “leaving them to the heavens” was, to us, a type of research. After a few years we discovered that certain trees could weather the environment and grow well, whereas others did poorly, while some could not even survive and fell prey to diverse pests. During this development we took Kampoo’s advice to raise a small herd of cattle which, in addition to saving expense on grass cutting also provided the much needed manure automatically distributed throughout the land as they walk around feeding. (At the initial purchase of the herd we were given the choice of good dairy cows for milk or fast growing cattle for beef, but we were looking for good grass cutters and manure producers to walk our land!) Through trials and errors we have found that the “red wood” tree is by far the best species suited to the conditions of Chachanat Woodland.
The next task to tackle was electricity because we needed to pump water up from the reservoir to water the saplings. The contour of our land is very hilly, with a difference of 60 meters between the reservoir level and the top of the hill, which necessitates the use of a large 3- phase motor pump.
The available electricity was the 2-phase cable and we had to invest in bringing in the third cable line from the main road as well as install the transformer. With water in place, a miracle gradually unfolded, the trees shot up and overpowered the wild grass, the interim “Sap Sua” began to disappear, the soil slowly regained fertility..…..however, with less and less grass our cattle herd had to be moved off to feed on other meadows!
Having dealt with water, next we had to deal with fire. In the same manner as other farmers in the country, after harvesting their crops the local farmers here light a fire to burn the remains of the plants to prepare the land for the next planting season. On windy days fire balls from these burning farmlands get blown around far and wide, falling on other people’s properties and setting fires that lead to incessant quarrels every year. Our place is no exception and we had to set up water hoses around the land to protect against forest fire and keep a vigilant watch during the critical hot seasons.
Not long after we had installed electricity the District commissioned work on the dirt road leading up to Pu Luang National Park, which passes right in front of our land, and upgraded it to a properly paved road. Since then the Forestry Department has closed the southern route to the National Park from Wang Sapung district, leaving as the only permitted access the route that passes by our land and climbs up the north face of Pu Luang mountain. Therefore, all who visit the Pu Luang National Park today will pass by and can catch a glimpse of Chachanat Woodland. Now that the forest is getting more and more lush our next desire was to build a cottage to be able to enjoy nature in the raw without sacrificing comfort. Once again, on the advice of Kampoo we went and bought an old
wooden house from the village whose social value is to upgrade to brick houses as soon as they can afford it. Fortunately we have an architect brother (Khun Yodyiam Thebtaranonth) who assigned his architect staff (Khun Jamorn) to help with the reconstruction and extension of the house on the Woodland, using local wisdom and keeping close to nature as much as possible.
As mentioned earlier, winter at Pu Rua can be freezing cold and without any heating system in their houses the villagers would huddle around bonfires all night. To last long hours the firewood used (which brings tears to one’s eyes) were the core of hard wood trees such as rose wood (Pradu) a high quality and expensive wood on the international market, and highly valued by top furniture makers!
The Original Forests of Ta Sala and San Tom.
Sub-districts Ta Sala and San Tom share a landscape similar to the other parts of Pu Rua, that is, densely forested mountains at 600-700 meters above sea level. Because of this, travelling to and from the villages was difficult and they saw few visitors. Kampoo and Kampa reminisced that 40 years ago villagers were still afraid to come out of their houses at night for fear of being attacked by tigers. At the time when the Highway Department started the construction of the Loei-DanSai-LomSak Route which passes through San Tom, Kampoo was a teenager and remembers packing sticky rice and travelling through thick forest with friends to go to see the road construction and to see “4 wheel engine vehicles” which was their first sighting of the “car”.
Communication with Loei town (36 km on the present road) was through travelling caravans who brought salt and other goods to barter for village products. It was a true jungle village existence. To be noted also is that most of the locals in Ta Sala and San Tom share the surname “Sriburin” or “Tongpan”. No one seems to know for sure the exact reason, but it is thought that when the authorities imposed official registration and every person was required to have a surname, the village head probably set up a surname which all villagers then used regardless of whether they were related or not.
The villagers tell us that, every time they were shown a picture of Bangkok with big roads and clustered buildings they would pray for escape from a life in the wild forest to a more civilized living. It was not long before their wish was realized. Business men came and advised them to grow corn and offered to buy their crop for export to foreign countries. This was their first real communication with the outside world. To grow corn they must first clear the forest to prepare the land for planting. This was not an easy task because the forest was thick and each tree was huge, the size that took several men to encircle with outstretched arms. A “good” worker would fell trees faster, clear the undergrowth by burning, then claim the newly cleared land for himself. Kampoo recalls that he worked day and night clearing the forest. He devised a highly ingenious method for felling trees. He would make deep cuts at the base of several tree trunks that are standing in line with one another, then the first tree would be made to fall on to the next tree and start a domino effect along the line.
Kampa, a young mother at that time, remembers getting up in the middle of the night to nurse her child and hearing sounds like thunder coming from the forest from falling trees.
The villagers would select the best wood to keep for future use, but because supply was so abundant and there was the race to grow corn, most simply felled and burned the forest. Burnt timber left lying are collected for firewood whenever needed in winter time. Timber buried underground rot away leaving only the core hardwood and these have many a time been bought by Kampoo for the construction of cottages in Chachanat Woodland.
The tropical forests of Pu Rua disappeared. The landscape changed to that of bald mountains and grassland. All this in order to earn money from exporting corn….. do we really think that it is worth the destruction?
Mr.Kampoo and Mrs. Kampa.
This “village wise men” husband and wife team display incredible synergy in their work. Kampa has a vey sharp mind, and everyone who has had the experience to talk with her agrees that if given the opportunity for education, she would probably get through the highest degree! Kampa is “Queen of Projects” and comes up with new projects all the time. Most fortunately Kampoo is an extremely capable and practical man with extensive knowledge of ancestral wisdom that he puts to use.
Therefore this family has been able to accomplish much more than others in their village. With Kampa’s bright ideas Kampoo was the pioneer in the felling of forests, and the pioneer in growing corn, and was the first to be able to buy a farm tractor. Ironically, some of the “ideas” were highly capitalistic as told in the following account.
Villagers soon found out after the first round of forest clearing and planting corn that soil fertility is lost after only a few years and they would need to repeat the process and clear new land again. Kampa came up with the idea that, because Kampoo had the farm tractor, he had the advantage over others to go up the mountain. There happens to be a large mountain, “Pu Poke” behind the present Woodland, with a broad flat plateau on the top suitable for farming.
Kampa advised Kampoo to clear a tractor trail up to this table land and allow the villagers to use this trail, charging a fee for passage in the form of a percentage of their harvest! No wonder this husband and wife team have enjoyed a much more affluent status than others within the village.
Kampoo is a learner by nature, enjoys reading and talking with knowledgeable persons and very keen to attend agriculture workshops and trainings. For example, after attending a workshop on soil micro-organisms such as rhizobium and mycorhizza he went around teaching fellow farmers to stop setting fire to burn weeds on their farms because the fire kills these essential soil micro-organisms.
Looking at Kampa and her siblings one would not think that they are Esarn (northeastern Thailand) people. Their features are much more Indian-like, with pretty dark facial features and tall stature, her father being particularly big and tall compared to the Pu Rua people. (This probably contributed to him being elected village headman and later the kamnan or head of the sub-district). However, they recount that the family has lived here through as many generations as any one can remember. Even so, we have the assumption that sometime, long ago, their forebears must have arrived here from, perhaps Pakistan, maybe herding cattle in search of pasture land?
With Kampa working for us we were assured of not only good meals, but also of all the other conveniences of home. The “queen of projects” also kept new initiatives flowing and with Kampoo around as the “handy man” most things got done, from repairs and replacements to items that required skilled craftsmanship to garden work and even animal husbandry. Kampa is a fast worker, fast thinker, and makes quick decisions, whilst Kampoo is very thorough, skilful, and quality conscious. The pair are quite complementary and indeed they make an excellent team.
When the trees grew tall enough we began attaching orchid plants to their boughs and started teaching Kampoo and Kampa how to look after the various types of orchids. Both have completely fallen in love with this new found hobby and have become very well versed in the varieties in the Woodland.
They know exactly what species, what colors, on which trees, and what time of the year they flower etc. In March and April when most species flower Kampoo says he walks around mesmerized from morning till night and wonders why he never did pay any attention before to wild orchids in the forests in his youth!
An interesting season is towards the end of April and beginning of May when it normally starts to rain and the whole Woodland quenches its thirst looking fresh and green, mushrooms pop up, especially the abundant “hed kown”, bamboo shoots break through the ground (our favorite being the delicious local (Loei) “sweet bamboo”) and the nights light up with lovely displays of hundreds and hundreds of fireflies like forest fireworks!
A university entomologist (insect expert) explained to us that where there is forest and water there will be fireflies without the need for Lampoo trees as commonly misunderstood. Late April-early May is the time for fire flies to emerge from underground to mate, and find partners by putting on a show to attract the opposite sex.
In the first two years of reforestation Kampoo and Kampa kept saying that they were paying for their bad deeds, for the bad karma of felling those huge forest trees they now have to plant tens of thousands of frail saplings and look after them, and are reprimanded if they die. However, now that the reforestation is a success, both husband and wife, in particular Kampoo, have transformed into avid environmentalists. In building a new kitchen for Kampa we had great difficulty persuading Kampoo to cut just a few trees to make enough room for a more spacious kitchen. Kampoo advocates reforestation to his fellow villagers because he now sees that the forest gives life, the forest provides food, and the income gained from planting crops is incomparable to the irreparable loss brought about from the destruction of forests and wild life