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Lessons in International Development from a Forgotten Village

July 12, 2017

For centuries, the mountains of Northern Thailand have served as both home and hiding place to refugees escaping the intermittent extermination campaigns of the Burmese government. In the 1500s, two brothers from an ethnic hill tribe called the Karen braved hostile terrain and murderous border militias to become some of the region’s first occupants, and thus began the village of Huay Pakoot.

Half a millennium later, hundreds of thousands of Karen refugees have fled to villages in the mountains. Yet, as I learned during my time there in the summer of 2016, Huay Pakoot is one of the only Karen villages that does not fully rely on humanitarian aid for its survival.[i]

At first glance, Huay Pakoot looks like it’s engaged in a losing battle with the forest. Along the main road rest homes with sinking platforms that cling to the hillside on spider-legged stilts. Chickens race haphazardly underneath, eyeing warily the local kittens that lavish in nearby pools of mud. Some of the homes have tin roofs and external walls; some are no more than wooden platforms with thatched roofing for protection from above. There’s electricity, but only when the wires aren’t flooded during the rainy season.

Shortly after arriving in Huay Pakoot, I came to see the village as a paradox: it was at once stunning in its natural beauty and yet a poster-child for rural destitution, some of the world’s poorest living on the richest natural real estate in Thailand.

And then there are the elephants.

According to village lore, the two brothers who established Huay Pakoot had only escaped from Burma successfully with the help of an elephant herd that now lives in the village. Today, the roughly 20 elephants that live in Huay Pakoot have become the heart of village life. The Karens’ connection to the land, to each other, and to their history is intertwined with the animals they credit with their survival.

As one village leader, Root Pharoot, told me, “The Pakingyaw people [a slang term for Karen] and elephants have always been tied together. There is a bond.”

While everyone in the village participates in the elephants’ lives in some way or another — from organizing holiday celebrations to donating money for their healthcare — particular families are in charge of each elephant lineage. When a calf is born, the human family who looks over that elephant’s family ceremonially assigns one of their own members to be the calf’s mahout, or “elephant watcher”, for life. Patti Sayeed, an elder mahout in the village, has been with his elephant, Thong Dee, for over 59 years. He often spends weeks at a time in the forest to be closer to her.

Suwit, 25, has watched over his elephant, Lulu, for nine years. “She’s like my little sister,” he said to me. “I’ve been with her since she was very little, and I want to stay with her until we grow old together.”

Just as life in Huay Pakoot is intertwined with the elephants, so is death. When Wan Mai, a precocious young bull with an affinity for sneaking rice from his mahout, died suddenly of a blood disease last year, his mother and grandmother refused to eat for days. Some of the villagers joined in their fast, sleeping in the forest while the elephants wailed through the night.

I arrived in Huay Pakoot in June 2016, at a time of relative prosperity. Many in the village had recently purchased their first phone, complete with photo storage and Internet access. They were thinking about diversifying their crops from corn to coffee and rice. As I quickly learned, however, this progress could not be taken for granted, for only a decade earlier, Huay Pakoot was near collapse. And as with everything in the village, it had to do with the elephants.

In 1988, the Thai government banned the use of elephants for logging or agricultural work. With the elephants unable to help the villagers in the cornfields, Huay Pakoot lost the income it needed to provide them with food and proper healthcare.

As the village sunk into financial distress, some of the local NGOs suggested an alternative: leasing the elephant herd out to the burgeoning tourist industry in nearby Chiang Mai. Initially assured that the elephants would be treated humanely, and desperate to secure a better future for their children, Huay Pakoot sent their elephants to Chiang Mai. Their mahouts went with them.

Unfortunately, the decision nearly decimated the village. In the city, the mahouts watched helplessly as their charges sickened and fell into madness in the tourist camps that kept them in near-constant confinement. Back in Huay Pakoot, the additional income couldn’t compensate for the depression that had fallen over the village in their elephants’ absence. The villagers, bereft by the loss of both their elephants and family members to the city, felt as if the beating heart of their community had been stolen.

Nearly five centuries after it was established, one of the only self-reliant Karen villages in all of Northern Thailand teetered under the threat of collapse.

It remained in that precarious state until 2010, when a team of veterinarians and experts on elephant social behavior joined together with village elders in Huay Pakoot to launch a new kind of partnership. The GVI Chiang Mai Elephant Project – which I would eventually join as a volunteer – operated on the hypothesis that there must be some way to bring both the elephants and extra revenue back to the village, without violating the deep social connections that define life in Huay Pakoot. Working off the growing popularity of eco-tourism, the project established a model where experts on elephant behavior and international volunteers would pay to live in the village and observe one of the last Asian elephant herds in Thailand that spent the majority of their lives in the forest.

Seven years later, the village has been able to take nine elephants out of the tourist camps, and two calves have been born in Huay Pakoot. Not only has the income from the homestays allowed host families to repair their homes and accumulate some savings, but local shops have begun to pop up in the village as well. For example, “Root’s Coffee” has become a popular stop on morning hikes up the village, supplementing the local staples of egg, cabbage, and rice. Perhaps the most exciting benefit of the additional income, however, is the families’ ability to send their children to schools in the city, the only chance to receive quality education and a shot at entrance into university.

Huay Pakoot may seem like a unique case; certainly, there are very few places in the world where humans and their animal counterparts live in such close symbiosis. Yet the social dynamics that both threatened, and ultimately ensured, Huay Pakoot’s survival are relevant to projects across the international development world. Too often, aid organizations ignore the fundamental social bonds that tie a community together. And what could potentially become a great tool to make change in a community — the norms and traditions that already exist among those people — actually become the reason those projects fail.

In the case of Huay Pakoot, the initial idea to lease the elephants to Chiang Mai might have worked if the village wasn’t so dependent on the animals’ presence. Yet the way the village orders itself around the elephants all but guaranteed that the idea would backfire. It took a project that recognized the inviolable nature of that tradition to strike on a model that worked.

“It’s brought focus to the village’s problems,” Root explained to me. “Without the project, there would be a bunch of groups coming in and there would be no standard goal. They wouldn’t understand us, it wouldn’t work, and it wouldn’t be very good for the village. We’ve seen that happen in other villages nearby, and we didn’t want that to happen here.”

Huay Pakoot hopes to build on GVI Chiang Mai’s success by bringing the same model to nearby villages that have also been forced to lease their elephant herds out to tourist camps. Many in the village believe that by demonstrating how the program has brought life back to Huay Pakoot, they might inspire their neighbors to follow their example. GVI Chiang Mai also has plans to educate other local NGOs — which can sometimes do more harm than good for the Karen — on best practices for engaging with the villages.

While Huay Pakoot’s model is spreading across Northern Thailand, change in the way the international development community conducts its projects needs to start at the organizational level. Project planners should carefully consider the unique social bonds that a community relies on, the factors that fundamentally tie people together. After all, when working at the heart of a community — be it found in an elephant or not — we must always follow the beat it sets for us.

Brooke Davies graduated in 2017 from UNC Chapel Hill with a major in Peace, War, and Defense. She now lives in Washington, DC and is an intern with the speechwriting firm West Wing Writers.