Designing with Deep Respect: Deep Ecology in a Karen Village


Article Series: Ecological Design for Sustainable and Regenerative Futures. Read about the series below.

by Omsunisa Jamwiset — Wongsanit Ashram, Thailand

Omsunisa Jamwiset, from Wongsanit Ashram in Thailand, provides an ethnographic account of life in Soblan village of the Karen hilltribe on the Thai-Burmese border. The Karen have developed life ways deeply integrated with the forest ecology of their home. Omsunisa describes how the villagers of Soblan have developed daily life patterns full of ritual designed to maintain respectful relations with Nature. As a real bonus to ecovillage designers, a description is given of how the forest is divided into functional zones and how the social life of the village itself is focused on the fire-pit of the most respected elder.

This article is a real lesson in deep sustainability.


Soblan is a village of the Karen [Ka –ren] hilltribe in the hills amidst the forest in Samoeng District, Chaingmai province, northern Thailand.

Karens are the biggest hilltribe in Thailand. They traditionally live in the forest along the Thai — Burmese border. There are four subtribes of Karen. They speak slightly different languages but their lives are based on the same basic beliefs and worldview.

Soblan is a village of Skaw, a subtribe of Karen, with about 30 families living together. Their main occupations are shifting cultivation, hunting and gathering. They are now twelve generations, since the first families came to live on this mountain nearly 300 years ago. Like all traditional Karen, the people of Soblan live intimately with Nature, with a deep respect that comes from their animist worldview.

The Karen believe in spirits of Nature. Every single element in Nature has a spirit that is responsible to that element. Spirit of the Water is responsible for the water, Spirit of the Forest responsible for the forest, Spirit of the Fire, Spirit of the Land, Spirit of the Mountain, Spirit of the Road, and so on. The ancestor spirits are responsible to the family. As for the people, they believe everyone has souls that live in the body parts, to ensure the healthy life of the person. The souls of each person can be influenced by the spirits of Nature. Spirits of Nature will give penalties to people if they disrespect Nature. The penalty can be sickness, an accident, a small harvest, an environmental disaster or unhealthy life. It is important, for a healthy life, to have a respectful and mindful relationship with Nature. Taking more than what is needed and unmindful or wasteful consumption are considered disrespectful activities among the Karen. Based on their worldview that Nature has a spirit or a soul of its own, they could never ‘own’ Nature. They communicate with the spirits of Nature for their very survival. Ritual is a way of communicating with the spirits of Nature. During any given year they will have many rituals in the village — communal rituals, family rituals and personal rituals. The message to communicate is to ask for blessings, to give thanks for the blessings, or to apologise for unmindful or disrespectful behaviours.

Sloban is organised with the village and community living amid the forest, surrounded by agriculture lands

The forest is divided into three zones, which are:

1. Reserve Forest: source of the headspring, abundant with diversity of species. In this area it is forbidden to hunt, cut wood, farm or garden, though gathering is allowed.

2. Sacred Forest: this forest is zoned for sacred ritual or spiritual energy. It is divided into semi-zones which are the Tha — De — Do forest, the area between two hills which is Spirit’s path; the De-Mhue — Berh forest, the headspring forest by the river that looks like an island where the Spirit of the Water lives; the Burial forest for burial of dead bodies, including the Ta — Vi — Do forest for burying dead babies under the banyan tree so the baby may have milk from the tree; the De — Pho forest or umbilical cord forest to connect the babies’ souls with the trees by hanging their umbilical cords on the trees. The tree will then support the baby for a healthy life until he/she dies. If the tree is harmed, it will affect the baby. Gathering is allowed in the Sacred Forest, especially of medicines.

3. People Forest: the forest closest to the village and agricultural fields. Here it is acceptable to hunt and cut wood as needed.

From an economic perspective, the Karen sense of ownership is very limited. They traditionally don’t own the land — for how can you own a piece of Nature? Their main occupation is shifting cultivation on the highland fields (hillsides). They plant the seeds of upland rice together with many other kinds of vegetables, grains, taro, and potatoes. While the rice is growing they can already pick some vegetables in the field, and after rice harvesting some vegetables still remain for one to two years for both human and animal consumption.

Every year each family looks for a ‘land-field’ for their shifting cultivation, which has to be a piece of land that was used six to seven years ago so that fertility may have been restored. They cannot just choose any spot of land they like, but have to ask the Spirit of the Land first, to get permission. According to this ritual, one family may not receive the signs to use the land while another family may be allowed. The land use is rotated in this way.

In a culture of shifting cultivation, people must support each other. The members of a single family are not enough to completely work the land; they need help from their neighbours. From the very beginning of the process, clearing the land, they need labor support. Also during the process of burning the brush after clearing, each family needs support from the whole village to make a fire break and secure it. They also need some help with the planting, harvesting, and transporting of the harvest. They take turns supporting each other at each step of the process. Collaboratively working together in the hills has become the basis of their culture. When they are in the fields working together, they have traditions to enjoy each other and celebrate life. They play music, dance, sing, and share poems. There is courtship among the young people. Because their traditions and culture emerge from their shifting cultivation relationship with the land, they say ‘the Karen soul is in the field’.

The people will build a small huts in the field at the entrance to their land, where they can control the energy flow in and out. The hut is also designed to store the harvest while waiting for transportation to the barn in the village. Since their plantations are small, and for subsistence only, not for retail, the people don’t need advanced technology, only a few hoes and baskets. They also don’t need to build big storage sheds to keep their tools and harvest. Some families build a hut on stilts to use the open space underneath for their animals.

During every step of their cultivation, the people make rituals to communicate with the spirits of Nature, especially the Spirit of Rice. These rituals take place on the land and in the hut until the end of the harvest. The rituals remind the people to remain aware, and to take care at every single step of the production process.

The village lies at the very heart of the agriculture and forest zones. The centre is an open space surrounded by houses on the hillsides. An open space with a fire set in front of each cluster of houses is the meeting point for each neighbour group. The open space and fire set in front of the elder’s house is the meeting point for the community as a whole.

In Soblan, Uncle Daeng is the elder who is most highly respected. He is not a political leader, but a story teller. People of all ages in the village like to come and spend time around his house. Every morning in winter, Uncle Daeng lights a fire in front of his house. His neighbours join him around the fire shortly after sunrise to warm themselves before heading for the fields.

Almost the entire village will come to the fire at night for story-telling and poems about the Karens, Spirits, and Nature. When a leader wants to call villagers for a meeting, Uncle Daeng lights the fire and blows the horn to call the people. They all sit around the fire for the meeting.

Uncle Daeng’s house is situated at the entrance of the village. As people are leaving, they like to stop at this meeting point and converse with friends. They also like to stop here when they come back, to share news from outside before returning to their homes. (It’s not easy to travel between the village and the main town, which is 18 kilometres distant over many hills, so there is always lots of news to share when somebody does make the trip.) Outsiders who visit the village will meet first with the elders gathering around Uncle Daeng’s house before they are permitted to walk freely around the village.

As far as house design, Karen traditional style is a modest, one-room structure. They build the roof low to harmonise with the mountain winds. In the single room, they have a hearth for cooking and warming. The hearth is where the ancestor spirit lives. Above the hearth is a set of shelves for storing grains and seeds. The smoke from the fire keeps the insects away. In this way, they can keep the grains till next year’s planting season. They don’t put the fire at the very centre of the room but nearer to a wall because they like to sleep close to the wall since it’s warmer that way. They leave the bigger space open for cooking, some kitchen utensils, and to welcome guests. Above the sleeping place is where they worship the Spirit of the House, the ancestors, and the Spirits of Nature in the new-year, mid-year and harvest-time celebrations. For these celebrations, people come to witness and support each family’s ceremony in their house. The whole village comes together in this way; everyone’s house is open. With less individual ownership, the design is for more sharing. More sharing brings greater intimacy. If you come to visit, you will get to share with them in their single-room houses also.

Deep Integrated Design in our modern world

Among ecovillage people, we often hear talk about respecting Nature. Respect seems to be a prelude for change. In this regard, it is interesting to contemplate further — what exactly do we mean by RESPECT? Soblan is an eminent example that teaches us a kind of respect that is mindful about the relationships and interconnections between human beings and Nature. With this respect, the people of Soblan over the ages have designed a form of gracious simple living that brings intimacy and sacredness into their lives.

However, though the people of Soblan live far away in the forest, it’s still not far enough to be unaffected by globalisation and so-called ‘development’ by the government in the name of modernisation. The Karen people in general have resisted this development since they regard it to be threatening to their way of life. For example, when the government registered their forest as a National Park, it resulted in limitations on the movement of the hilltribes, who in their shifting cultivation rely on freedom of movement attuned with the cycles of Nature. The elders of the villages are well aware that if their way of life is moved off of the land, they will lose everything — culture, wisdom, dignity, grace — because ‘the soul of the Karen is in the field’.

As a result of issues such as this, over the last 20 years the people of Soblan have been fighting for their right to maintain their culture and lifestyle centred upon a deep respect for Nature. As a compromise, they have redesigned certain aspects of their village to conform to the pressures to modernise. They have built stronger houses made of modern materials and a community school. In this school, along with the government’s curriculum, they try to educate their children about the Karen life-ways and raise awareness about the effects of consumerism from the outside world. With the help of NGOs, the school is becoming a centre for opening the village as a Life University for Sustainability for outside learners.

Traditional villages such as Soblan are valuable reservoirs of genuine sustainable culture. They have a lot to teach us about sustainable community design — which here means designing with a deep respect for Nature.

In the case of energy and transportation, we will, by fits and starts, switch to being entirely based on renewables, extracted in ways that are carbon negative when full life-cycle costing is performed and do not impose scandalously inequitable financial and toxic burdens on generations of newborn, millions of years into the future. Lower energy densities and higher distance costs suggest that bioregional re-inhabitation will become the rule, rather than the exception.

We don’t know exactly what our future built environments will look like, but we can make some educated guesses. They are unlikely to look like today’s Tokyo, Sao Paolo, or Shenzhen. More likely, they will resemble the description Father Gaspar de Carvajal, scribe to Francisco de Orellana, made of the net carbon-sequestering cities of the Amazon in 1542.

There were many roads here that entered into the interior of the land, very fine highways. Inland from the river at a distance of 30 leagues more or less there could be seen some very large cities that glistened in white and besides this, the land is as fertile and as normal in appearance as our Spain.

That passage could as well describe the vista that stretches now in front of us; the path we can take if we so choose: ecovillages, co-housing communities and other forms of living communally, practicing sustainable and regenerative, bioregionalist agriculture, in a permacultural landscape of cultivated ecologies, in millennial balance with the orbit and precession of Earth.

Traditional Villages in Northern Thailand’s Hills country as a source of deep traditional knowledge

Traditional Village in the Hills of Thailand

Many of us feel that our current consumer lifestyles are no longer sustainable nor desirable, on a personal to global level and that our ecological systems appear to edge closer and closer towards collapse, but we believe that more sustainable or regenerative ways of living our lives are possible, feasible and viable, but what are these alternative ways of living? In trying to Design for Sustainability we seek to consciously reinvent ecological living from the ground up, honing in on aspects such as sustainable production and consumption, regenerative agriculture and food production, appropriate technologies for water and energy systems, green and sustainable building and construction, and weaving all together through whole systems and regenerative design approaches and methods to achieve one planet living design and development outcomes.

Gaia Education’s online course in Design for Sustainability offers you an opportunity to learn practical effective ways to create the change we all seek in your community. The Ecological Design dimension of the course starts on 2nd January 2018 and there are a limited amount of places left for this year, so sign up now.

This series of excerpts from the Ecological Key, a collection of articles collated in the book ‘Designing Ecological Habitats- creating a sense of placeoffer background material to the curriculum of the Ecological Design dimension of both Gaia Education’s face-to-face EDE and our online GEDS programmes. This series highlights some classic articles from that compendium. Enjoy!

This article features in Designing Ecological Habitats, the second volume of Gaia Education’s ‘Four Keys to Sustainable Communities’ series (officially endorsed by UNESCO). The book is available for purchase here and on Gaia Education’s online shop:


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