You can eat rice but, but you can't eat money. Commercial agriculture and the value of rice in an upland Karen village
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My thesis is based on a seven month fieldwork in Chiang Mai, Northern Thailand. During these months I held the position as a volunteer in a local Non Governmental Organisation (NGO) while at the same time conducting research in the upland Karen village of Ban Pha Kwao. My overall interest was to investigate how the increasing adaption to commercial, in contrast to subsistence, agriculture had affected the Karen population. My main motive was to challenge the idea of agricultural practise as simple mechanically driven processes. After spending some time in Ban Pha Kwao it became apparent that agriculture holds a value far beyond that of simple means of covering a nutritional or financial base. The value in agriculture is entangled in the abstract realm of identity management and self perception. I will attempt to show through portraying the agricultural practise as two regimes; the commercial and the subsistence. These regimes are in some instances put apart and strongly connected in others. I claim that when agricultural practise is such a central and fundamental way of life as in Ban Pha Kwao, certain values emerge that have implications to how the community act and relate their identity to farming. I hold that for the Karen, rice and rice-cultivation has emerged as a core part of their identity and symbolises the very essence of being Karen. I illustrate this through making account for an important annual point of congregation in Karen communities; the Rice Merit. The commercial regime does not share this abstract value and is thus separated from the Karen identity. However, the overall farming system and the constant hard work for covering the needs of a household has contributed to a common feeling of being a marginalised group in relation to the Thai population. This, as discussed in the thesis, has implication to how the Karen manages their identity as a part of a larger politicised context. The work of NGOs and government agencies has in a certain degree contributed to how the Karen perceives their identity in this context.