Tuesday, 11 March 2014

Journey to Freedom Part 2 – The Project

The Journey to Freedom project is holistic, that is to mean, all encompassing. Whilst so far I've explained about the elephant past and the mahout history another key part of the puzzle that needs solving is the Karen environment and their future stability.

In the past the mahout used to let the elephant forage in the forests while he worked the fields nearby. The elephant covered about 20 miles a day looking for a wide variety of food sources. We were told that they even sourced certain health-giving foods to help them recover from sickness.

Now the forests have mostly gone in Thailand. So the main source of food for the elephants has also gone and mahouts need to spend time growing food for their elephants. Also their source of shade has gone. The corridors of woodland also provided shelter to enable the elephant to migrate to meet potential mates, and escape from danger.

Where we visited in the north we saw the destruction to the environment caused by deforestation for crop planting. As the population grew the villages changed from subsistence farming to commercial farming. Forest was cleared to grow genetically modified corn by the villages under contract with companies such as Monsanto. The villages were sold the corn seed and told that they would be able to sell the harvested corn at a good price. But when the harvest occurred, naturally almost simultaneously across the northern hills, the companies said that due to the saturation of the market the actual price they would give would be much lower.

In addition, we were told that many villages had used very harsh chemicals on the ground under the instruction of these massive commercial companies. These chemicals kill all the wild species of plant, so the forest will never return. It was said that when villagers sprayed the ground they were not told how dangerous these chemicals were. A man with an open cut on his leg died following spraying the chemicals. But the villagers are simple people who are not educated in chemical hazards and their control and therefore thought that a bad spirit had killed the man. Another story we were told was off a dog and her puppies running by the side of a field just after it was sprayed - they all died of poisoning as well.

So what is the 'Journey to Freedom' project doing to help? Primarily it focuses on working with the Karen people to help them re-establish themselves as the carers for the elephants. It helps mahouts release their elephants from work far away, such as in trekking camps, by paying the mahout to keep the elephant close to their home. They release their elephant to find their own food in the remaining forests in the wild, so they no longer need to work in the trekking camps or illegal logging. The mahout looks after the elephant, visiting them frequently to ensure that they are healthy, well fed and safe. The mahout is able to learn more about the elephants natural behaviours and learn positive reinforcement training (not using the old bull hook techniques). This knowledge and respect for the elephants may then be passed on to future generations.

To prevent the continued deforestation Lek is encouraging the Karen to grow coffee that she will buy back from them at a guaranteed price through her fair trade coffee organisation. Coffee beans are a better cash crop than corn as there is less competition and when it is harvested it can be stored for a long period and will not perish. Coffee seedlings are provided to the villagers to plant. The coffee plants need shade to grow, which in turn encourages the villagers to not destroy the forests, which benefits the elephants (who don't eat coffee crops) and the wider environment.

The presence of the volunteers in the villages helps to reinforce to the Karen that people are interested in the elephants and the Karen way of life and that most people would like to see elephants in the wild or at least following a more natural existence. The Karen can also benefit by selling traditional crafts such as handmade clothes and carvings and the volunteers money goes towards paying the mahout to keep his elephant away from the trekking camps and to other programmes that support the village such as construction of buildings, roads, wells, provisions for schools, transport etc. 

The final piece of the puzzle is the education of the younger Karen people. The Elephant Nature Park provides scholarships for promising students to undertake further education in Chiang Mai. As well as providing the Karen tribes with ambassadors to fight their corners in future years, it gives a strong message that it is money given through their respect and association to the village elephants which is helping them. With Lek we gave out some gifts of shoes and sweets to the school children. The message here was that we came to support and see the elephants, and because they take care of the elephant they benefit too. 

To find out more and for any official information please contact the Elephant Nature Park or visit their website at elephantnaturepark.org.

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