I’ve been living in a lovely little village called Huay Pakoot in the remote hills, near to Chiang Mai for a week now, and I am in my elephant (excuse the cheesy elephant pun). I am living in a homestay in a gorgeous, simple wooden house on stilts. With three young boys sleeping in the area outside my room, and the parents and their new baby in the adjoining room – combined with the plethora of roosters strutting the village – getting a good night’s sleep is my biggest challenge by far. Luckily, I am lodging directly opposite the best coffee in Thailand, Root’s. Root’s family grow, prepare and brew their own delicious coffee, and it is the perfect way to kickstart the day with a gorgeous view of the valley.
The positive relationship the project has with the community is really clear; all volunteers are drilled to respect local customs before arrival at the village and are given Pakinyaw lessons so they are able to communicate with their hosts. The project employs two local ladies, who work alongside staff and volunteers in many ways, such as teaching us Pakinyaw and showing us how they weave fabric. The elephants are rented from the families to provide them with an income and money to pay the mahouts (elephant handlers employed full-time to accompany the elephants and lead them away from villages or agricultural land) and the homestay families get paid to host and feed volunteers. Having completed a unit in conservation biology during my degree, I clearly remember my lecturer saying over and over again that the key to a successful conservation project is benefitting the local community. If the community was in competition with the project, they will not only actively oppose it, but it means that the second the project leaves the site, all conservation efforts in the area will cease.
The thing that stands out to me about this project is that GVI aim to involve the community to the extent that the staff and volunteers are able to eventually completely withdraw, handing the running of the project over to the local people and equipping them with the skills they require, such the English language, in order to continue earning an income through sustainable eco-tourism with their beloved elephants. Although I was initially attracted to the project because I wanted to further my experience in biological surveying techniques so I can work in conservation in the future, I have been enamoured by the lifestyle that the Karen lead. Having just packed my life up in England because I feel stifled by the artificial pressures of modern western living, I feel that living amongst people who focus far more on community than material wealth has been a much-needed lesson in rebuilding my faith in humanity.