When I was in Japan recently I met a young researcher from Kyoto University, Ikuko Tazaki, who has been working with the Karen in northern Thailand. She recently published a paper (in Japanese) on the dynamics of Karen rice farming in relation to the urban migration of village youth. This sort of solid economic anthropology can be hard to find as so many researchers have followed the path of identity politics. Here is an English version of the abstract of her paper.

For the Karen people in Northern Thailand, rice farming remains socially and economically important, despite the increase of young people’s migration to cities since the 1980s. This paper discusses how the Karen residing in a mountain village have managed their rice farming and how they define its meanings in relation to out-migration and a decrease in the supply of labor. I focus on 3 points: 1) The persistent importance of norms regarding rice farming; 2) Despite persisting norms, there is labor shortage due to the prevalence of urban migration of youth. In the face of this situation, Karen begin to use new farming inputs (e.g. herbicides, fertilizers) to keep up their rice farming; and 3) Transition in labor allocation has occurred, resulting in the increasing role of married women in rice farming activities. Accordingly, they redefine their position in their households.

Previous studies suggest that the Karen have been slow in entering market economy due to their preference for maintaining rice farming primarily for their own consumption. However, the aforementioned dynamics aptly demonstrate that the Karen maintain rice farming at the same time that they engage in market economy. Rather than discuss Karen rice-farming and involvement with market economy as two separate alternatives, we must consider the two activities as dynamically interactive where farmers adopt inputs into rice-farming in response to urban migration and involvement with the market.

Ph.D. candidate
Graduate School of Asian and African Area Studies,
Kyoto University