1 Lazy Gardens: A sustainability experiment in the
2 uplands of northern Thailand
4 Small Grant EBPA‐SGP‐05 under the Enabling Bio‐innovations for Poverty Alleviation in Asia
7 Draft Working Paper 2
9 By Louis Lebel, Songphonsak Rattanawilailak, Phimphakan Lebel and Sriyasak Patcharawalai
11 Unit for Social and Environmental Research, Faculty of Social Sciences, Chiang Mai University,
12 Thailand (email@example.com or louis@sea‐user.org)
14 USER Working Paper WP‐2010‐07 (Version: 23 September 2010)
15 Draft prepared for presentation at the IT APN International Conference on “Innovation and
16 Sustainability transitions in Asia”, 9‐11 January 2011, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia
17 As manuscript is being prepared for submission to a journal please contact lead author before
18 citing to ensure receive most definitive version.
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23 Background – The people in the uplands of northern Thailand have been the target of numerous
24 technical assistance projects and programs. New or alternative crop varieties and associated
25 agricultural techniques have been a primary focus of research, development and extension
26 activities. At the same time state policies have expanded protected areas and increasingly
27 restricted land‐use. Poor land tenure security, lack of citizenship rights and discrimination has
28 compounded the problems faced by many upland farmers. The challenges of sustaining
29 livelihoods have been substantial and farmers as farmers searched for viable alternatives.
30 Rationale ‐ Lazy gardens are a local land‐use innovation that started among a group of Karen
31 farmers in an upland valley in northern Thailand. A lazy garden uses an available plot of land –
32 usually, but not always, located in upland secondary forests or abandoned fallow from swidden
33 or rotational agriculture system – to cultivate a complex garden of vegetables, trees and other
34 crops without using expensive fossil‐fuel or chemical inputs. The practice improves livelihood
35 security of relatively poor households through contributions to both social and ecological
36 resilience. The wider significance of the bio‐innovation remains unclear, in particular, barriers
37 and opportunities to its further expansion and adaptation to other upland sites of former
38 swidden agriculture where conservation‐oriented farming has some political support.
39 Objectives – To better understand how the local innovation of lazy gardens initially became
40 established in one watershed and the challenges and opportunities facing efforts to scale‐up the
41 practice in other suitable areas using a modified systems innovation framework.
42 Methods – The study used mixed methods, iterating between qualitative and quantitative
43 approaches to data collection and analysis. Qualitative in‐depth interviews, actor‐tracing and
44 participant observation methods were central to all aspects of this investigation whereas
45 quantitative surveys helped identify the kinds of households which adopt lazy garden practices,
46 the extent of benefits and burdens, and gender‐related differences in labor contributions and
47 decisions‐making practices. To guide analysis of the origins, adaptability and the transformative
48 potential of the lazy gardens innovation we drew on the multi‐level systems innovation and
49 transitions framework of niches, socio‐technical regimes and landscapes.
50 Findings ‐ Viable niches for upland farms are hard to find in the context of the dominant
51 socio‐technical regime geared towards conventional high‐input agriculture and, in the uplands,
52 policy‐driven land‐use constraints. Lazy gardens are a sustainability experiment that lies
53 between conservation‐oriented agro‐forestry and home gardening. The experiment has
54 developed into an alternative niche for upland areas. Culture has provided protection to the
55 niche; the demise of swidden rotational land‐use systems has provided the window of
56 opportunity. A few key individuals have built learning networks and wider alliances that now
57 support the niche. They have done this by articulating the benefits of the approach as well as
58 appealing to environmental values, and less successfully, non‐market philosophies like
60 Significance ‐ Although the niche has not transformed the socio‐technical regime which remains
61 focused on high‐input monoculture there is evidence that lazy gardens and similar alternative
62 niches are creating space for alternative and supplementary livelihood activities for poor
63 households in the uplands.
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66 1 Introduction
67 Since at least the 1960s, the uplands of northern Thailand have been the target of numerous
68 government and non‐government technical assistance projects and programs on “upland
69 development” to replace cultivation of opium poppy, counter sympathy for communist
70 movements and poverty alleviation (McCaskill and Kampe 1997, Renard 2001, Santasombat
72 In some areas private firms have also been active taking advantage of climate differences in
73 mountain region and low costs of labour to make contracts with individual farmers and villages
74 (Thomas et al. 2008). Many of these projects and investments have promoted extensive use of
75 fertilizers and other agrochemicals in efforts to increase yields and standardize products for
76 commercial production. At the same time state policies in upland areas to expand protected
77 areas and restrict land‐uses elsewhere has greatly constrained access to forest resources and
78 crop land (Ganjanapan 1998). Diverse rotational swidden agro‐ecosystems were actively
79 discouraged and became technically impossible to continue with long fallow periods needed to
80 rebuild soil fertility in most areas (Rerkasem et al. 2009). Intensification of land‐use in many
81 former swidden areas has had significant impacts on ecosystem services (Ziegler et al. 2009).
82 The challenges of transforming and sustaining livelihoods in these circumstances have been
83 substantial (Thomas et al. 2008, Cramb et al. 2009).
84 Whilst economic development in Thailand has created many new opportunities for upland
85 farmers to engage in emerging markets or pursue alternative livelihood activities the barriers
86 can be substantial for some households.
87 First, pre‐existing poverty and the absence of credit makes purchasing inputs and investing in
88 land improvement difficult. Lack of formal land title documents usually makes borrowing money
89 from formal financial institutions difficult as most households have nothing else could offer as
90 collateral and in some locations tenure insecurities may also act as a disincentive.
91 Second, information asymmetries can lead to unstable and unfair business relations in which
92 middlemen with much more knowledge of costs and channels make large profits and farmers
93 end up in debt. Poor market knowledge can also leave farmers vulnerable to changes in
94 demand and price of commodities. These asymmetries are weakening with the availability of
95 mobile phones, improvements in Thai language proficiency, and increased mobility.
96 Third, intensification of agricultural production without care can lead to soil and water pollution
97 problems as well as risks to health of farm workers. Lowland communities and governments—
98 after promoting intensification—now increasingly critique commercial upland farming for over‐
99 use of pesticides and other chemicals (Kunstadter 2007) though the full extent of risks is not
100 well understood in most locations (Forsyth and Walker 2008).
101 In response to these challenges and search for viable niches some upland farmers have
102 developed new or adapted earlier practices. One strategy has been to emphasize practices
103 which are ‘environmentally‐friendly’ and align with state conservation objectives. Many agro‐
104 forestry approaches fall in this class as they look to both increase overall tree cover and improve
105 livelihood security (Thomas et al. 2002, Thomas et al. 2004, Rattanasorn and Puginier 2007,
106 Schmidt‐Vogt 2007).
107 This paper explores the potential of a local innovation known as “Lazy Gardens” or “Suan
108 Kheekiat”. In a companion paper we confirmed claims that the practice improves livelihood
109 security of poor households by documenting different ways it contributes to social and
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110 ecological resilience (Lebel et al. 2010b). The wider significance of the bio‐innovation, however,
111 remained unclear, in particular, barriers and opportunities to its further expansion and
113 1.1 System innovation, resilience and sustainability transitions
114 To deepen analysis and improve understanding of the origins, adaptability and the
115 transformative potential of the lazy gardens innovation we drew on two areas of theoretical
116 scholarship on sustainability transitions: systems innovation and resilience management.
117 The systems innovation and transitions framework was developed for characterizing multi‐level
118 social‐ and market related processes around ‘niches’ and ‘regimes’ in ‘landscapes’ and often
119 applied to innovations in fields of energy, mobility and manufacturing (Geels 2005, Smith et al.
120 2005, Schot and Geels 2007). Regimes are complexes of technologies, cognitive rules,
121 regulations and norms (Geels 2005, Berkhout et al. 2010). These studies show why socio‐
122 technical regimes are normally resistant to changes because of various stabilizing processes –
123 for example, vested interests of incumbent actors, established organizational relationships, and
124 regulations which favor the status quo. For significant change to come about social learning
125 must also take place not just substitutions of techniques or technologies.
126 Niches are protected spaces where novelty can emerge without being subject to normal market
127 selection pressures (Verbong et al., 2008). A sustainability experiment is a “planned initiative to
128 embody highly novel socio‐technical configurations likely to lead to substantial (environmental)
129 sustainability gains” (Berkhout et al. 2010). Experiments are where ideas are tested and
130 practices elaborated and which may eventually lead to a stable and competitive niche.
131 Landscapes are more slowly changing factors, for example, such as cultural norms or economic
132 patterns of development which act as context for socio‐technical regimes (Geels, 2005). Key
133 niche processes include articulating visions, building networks and learning (Schot and Geels,
134 2007). Landscapes also exert pressure on regimes for change as when parts of a society demand
135 greater sustainability in production methods or put pressure on governments for increasing
136 environmental protection.
137 Studies show how the ultimate significance of an innovation for sustainability transitions
138 depends on how the particular niche it emerges in interacts with the wider landscape of
139 policies, politics and markets (van der Laak et al. 2007). Destabilization of regimes can arise from
140 various combinations of niche and landscape processes. Regimes and landscapes may also
141 influence what niches are explored (Geels and Schot, 2007; Smith, 2007). Transitions thus arise
142 from interactions between niches, regimes and landscapes (Geels and Schot, 2007).
143 As we were dealing with a ‘bio‐innovation’ in which the ecosystem itself was an important
144 component of on‐going innovation – for instance in terms of biodiversity of useful plants – we
145 extended the notion of regimes to include ecosystems, that is, the socio‐ecological‐technical
146 regime. In addition as the claim was that innovation enhanced livelihood security we felt it
147 important to explicitly address the links with ecosystems (Folke et al. 2003, Berkes 2007, Xu et
148 al. 2009).
149 In this paper we studied the lazy garden bio‐innovation through the lens of this modified
150 systems innovation framework (Figure 1). In particular we paid special attention to how the idea
151 of lazy gardens is articulated, the building of alliances, and how learning was organized to help
152 understand how a promising local bio‐innovation became established area and why it may be
153 difficult to “scale‐up” further.
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155 Figure 1 Initial conceptual framework for bio‐innovations in upland technologies, land‐uses and livelihood in a
156 systems innovation approach.
161 Armed with this modified systems innovation frameworks we addressed three main questions in
162 our analysis:
163 (1) Experiment: What are lazy gardens? How might they contribute to sustainability?
164 (2) Niche processes: How did the lazy garden idea begin and how has it been refined and
165 adapted? How do farmers learn about lazy gardens? What do farmers expect and receive from
166 lazy gardens? Who supports the idea and with other practises is it compared?
167 (3) Regime and landscape – How have economic development and land‐use policies influenced
168 the lazy garden innovation? What has been the role of culture?
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169 2 Methods
170 2.1 Data Collection and Engagement
171 The study used mixed methods, iterating between qualitative and quantitative approaches to
172 data collection and analysis. Qualitative in‐depth interviews and participant observation
173 methods were central to all aspects of this investigation whereas quantitative surveys helped
174 identify the kinds of households which adopt lazy garden practices, the extent of benefits and
175 burdens, and gender‐related differences in labour contributions and decisions‐making practices.
177 In‐depth interviews. 23 full interviews were made with women and men from households that
178 have adopted lazy gardens including leading proponents. The interviews covered various topics
179 asking informants to explain what lazy gardens are and what they did in them, how they learnt
180 about the practices, resource inputs and benefits including issues related to gender division of
181 labor. Another 10 interviews were carried out with relevant government officials, for example,
182 from forestry and agriculture‐related extension services, local government in the area, and the
183 Royal Project. Five farmers from outside our main study area who had visited to learn about the
184 lazy garden innovation but had not necessarily adopted the practice were also interviewed.
185 Interviews were taped and transcribed in full and later coded and managed using NVIVO
186 qualitative analysis software.
188 Household survey. A quantitative survey using a structured questionnaire was administered to
189 190 households in three villages: Huai I Dang (n=59), Tung Luang (n=61) and Nong Tao (n=70).
190 Of the 190 households sampled 141 currently had lazy gardens and 49 which did not. Half the
191 informants were women and half men. The questionnaire covered socio‐economic
192 characteristics of households, farming and land‐use systems, sources of agricultural knowledge
193 and innovations, consumption and selling of agricultural and forest products, income sources,
194 views and practices towards lazy gardens and agricultural practices in general.
196 Participant observation. Two weeks was spent living with families in Mae Win wateshed that
197 have lazy gardens to observe daily routines and learn from them about field management
198 practices. Male and female Karen researchers in our team carried out the observations, with the
199 female staying largely with the women head of household while the male researcher
200 accompanied the male head of household. This gave insights on gender differences in daily
201 activities overall, but with special attention paid to activities related to lazy gardens. Altogether
202 the researchers lived in houses of six different families.
204 Study visits. Working closely with leading proponents of lazy gardens we joined in and
205 supplemented existing outreach activities by sponsoring two study tours. The first tour carried
206 out on 27 May 2010 brought a group of 25 farmers – a few with lazy gardens – from various
207 locations in Mae Win watershed. The second was done for local school students and teachers in
208 Mor Wakhee primary school (10‐13 yrs) and Nong Tao secondary school (13‐17 yrs). A total of
209 53 students and teachers participated in the event held on 21 June 2010. Proponents of lazy
210 gardens have supported visits before as a way of sharing their ideas and agreed to these
211 additional tours as part of our engaged research.
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213 Forums. We facilitated two forums for farmers in the studied communities to share ideas about
214 lazy gardens with each other and other stakeholders such as forestry and agriculture officials
215 from agencies active in the area. At the first forum we shared our plans for research. At the
216 second forum we reported on our findings including a showing of documentary we made about
217 lazy gardens. The first forum was held in Nong Tao Village, 11 December 2009 with village
218 headmen, lazy gardeners and other farmers. Altogether 25 stakeholders participated. The
219 second forum was held on 20 August 2010. Forty five participants attended including
220 representatives of farmers, teachers, students, development agency, local sub‐district
221 government, Royal Project Office and researchers.
223 Secondary data. We drew on the published literature and public documents of government and
224 non‐government agencies to characterize and assess the upland ‘agriculture’ socio‐technical
225 regime, alternative niches for upland land‐use and livelihoods and the broader socio‐economic
227 3 Results
228 3.1 A sustainability experiment
229 The lazy garden approach is to use an available plot of land – usually, but not always, located in
230 upland secondary forests or old swidden fallows – to cultivate a garden of vegetables, trees and
231 other crops without using expensive chemical inputs and make a household more resilient
232 (Lebel et al. 2010b). The founder of the lazy garden concept used the original Karen term
233 “jorkedo” or “lazy man” which appreciatively refers to the farmer who doesn’t appear to do
234 much hard work yet always has enough to eat for his family.
235 The key feature of lazy gardens is to plant and let things grow according to nature as much as
236 possible. Complementary planting is a dominant practice. The outcome is typically complex
237 vertical and horizontal vegetation structure (Figure 2). To cut back excessive growth, some
238 farmers cut grass and shrubs or lop branches once or twice per year so that useful plants grow
239 better. Organic fertilizers may be added once a year – but not all farmers see this as an
240 important of practice (Table 1). Compost is made from grass cuttings and leaves. Pig pens are
241 sometimes placed over the compost areas to make manure. Some farmers allow livestock to
242 graze to help control grass growth and provide more manure.
243 Figure 2 Vegetation profile of a lazy garden illustrating complementary planting and complex horizontal and
244 vertical structure.
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246 Table 1. Essential features of a lazy gardens according to farmers.
Feature Views of farmers
with Lazy Garden
Food and wood fuel for home 100
Local plant and tree variety 99
Let grow naturally 99
Depend on natural processes 99
Source of useful herbs 94
Complimentary planting 91
Cash income source 92
Take care of ecosystems 87
Let it become a forest 87
Don’t use chemicals 87
Use organic fertilizer/inputs 72
247 The products from a lazy garden are diverse, including fuel wood, vegetables, fruit and herbs.
248 Like other land‐forest‐fallow management ideas lazy garden is a system‐level bio‐innovation
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249 involving several interacting changes in practices and principles. Most farmers view lazy gardens
250 as a supplementary rather than primary livelihood, especially those who have paddies. Overall,
251 lazy gardens are ecologically sensible and improve the resilience of upland farming households
252 that adopt them (Lebel et al. 2010b).
253 Lazy gardens can be thought of as a sustainability experiment (sensu Berkhout et al. 2010). They
254 are planned initiatives promoted and organized by a group of Karen leaders and expert farmers.
255 Although they draw on traditional practices and local modifications of these they are highly
256 novelty relative to dominant practices in their emphasis on working with natural processes and
257 reducing costly inputs. Their orientation towards using and combining on‐farm resources leads
258 to high potential for self‐organization and closing nutrient cycle loops which would make a
259 significant contribution to sustainability if such practices were to be more widely adopted.
260 3.2 Emerging niches
261 Niches are where novelties emerge. They provide protection of some sort from the normal
262 selection pressures of the market. In the lazy gardens case protection is partly cultural and
263 partly positional. As sustainability experiments become linked and their relationships more
264 systematic or institutionalized they may become apart of, or form, a niche. The way the lazy
265 gardens experiment is articulated makes it a candidate, for example, for the ‘environmentally‐
266 friendly’ agriculture or agro‐forestry niche, especially in former rotational swidden areas (e.g.
267 Suraswadi et al. 2005, Lebel et al. 2010a).
268 Similarities to other experiments are acknowledged:
269 “As uncle says ‘the bird sings his own song’. People in the city do mixed orchards. Some
270 Hmong farmers adapt and have orchards as well. Some people call it a ‘fence you can
271 eat’. But we call our system a ‘lazy garden’ because our system looks like the work of a
272 lazy person.” (Joni Odochao)
273 Farmers view lazy gardens as compatible with, and as a component of, several other commonly
274 discussed alternative farming systems, in particular: subsistence (83%), integrated (53%), and
275 self‐sufficient (83%) agriculture. A much smaller fraction saw it as a feature of upland (36%) or
276 ‘model’ (26%) agriculture. In these former niches there is some cultural and ideological support
277 for self‐sufficiency and thus protected spaces given to alternative practices, whereas in the
278 latter the connotation is closer to standard regime practices.
279 Several niche processes have been important to development of the experiment so far; others
280 appear likely to be important in the future as the potential scope of adherents grows. We
281 discuss these in the next three sections.
282 3.3 Building alliances and learning networks
283 In an earlier interview Joni Odochao described his strategy of dealing with government policies
284 and pressures to end rotational shifting cultivation and ‘modernize’ as follows:
285 “If you want to take on a really difficult task you have to find many people with different
286 types of skills. And that is what I have been doing. I made friends with different types of
287 NGOs, and I have made connections with different government agencies. I get advice
288 from academic people, make alliances with students, and am friends with reporters. This
289 is to broaden the alliance. This is my philosophy.” (Odochao et al. 2006: 120).
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290 This is consistent with what we observed of his approach to the lazy garden innovation of
291 building up networks and alliances. The ‘lazy garden’ idea itself should be seen as part of this
292 larger struggle of making space for alternative livelihoods.
293 A comprehensive mapping and characterization of the social network around lazy gardens was
294 beyond the resources of this study but some of the key features became apparent through in‐
295 depth interviews and observations in study tours. These are summarized diagrammatically in
296 Figure 2. We distinguished between roles as normal, expert and teaching farmers. Joni Odochao
297 and Lung Beheur are examples of teaching farmers. Lung Pa Bang is an example of an expert
298 farmer and his lazy garden is widely admired. Expert farmers are greatly respected for their
299 technical and practical knowledge by other farmers but are not as articulate or do not have the
300 dense social networks of teaching farmers. Teaching farmers learn from expert farmers and
301 pass on their knowledge to other expert and normal farmers. One ‘student’ explained:
302 “Normally I am a person that has an orchard. I learnt about lazy gardens from Joni. He
303 has been talking about them for 20 years and practicing it as well. We visit his garden
304 and can see it how it works. He shares plants with you. I have been doing a lazy garden
305 for 15 years now. It is in good shape. In another 5 years it should be good for others to
306 come and see and learn from as well.
307 Normal farmers also learn from expert farmers if they live close to them or a brought to see
308 their activities by teacher farmers. Normal farmers also learn from each other. In distant villages
309 where there are few and no expert farmers this is only way innovation can spread. In core and
310 neighboring villages normal farmers can learn also learn from experts and even teachers.
311 Teacher farmers also linking to allies in roles beyond farming, for example, representatives in
312 local government, staff in government agencies and workers in non‐government organizations.
313 A few of these allies may live close by but many live and work in other places.
315 Figure 3 Schematic representation of the knowledge and influence network in the lazy gardens niche.
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318 What is not apparent in a snapshot like the one above (Figure 3) is the historical or generational
319 element to the learning networks. Expert farmers like Uncle Prabang told us about the
320 importance of those who came before him – especially Grandfather “Jateep” who was notorious
321 in the village as “grandfather who likes to plant the forest in his garden”. Jateep referred to
322 himself as “Jorkedo” arguing it was better to have what you needed on your doorstep. Both
323 Prabang and Jateep refer to an even earlier practitioner from 40‐50 years ago, Grandfather
324 “Parapoh”, no longer alive, who pioneered the lazy garden practice. “Children liked to visit him
325 because they could come and eat sugarcane, bananas, mangoes and jackfruit” He was kind,
326 shared things with others, but also astute: “Delicious? If you like it so much than plant it. Soon
327 you will have some to eat.”
328 The acceptance and encouragement of our own research project, including the dialogue events
329 and study tours for farmers and schools, and making of a documentary film, are examples of
330 making alliances with researchers. By choosing to engage in this way we acknowledge that as
331 researchers we became part of the networking process that might help the experiment evolve
332 into an established niche.
333 3.4 Goals and visions
334 A lazy garden—
335 “is a source of security that you can eat and can use. Plant a little bit of this, a little bit of
336 that; maybe even sell some, not for much, but at any time. We have plenty of food. You
337 can plant anything in a lazy garden because the leaves and grasses make the soil fertile.”
338 An important element of expanding a practice is being able to clearly articulate goals and visions
339 even if all the details are not yet worked out – in fact leaving some scope to modify and adapt
340 detailed practices is an advantage. Thus, lazy gardens have been promoted through stories or
341 narratives contrasting self‐sufficiency with commercialization and debt.
342 The most common reasons farmers had lazy gardens, however, was not to deal with debt or
343 crop failures, but to take care of the environment and improve household security (Table 2).
344 Most farmers also underlined the importance of values, such as commitment to ideas like self‐
345 sufficiency (94%) as important to successful lazy gardens.
346 Table 2. Reasons for adopting lazy gardens. Percentage of farms with lazy gardens (n=143).
Reasons Lazy garden farms
Take care of environment 92
Improve family security 85
Have suitable land 80
Stop fertilizer and chemical use 29
Degrading land or falling yields 18
Reduce production costs 13
Failures with main agricultural 8
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Have debt 6
350 With swidden rotation systems misunderstood and resisted by most of the Thai state alternative
351 one hope is that agro‐forestry approaches like lazy gardens might gain wider acceptance. The
352 lazy garden innovations can thus also be understood as part of a strategy of upland minorities—
353 often at a disadvantage in dealing directly with state in everyday life—to maintain some degree
354 of self‐determination in the face of otherwise overwhelming state power (Scott 2009). For
355 innovation studies this is crucial because power is extended over research and development
356 agendas and framings about what constitutes valid knowledge and helps put the views of
357 experts and how they engage with farmers and officials in perspective (van Kerkhoff and Lebel
359 Traditional culture is important foundation for lazy gardens. According to some Karen farmers
360 we interviewed in Mae Win area Karen people are more interested in self‐sufficient, subsistence
361 and diversified approaches to agriculture, in comparison, for example, to the Hmong.
362 “It is partly because Karen people do not think so much about commerce. Karen people in
363 most places do not think of growing a single cash crop. In general they have livelihoods
364 paddy, upland rice fields, orchards, rear livestock, collect things from forest. They
365 emphasize rice and food, not money.”
366 Some elements like supplemental planting clearly are related to traditional practices and culture
367 of Karen people: “When we pray we say be with rice, with water, with forests, this in our hearts”.
368 Of course not everyone, even in this set of villages where the innovation started and has been
369 adopted most widely, have identical views. Farmers who are supportive of overall goals and
370 principles may still see practical barriers to their application. Douangchan the Village headmen
371 of Tung Luang has learnt about lazy gardens and remains interested explained in detail why he
372 does not have one yet:
373 “We have enough land, but have been doing commercial agriculture already for a long
374 time. We have expenses. For example, to send children to school costs a lot. I don’t have
375 enough time to do make a lazy garden. It takes time before you get the benefits. I have
376 been watching the garden of Luang PaBang for a long time. He has the land, the labor and
377 the time. We have debts. We have to pay off a pick‐up and tractor. You need these to do
378 modern agriculture. Our main income is from vegetable crops.”
379 3.5 Organizing to learn
380 Learning is crucial to going from an isolated experiment to a niche with potential. In early parts
381 of the innovation figuring out which practices help and which don’t have not been fully worked
382 out, especially where new plant varieties were involved. Even today a substantial amount of
383 adaptation of the lazy garden idea continues – so much so that the boundaries with related
384 practices which emphasize garden aspects on the on side or trees and forestry on the other are
385 vague. Learning is not just about agricultural techniques; aligning cultural meanings and local
386 institutions is also important. Oral fables or instructive stories, for example, have been
387 important: “Our parents and relatives would tell us stories about ‘Jorkedo’‐ a lazy man – who
388 always came out on top, and to whom, in the end, people turned to for help. ”
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389 Farmers learn about agricultural techniques from various sources. Farmers learnt about new
390 agricultural methods primarily from the Royal Project or other farmers (Figure 4). Other less
391 common sources included family, village leaders, and officials. The low percentage of farms
392 with lazy gardens obtaining knowledge about new practices from family and relatives in
393 noteworthy. Farmers with lazy gardens in general were significantly less likely to have learnt
394 from most sources than those without lazy gardens. Overall farmers with lazy gardens had
395 significantly fewer knowledge sources than those without gardens (Means 1.12 vs. 2.26,
396 ANOVA, F=12.8, P<0.001). Explanations for this counter‐intuitive finding will be returned to in
397 the discussion.
399 Figure 4. Sources of knowledge about new agricultural methods. Percentage of farms.
Family and relatives
Farms without Lazy Gardens
Farms with Lazy Gardens
0 20 40 60 80 100
402 Farmers received advice about starting and taking care of lazy gardens mostly from other
403 farmers, family and village elders (Table 3). This is a distinct set of sources from those important
404 for learning about new agricultural techniques (Figure 4) where for example the Royal Project is
405 recognized as much more important. This is consistent with the local origins of the lazy garden
406 innovation. Knowledge shared by experienced practitioners has high credibility and is valued.
407 Things learnt from others include ways of dividing and allocating land for lazy gardens (85%),
408 knowledge about plant varieties (92%), rearing animals (26%), setting up plant nurseries (24%),
409 and agricultural techniques (27%).
411 Table 3. Sources of knowledge and advice about lazy gardens. Percentage of farms.
Sources of Received advice Sought advice after
before doing lazy started lazy garden
garden from from
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Other lazy garden farmers 45 39
Family and relatives 27 16
Village headman 2 3
Village elders 20 26
TAO 3 3
Agricultural official 3 2
Royal Project 6 8
NGO 4 4
Academics 5 3
414 All informants in the study sample were ethnic Karen. They primarily received agricultural
415 knowledge from other Karen (96%), but in a subset of the population also from Kon Muang
416 (lowland northern Thai) (22%) Hmong (14%) and Chinese (6%) sources. The view of Karen
417 farmers is that Hmong are interested more in mono‐culture methods and use of inputs like
418 fertilizer and herbicides. They are much more interested in conventional commercial agriculture.
419 Exchange of seeds, however, is important and the Karen call some varieties they use as
420 “Hmong” or “Kae” rice, cabbages, corn, eggplant and so on.
421 When asked where the idea of “lazy gardens” came from farmers related it to combinations of
422 traditional beliefs and practices and economic factors: 78% believed it arouse out of their
423 practices and experiences, 51% from traditional culture and 40% from fables. But 53% also
424 believed it was a response to, and 67% protection against, economic crises or pressures.
425 Local innovative farmers and elders are important for passing on the lazy garden innovation to
426 interested farmers. Some individuals say the saw and copied examples of practices of their
427 elders or listened to their explanations and ideas. People like Joni Odochao spend a substantial
428 amount of time teaching anyone who is interested.
429 Odochao told us how he once hosted a person from Northeast Thailand who stayed in his house
430 for 2 weeks. His visitor asked him everything and helped with the orchard and paddy fields. Nine
431 years later he heard back from his visitor who now had a well established version of his own lazy
432 garden. Uncle Beh‐leur, another leading proponent, built a big hut where he can hold meetings
433 and teach people about lazy gardens. Although some things can be taught by speaking most
434 leaders emphasize the need for coming to see practices in the field and trying things yourself as
435 well –
436 “It is possible to explain to others, but the information won’t be as detailed or complete
437 as coming to see things with your own eyes. If you are really interested and want to learn
438 you have to come and see for yourself and do it yourself”.
439 In the study tour for farmers we helped convene we asked participants about their views and
440 understanding of the lazy garden innovation before going out in the field and then again after
441 the day was over. One group was interested but initially sceptical suspecting “that ‘lazy garden’
442 was just words and did not really have anything to do with real practice. It was simply land left
443 idle ‐ forest with nothing planted but which was nevertheless useful.” After the event all
444 conceded there were several useful elements of practice even if they did not see the practice as
Unit for Social and Environmental Research 14
445 a better alternative overall. The fact that lazy gardens can – and in fact usually need to be –
446 built‐up step by step was seen as an advantage that allowed flexibility and adaptation to specific
447 places and needs. One side‐effect of the tour which we had not anticipated but in hindsight
448 should not have been a surprise was the mutual interest among farmers in exchanging plant
450 Several individual in these villages are key links to other locations and practices. Uncle Pabang
451 was an important source of knowledge and material. He often went to meetings brought back
452 new seeds and was always interested and committed ‐ “He has cold hands, whatever he plants,
453 grows”. Likewise Joni Odochao was always visiting other places and bringing back new ideas
454 and plants. Many farmers share plant material and idea on how to plant and take care of ‘new’
456 Of course many of the things new to a place or farmer are not necessarily “new” to somewhere
457 else or become relevant as specific market opportunities open up. Combinations of knowledge
458 and practice are important too. For example a local variety of persimmon existed but was hard
459 to sell because not good to eat. Farmers found and grafted better varieties on local stock which
460 the produced fruit that could sell.
461 Farmer networks are important to learning about lazy gardens. Knowledge from practical
462 experience is highly regarded. Farmers with lazy gardens, however, appear to have less diverse
463 knowledge sources when it comes to new agricultural methods than those without gardens.
464 3.6 The limits of protection
465 Learning, networks and visions are important to defining a niche from what would otherwise be
466 a scattered collection of individual experiments. One of the key functions of a niche is
468 The lazy garden innovation has no formal intellectual property rights associated with it, but
469 there are some de facto cultural constraints arising from the way it has been articulated and
470 promoted. For instance the origins in Karen culture and traditions are often mentioned. While
471 this may help gain initial acceptance and improvement within this ethnic group it may also
472 restrict acceptance of practices more widely. The more generic labeling of the practice as “lazy
473 gardens” or “suan kheekiat” in Thai is one way of overcoming this implied narrow cultural
475 The cultural dimensions of the upland conservation‐farming niche are not given but are
476 contested and continually being reframed for both internal and external consumption
477 (Santasombat 2004, Walker 2004). In the specific case of the lazy garden experiment the
478 external representations of practice, origins and benefits should be understood, in part, a
479 struggle against a socio‐technical regime and socio‐political landscape that leaves few viable
480 niches for upland farmers.
481 But there is also an internal dimension. This was most obvious in the emphasis given to reaching
482 out to and teaching youth. Karen leaders like Joni Odochao are clearly concerned with loss of
483 culture and local knowledge. They are incessantly looking for ways to make tradition relevant to
484 modern life –to the next generation (Odochao et al. 2006). In our study tours for school children
485 were impressed by practical things you could do and get from a garden. More broadly, however,
486 many teenagers and young adults are looking beyond agriculture and the hills on the horizon to
487 opportunities in the city. They don’t necessarily easily accept ideologies of sufficiency and living
488 with nature with which the practice is sometimes framed. The generation gap is also an
Unit for Social and Environmental Research 15
489 aspiration gaps and remains a challenging barrier to the expansion of the conservation‐farming
490 niche even just among the Karen.
491 Culture, in short, can provide a protected space for a niche to establish but it can also be
492 perceived as a barrier of relevance to others without some remaking of meanings that are not
493 so easily confined.
494 3.7 Challenging alternatives
495 The socio‐technical and ecological regime for agriculture in Thailand is oriented strongly
496 towards commercial production in flat lowland areas. As elsewhere in the world this is through
497 monocultures dependent on high fertilizer and chemical inputs. The system of public and
498 private research and development strongly supports the conventional regime. For upland areas
499 in northern Thailand there are set of policies and pressures which strongly favor intensification
500 and concentration in increasing smaller areas – usually valley bottoms and immediate
501 surrounds. At the same time comparative advantage in local markets has created niches for
502 producers with land at higher altitudes to grow temperate crops. There are also niches for
503 organic and pesticide‐free vegetables open to upland farmers. To date these alternative niches
504 in northern Thailand have had only modest impact on the overall regime which shows little sign
505 of making a transition to more sustainable form.
506 This alternative niche has emerged in a political ecology landscape in which there are strong
507 pressures for conservation of upper tributary watersheds. The dominant discourse is that key
508 watershed services and biodiversity objectives can only be met with native forests and partially
509 by tree‐based systems. At the same time market drivers, as articulated by major agribusinesses,
510 are focussed either on short‐term commercial crops like maize or market vegetables, or tree
511 crops like rubber and tea. These alternative crops and land‐uses all fit neatly into the high‐input,
512 high‐productivity, and high fossil fuel use socio‐technical regime for lowland and upland
514 The regime in the uplands has circumscribed what knowledge is to be used. Yos Santasombat
515 (2003:151) writes:
516 “The issue of highland development fostered a way of conceiving social life, production
517 system and local culture as a technical problem, as a matter of rational decision and
518 management to be entrusted to the government agencies whose specialized knowledge
519 allegedly qualified them for the task. In the process, community rights, local culture, self‐
520 determination and participation, and local knowledge concerning biological resources
521 and production systems are undermined.”
522 One consequence is that it is hard to find ‘anchors’ for niches like that emerging around the lazy
523 garden practices. Institutionally it remains in a no‐man’s land between agriculture, forestry and
524 kitchen garden logics of development agencies. From a network perspective the efforts of a few
525 key leaders means there is more possibilities. Technological anchors may be the hardest as the
526 practice is in a sense based on using local resources and varieties and not high‐tech bio‐
527 innovations from elsewhere. At best there may be some opportunities related to movements
528 which support local agro‐biodiversity. Even so promoters of lazy gardens have not been content
529 to tackle just niche‐level processes but have also – through influential leaders – tried to address
530 some regime factors. These may have helped protect the experiment and niche.
531 The label ‘lazy gardens’ – whether used in English, Thai or Karen – is a significant part of
532 explaining the bio‐innovation to others. In each language there is a sense of playful
533 contradiction – how can you make a ‘garden’ which is supposed to be organized and productive
Unit for Social and Environmental Research 16
534 from not doing a lot work? The answer – by working more mindfully with natural processes – is
535 a provocative challenge to mainstream farming systems highly dependent on fossil‐fuel based
536 inputs – from making fertilizers, use of machinery for soil preparation, through to transport of
537 products. Our sense as researchers is that articulate proponents of the innovation are fully
538 aware of the role of words and explanations in constructing meanings.
539 3.8 Policy entrepreneurs
540 Joni Odochao, a charismatic community leader and philosopher is the individual usually credited
541 with pioneering the lazy garden concept in his Nong Tao village in Mae Wang district in Chiang
542 Mai province. Joni Odochao can be described as social and environmental policy entrepreneur
543 (e.g. Huitema et al. 2009) having played an important role in various movements in northern
544 Thailand that in different ways aim to improve the rights of ethnic minorities including
545 recognition of rights to use and manage land. As a respected leader among the Sgaw (or
546 Pakayor) Karen he has also been able to successfully collaborate with other minority groups
547 through networks and formal organizations. As part of the Northern Farmers’ Network he was
548 involved in protests and campaigns to support community forestry legislation. Joni was one of
549 the key Karen leaders of the community forestry movement. He also joined in the movement
550 was to plant 50 million trees in 100 community forests in commemoration of the King’s Golden
551 Jubilee in 1996. “ We want to prove that lowlanders and highlanders can work together to
552 protect the river basins in the mountainous North, that forest dwellers can be the best forest
553 guardians” (Sukrung 1997).
554 Like many other leaders he has also defended swidden agriculture, reminding others that while
555 “Some people say hill tribe people are the ones responsible for deforestation. But if you look at
556 the map, you will see that where the hill tribe people live, there remain forests” (EC et al. 2007).
557 But swiddening or ‘rai mun wian’ as it is known in Thai has stubbornly remained an
558 unacceptable practice to government authorities. In any case as a result of policing pressure,
559 market developments and other factors swiddening practices are very much on the wane.
560 As a consequence of social activism Joni Odochao has often been called upon to take on roles as
561 a representative or advisor on ethnic minority interests in projects. For example, he was the
562 community representative from northern Thailand on the board of the 2003 UNDP Human
563 Development Report on Thailand (UNDP 2003). He is quoted several times in the report in a
564 section discussing the ‘rediscovery’ of local knowledge:
565 “We Karen have beliefs about this and that spirit in the forest. Then the environmental
566 trend came up. We had seen trees wrapped with yellow cloth along the roadside in the
567 lowlands. These trees were not touched when the road was widened. We thought we
568 could adapt this idea. I heard that Phra Kru (monk) Manat had ordained trees in 1985. In
569 our village we had a lot of Buddhists. I saw it would be useful to do the ordination here
570 too. We mixed our own customs in with the ordination. These customs are in the blood of
571 the Karen. But if we just followed our own beliefs, it would not be broad enough – it
572 wouldn’t make the society outside understand. So we used the Buddhist ceremony. It was
573 like developing our own ceremonies. Also, our ceremonies are just done in the village or
574 the household. We had never done such a thing for the whole river basin.” – Joni
575 Odochao (UNDP 2003: p18)
576 Joni Odochao has also made presentations in international forums, is often interviewed, and has
577 occasionally authored and co‐authored articles (e.g. Odochao 2001). In a talk he gave at the
578 session on water and indigenous people at the 2000 World Water Forum, in the Netherlands he
Unit for Social and Environmental Research 17
579 emphasized dependencies on nature (UNESCO 2000). He ended an interview with a traditional
580 saying –
581 “If you want to drink water from the river, you have to conserve and protect the river. If
582 you want to eat frogs, you have to protect the rocks where they live. If you want to eat
583 fish, you have to protect the water where they come from. If you want to eat plants, you
584 have to conserve the forest.”(Odochao et al. 2006)
585 Against this background the articulation and promotion of the ‘lazy garden’ innovation can be
586 understood as another round in the struggle for legitimacy that consistently re‐combines similar
587 elements of environmental philosophy and social justice. At the same time the history of
588 advocacy and networking of one of the leading proponents – an individual with significant
589 agency at the level of the socio‐political landscape – gives the ‘lazy garden’ innovation other
590 layers of meaning and more potency for change than might otherwise be the case.
591 4 Discussion
592 This study improved understanding of how the alternative form agro‐forestry known as Lazy
593 Gardens emerged and spread through a cluster of Karen villages and sometimes beyond. The
594 findings underline the importance of traditional knowledge and practices. At the same time
595 several key individuals with enthusiasm and experience have experimented and brought in new
596 plants and management techniques drawing on a much wider collective knowledge of upland
597 farmers through social networks. Expert and articulate farmers were very important to initial
598 and on‐going learning processes. They traveled widely to other villages, attended agricultural
599 meetings and brought back plant materials for their own gardens and to share with others.
600 Individual farmers from other locations came to stay and learn from local experts.
601 Using a modified systems innovation framework was helpful to understanding problems in
602 scaling‐up and the agency of keen proponents of the innovation. Lazy gardens are a
603 sustainability experiment in the process of establishing itself as an alternative technological
604 niche for upland areas. The practices stand in sharp contrast to dominant niches that typically
605 focussed on individual cash crops like maize or cabbage or production trees like rubber in the
606 input‐driven agricultural‐technology regime. But it has similarities to other experiments in
607 agro‐forestry and complex home gardens.
608 Lazy gardens have been promoted through stories contrasting self‐sufficiency with
609 commercialization and debt. The findings of our studies underline the importance of both
610 products used and eaten as well as income earned (see also: Lebel et al. 2010b). Lazy gardens
611 are an important, supplemental, source of produce. But they are not important for addressing
612 debts already incurred. For some households the economic benefits are substantial. Thus, the
613 contributions made by lazy gardens to livelihood security are significant.
614 An alternative socio‐technical regime is unlikely to emerge in the uplands of northern Thailand
615 because of an individual niches espousing sufficiency for security or resilience without properly
616 addressing market realities. The transition potential is simply too small. On the other hand there
617 are prospects that a collection of these niches – perhaps aggregated to improve their leverage in
618 consumer markets and with conventional policy‐makers genuinely concerned with poverty
619 alleviation – could create much greater space for viable livelihood strategies than currently
620 exists in upland areas. The enforced decline in swidden rotational land‐use systems has created
621 many hardships for upland people (Cramb et al. 2009, Rerkasem et al. 2009), but at the same
622 time it provides a window of opportunity for these alternative niches. In our view markets don’t
623 have to be rejected as part of the package, but rather should be used as appropriate to develop
Unit for Social and Environmental Research 18
624 market‐compatible niches for products made by an environmentally‐friendly process. Niche
625 markets for organic, pesticide free vegetables already exist but these have so far failed to align
626 closely with traditional practices although farmers in some areas are part of such commodity
627 chains and niche markets.
628 An important and relevant finding suggesting further constraints was that farmers with lazy
629 gardens had significantly fewer types of knowledge sources about new agricultural methods
630 then those without lazy gardens. This suggests that their social and knowledge networks are
631 more limited. One explanation is that there focus is more place‐based. Another non‐exclusive
632 explanation is that those without lazy gardens are more strongly committed to commercial
633 agriculture. By necessity they are embedded in a range of business relationships and networks.
634 Those with lazy gardens in contrast are less market‐oriented. Access to knowledge networks
635 may be an important side benefit of engaging in commercially‐oriented agricultural markets – a
636 feature that appears to have been overlooked by most articulating the benefits and principles of
637 lazy garden practices.
638 It should be emphasized that the family‐based smallholder farms we studied were reacting to
639 ecological conditions and environmentalism pressures as much as market signals. Moreover
640 they are significant producer‐consumers and thus not just responding to changes in demand of
641 a distant consumer. In this context the lazy garden bio‐innovation placed an emphasis on
642 production processes (ways of making an agro‐forest or complex home garden) as much as on
643 individual products. Innovations of this sort are important for poverty reduction but would
644 benefit from better use of existing market channels for niche products. The system of
645 innovation framework with its analytical tools for understanding shifts from protected socio‐
646 technical niches to market niches may be helpful in this regard.
647 The institutional dimensions of expanding and stabilizing such an alternative niche would
648 probably have to include some form of place‐based labeling as the overheads for individual
649 farms and products would be extremely difficult to support. The success of the Royal Project
650 with its Doi Kam brand but based on cash crops might also be a model for a more self‐organized
651 and collective enterprise based on environmental sustainable technologies. Another feature
652 that might be exploited is the value of ecosystem services provided by lazy gardens at the
653 landscape level and whether price premiums or other rewards might be based on these.
654 Levels of consumer awareness and the form of popular environmentalism at the national level
655 suggest, however, that landscape factors may not yet be ready for a mature version of the lazy
656 garden niche. There are no obvious windows of opportunity. This suggests the need for more
657 work needs to be done by proponents and allies of alternative niches at the landscape level.
658 Creating pressures at the landscape level may then help trigger some compromises in the
659 current socio‐technical regime – a full scale reconfiguration is highly unlikely. Proponents have
660 used environmentalism in the past with respect to community forests but not as successfully as
661 they anticipated: environmentalism it turns out is something of a double‐edged sword. Forest
662 policy in particular has been very resistant to change. A greater emphasis on social justice and
663 equal opportunity may be more palatable alternative.
664 One lesson is that politics are too central to be ignored. Our findings echo the work of others
665 that have emphasized that politics or questions about who governs a transition among regimes
666 are critical (Smith and Stirling 2010). Different actors frame problems and prioritize
667 sustainability solutions in different ways. In the uplands of northern Thailand knowledge politics
668 have had a huge bearing on policies and wider public perceptions of appropriate upland land‐
Unit for Social and Environmental Research 19
669 uses and their environmental consequences often unfounded or inaccurate (Forsyth and Walker
670 2008). The lazy garden innovation is in part a product of these political tensions.
671 It is worth noting that potentially system transforming innovations like the one studied shares
672 some characteristics with social movements. Philosophical arguments, ideological positioning,
673 collaborative styles of interaction and network‐building all play important roles and may lead to
674 and support cooperation around more issues than individual techniques or particular plants
675 varieties. Future research, therefore, should look more closely at leaders and other change
676 agents and how they use innovations to further wider political and social objectives. At the
677 same time innovations, as they begin to gain traction in wider political discourses, may hold
678 actors in a web of relationships that tend to bring them back in line with the technologies and
679 norms of the incumbent socio‐technical regime. A function of leadership is to expand alliances.
680 It is only through much broader social movement that there is any chance that more
681 fundamental power structures in commercial agriculture regime might be challenged. In this
682 struggle knowledge contests and negotiation can be expected to play an important role.
683 5 Conclusions
684 Lazy gardens are an example of a sustainability experiment that lies between a conservation‐
685 oriented agro‐forestry and home garden niches. Viable niches for upland farms are hard to find
686 in a socio‐technical regime geared towards conventional high‐input agriculture and, in the
687 uplands, policy‐driven land‐use constraints. A few key individuals have had some success in
688 building learning networks and alliances around the experiment. Although the niche is far from
689 becoming a challenge to the regime there is potential that aggregation with other alternative
690 niches could lead to some adjustment or comprises that give more space for livelihood activities
691 of people living in the uplands. The demise of swidden rotational land‐use systems for a variety
692 of reasons including the precepts of socio‐technical regime provides a specific window of
693 opportunity for these alternative niches.
694 6 Acknowledgements
695 This study was financially supported by Canada’s International Development Research Centre
696 under the small grant EBPA‐SGP‐05 under the Enabling Bio‐innovations for Poverty Alleviation in
697 Asia Project led by the Asian Institute of Technology. Thanks to Winyu Jantasorn for artwork
698 and illustrations. Thanks to Patcharawalai Sriyasak, Alisa Arfue and Apichaya Sawadeenarumon
699 for help with field work and data entry. Thanks to Joni Odochao and many other villagers in Mae
700 Win sub‐district for their hospitality and patience. Finally sincere thanks to Rajeswari Sarala
701 Raina, Edsel Sajor and Rajesh Daniel for thoughtful and helpful feedback on early drafts.
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