In northern Thailand refugees from Myanmar (formerly Burma), a country but a Sorng-taa-ou ride away, are at significant risk of trafficking.
Many people associate trafficking exclusively with sex-trafficking but that is just one part of the exploitation and abuse that can occur in this region and others around the world. We must not forget that a significant number of people the world over are trafficked for forced labour, domestic servitude, forced marriages and for other economic, and non-economic, reasons as well as for sex.
The presence of dispute in Myanmar so close to this region of Thailand means that people who are displaced from their homes or who are without money or who are separated from families can all be exploited by unscrupulous people unless strategies are put in place to protect, empower and educate them. Added to this are the hill tribes people with their traditional cultures whose traditions and potentially children, without protection, will disappear. These marginalised ethnic minority people live in villages far from Thailand’s urban centres. Isolated and remote, they often lack clean water, electricity and access to healthcare and education.
This week I’ve been joined by Den Carter, SicKids Head of Communications (for the avoidance of doubt, at personal expense) where we have been learning about strategies to protect vulnerable children and women from exploitation as well as learning about eco-tourism and how responsible visitors can help enhance the lives of the ethnic minority women, the hill tribes people and the elephants in association with whom they live.
We’re staying in a project that is set up to empower, employ and educate Burmese refugees. The project, which is a social development organisation, provides a safe-house, free education and paid vocational training for ethnic minority women at risk of trafficking. The mission of the project is to help these women – all of whom have fled ethnic persecution, political unrest and violent disputes in Myanmar – into the rapidly growing hospitality industry here in northern Thailand. The women learn to read and write, catering, how to manage a guest house and English.
The project supports an organisation called Daughters Rising that aims to prevent trafficking and exploitation through empowerment, employment and education.
By empowering at-risk girls through free education, they learn computer skills, confidence, women’s rights and health in a peer-support environment. Staying in school results in more earning power and the possibility to provide a better scaffold for the rest of the community to avoid the exploitation, abuse and trafficking that would otherwise prey upon them.
By employing women artisans through a community development shop and by buying their handmade crafts at a fair price, with investment of the proceeds back into the next generation of young women, their communities can develop and still maintain the all-important traditional roots that might other wise be snatched away.
By educating at-risk populations about the signs and dangers of trafficking, through out-reach programmes, and by using social media to raise awareness of trafficking here and throughout the world, it is hoped that, over time, the combination of efforts will enable these wonderful communities, with a rich history and fantastic diversity, to flourish safely once more.
The project also shares property with a Thai family-owned elephant camp where a family of 12 elephants live in the jungle around us. Sadly, the growth in elephant tourism often fails to foster a sense of mutual understanding and respect between elephants and humans – instead focussing on “elephant chair riding” and “elephant shows”.
What we’ve been doing is very different.
We awoke at 06:00 to be down by the river by 06:30 for a walk into the Jungle with the elephants. Actually, that’s not quite true – we awoke at 1am, 3am, 4.16am and countless other times where I couldn’t face looking at the clock, to the sound of a somewhat time-confused rooster, but that was all put behind me once I met Watermelon (aged 2 years and 5 months), her Mother (aged 27 years), her Grandmother (aged 45 years) and her cousin, Dee-Dee (aged 5 years).
We spend the day in an early morning walk, with the elephants, through the mist rising out of the Jungle then went down to the river with them as they bathed (and bathed us too!). After a hearty local Thai breakfast we hiked up into the Jungle with one of the local people who took great delight in showing us his village and the traditions that stem from it – including cooking us a really lovely lunch over a campfire. In the afternoon we floated gently back down the river, on bamboo rafts, where we were able to spend the time before dinner with Dee-Dee who was playing in the river. An all together memorable experience and so much better than the bus loads of tourists who, throughout the day, have sadly turned up for painful metal chair-rides on the back of these poor elephants.
By staying here in this project we’ve been able to spend the days getting to know these beautiful animals in a respectful and positive way. These animals would not survive in the wild on their own at the moment – at risk of poaching for their ivory and capture by people who would exploit them, for the present time they are safer living here in this camp in the forest. By bathing with them in the river, by sitting quietly with them watching them go about their daily business in the bamboo scrub and forest around us and by only riding them bareback through the jungle, and only then if they are content to do so, I’ve seen how intelligent these animals are and how, with the right interaction with humans, they have nothing to be afraid of and, although I am no vet, appear to positively enjoy the attention, the space and the interaction in measured doses.
All too often elephants in this area are subjected to bull hooks, heavy metal chairs, painful tusk removal and a 14 hour workday parading tourists around. With little time to eat, baking hot conditions, and exhausting hours, this cannot be a good life for these wonderful animals.
Elephants are forced to live like this because of the tourism industry’s demand for cheap rides and photo opportunities but by changing the demand the abuse can be ended.
The project here aims to create a peaceful home for the elephants where they spend their days grazing in the bamboo forest, cooling down with baths in the river and going for leisurely walks in the jungle. It aims to change the tourist demand for cruel and outdated elephant exploitation so that the animals can, once again, be fully respected as the wise and graceful pachyderms that they are.
The striking similarities between the fate of the elephants a few metres away from where I’m sat typing this in my tree house and the fate that would have faced the women who are a few metres the other side of that tree house are not lost on me. I can’t help but think of the similarities between the project needed to change the way that communities and visitors here view elephants, and the project needed both here and back at home in the UK to change the way that communities view children and young people who live within them.
Projects like this one that I’m staying at will genuinely help to empower and educate people who would otherwise have an almost certain fate including trafficking and exploitation.
I only hope that the fate of the elephants can also be secured in the future so that these intelligent, majestic and beautiful creatures can live the long lives they were intended to live, content in their natural surroundings, with mutual respect and understanding between them, their mahoots and the other humans that might come into contact with them.
With big smiles from our host Nookun (who came here from Myanmar 8 weeks ago) and snorts (at least I think they were snorts) from the elephants in the darkness behind me, I bid you good night!