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Spirits of the Yellow Leaves

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Inhabiting the remote hill country west of Nan, the population of about three hundred Mrabri represent the last remnants of nomadic hunter-gatherers in Thailand, though their way of life is rapidly passing. Believing that spirits would be angered if the tribe settled in one place, grew crops or kept animals, the Mrabri traditionally built only temporary shelters of branches and wild banana leaves, moving on to another spot in the jungle as soon as the leaves turned yellow; thus they earned their poetic Thai name, Phi Tong Luang – “Spirits of the Yellow Leaves”. They eked out a hard livelihood from the forest, hunting with spears, trapping birds and small mammals, digging roots and collecting nuts, seeds and honey.

In recent decades, however, deforestation by logging and slash-and-burn farming has eaten into the tribe’s territory, and the Mrabri were forced to sell their labour to Hmong and Mien farmers, often under slave-like conditions. But in the last few years, salvation for many Mrabri has come in the form of weaving hammocks: foreign visitors noticed their skill at making string bags out of jungle vines and helped them to set up a small-scale hammock industry. The hammocks are now exported to countries around the world, and the Mrabri weavers have the benefits of education, free healthcare and an unemployment fund.

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