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An education rooted in two worlds: the Karen of northern Thailand


  • Joni Odochao was born in 1946 in a Karen village in northern Thailand. He did not receive formal schooling until the age of 17. Elected headman of his village, he became actively involved in community forest management campaigns. Always confident in Karen wisdom, he has served as an advisor and resource person for several non-governmental organisations, as well as government agencies and universities. He has been instrumental in developing local curricula for hill tribe people to sustain their traditional culture.

  • Douglas Nakashima has been a staff member with UNESCO's Natural Sciences Sector since 1996. He currently heads the UNESCO project on “Local and Indigenous Knowledge Systems” which addresses the role of local knowledge holders in biodiversity management, and works to enhance indigenous knowledge transmission in local communities. He has worked in the indigenous knowledge field for over 20 years. Prior to joining UNESCO, his work focused on the knowledge, practice, and worldviews of Canadian Inuit with respect to their arctic environment. In his subsequent work with the Cree First Nations of sub-Arctic James Bay (Canada) brought indigenous knowledge holders into environmental and social impact assessment processes.

  • Chayan Vaddhanaphuti was born in 1943 in Chiang Mai Province, Thailand. He received his PhD in 1984 in international development education and anthropology from Stanford University (USA). He served as Director of the Social Research Institute at Chiang Mai University for eight years and chaired the Northern Development Foundation, an NGO that strengthens the roles of local communities in resource management. He is currently Director of the Regional Centre for Social Science and Sustainable Development of Chiang Mai University.


In Karen culture, the family is traditionally the basic unit for the education of the child. In the early 1970s, when Jonni Odochao began to notice that children could not relate to their elders or respect them, he surmised that the problem stemmed from the modern education system and its increasing influence upon youth values, behaviour and ways of thinking. To counter this trend he set in place a two-pronged strategy. Inspired by an old Karen saying, a wide-ranging alliance of persons with complementary expertise was established to advocate legislative change. In addition, Karen culture was reflected upon and revived by integrating traditional knowledge into the curricula of local schools. For the Karen, the ultimate goal is to be better understood by the society at large and to re-establish their role as guardians of the forest.