The Mlabri are one of the smallest ethnic groups living in Thailand, numbering about 400 people. In a period of about twenty years they made a transition from nomadic hunter-gatherer communities living in the forest to a sedentary lifestyle in permanent settlements. They experienced rapid social change when encountering the modern world.

Until the 1990s the Mlabri lived a nomadic life mainly in forested areas. They lived in mobile units staying in one place for about five to ten days and subsisted largely on hunting, gathering, and digging activities in the forest. They had limited relations with other ethnic groups living in the mountains, but would sometimes exchange forest products for consumer items such as salt, steel, tobacco, clothes, pigs, rice etc. and occasionally, were hired through exploitative, short-term labor arrangements in which they worked for food and clothing as laborers on the farms of Hmong and northern Thai living nearby. Their traditional lifestyle continued until the 1970s but has gradually changed since then because of deforestation due to agricultural expansion, logging, and road construction.

Day labor became more important for survival as the natural resources that the Mlabri depended on decreased dramatically; the forest was exploited by lumber companies and by ethnic groups who engaged in swidden agriculture. In the late 1990s state-led initiatives introduced a sedentary lifestyle to the Mlabri, bringing them in places near already settled Hmong communities, and encouraging them to start cultivating their own rice and corn fields.

Today, they live in five permanent settlements in the Nan and Phrae provinces, engaging in wage labor, cash crop cultivation and ethnic tourism. Traditional hunting and gathering activities still continue, but on a minimal scale (about 7% of their food source) and are restricted by access to already rare and over-hunted forest areas, which are under the control of the Thai government.

In 2001 the Mlabri gained formal recognition through citizenship and ID cards with presumed birthdates for individuals born before 1998, and the actual registered birthdates for those born after. Citizenship provided them with access to health and nutritional services at government facilities and children started attending school. Authorities carried out different programs in education, public hygiene, and occupational training, including cultivating cash crops and livestock farming. Traditional, animistic beliefs still remain, but new faiths and activities were also introduced through Christian and Buddhist missions.

- Sascha Richter

I am a documentary photographer based in Berlin, Germany, working mostly on self-assigned, independent long-term projects. In early 2015 I graduated from Humboldt University of Berlin, where I studied Southeast Asia studies and Philosophy, turning towards photography after that. My work has been published in ZEKE Magazine, The Diplomat, Asia Times, The News Lens and Dodho Magazine among others and has been exhibited in group and solo exhibitions in the USA, Australia, Greece, India, Ireland and the UK.

Since the Fall of 2016 I am focussing on a personal long-term project about the ethnic minority societies in the highlands of the Southeast Asian Massif region (Zomia), extending across parts of Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Thailand, Myanmar, China, and India entitled “Mountainland”.

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