Aid Projects

Permaculture and Refugees part 4

Inspiration from Northern Thailand

As I have been exploring in previous articles (1, 2, 3), permaculture can be very useful in situations of displaced humans such as refugee and internally displaced person camps. This can be through applying permaculture design in practical techniques such as rainwater harvesting in refugee camps, but also, perhaps more fundamentally, in helping to shift our perceptions of these kind of situations, with the aim of transitioning towards more holistic and perhaps even regenerative ways of organising people together, regardless of whether they have official papers or not.

For this article, I have been lucky enough to interview Lisa Nesser, who among other things is the founder of Thai Freedom House (4) in Chiang Mai, Thailand, so I will focus specifically on the refugee situation in this part of the world, and the work which Lisa is doing to assist those who find themselves in a situation where they are classified as refugees or migrants.


Refuge As A Legal Right…Or Not

According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), there are currently 70.8 million people around the world who have moved involuntarily from their homes (5); or, as the UNHCR classifies them, “forcibly displaced people” (5). Of these, only 25.9 million are classified as refugees, i.e. people who have escaped from their homeland to seek refuge in a different country; whereas 41.3 million are classified as internally displaced people, or IDPs (5). Though so-called IDPs are usually in the same kind of situation as refugees and their classification recognises this, people in such situations have no protection from the UN as they have not crossed an international border (6). This means that people in IDP situations cannot receive international aid (6) so they have less resources provided for them from outside organisations. They are also arguably in more danger as the only government which the UN recognises as having power over them is the very one which is causing the problems from which they flee (6).


Seeking Refuge In Thailand

David Clode

There are currently 9 official refugee camps (7) and 6 Internally-Displaced Persons (IDP) camps (8) on the Thai-Myanmar border, which were initially set up as ‘temporary’ settlements for people escaping conflict in Myanmar, around 1984 (7, 8). Over thirty years later, the camps are still here and still home to almost 100,000 people (7, 8), mainly ethnic minorities from the Karen and Karenni states (in the refugee camps along the Western border of Thailand) (7) and Shan state (along the North-Western border of Thailand) (8). Since 1995, residents in the camps have been strictly confined, being prohibited to leave the camps or even to grow their own food; meaning they became increasingly dependent on outside aid. This means that many of the camps’ inhabitants have never left their ‘temporary’ homes.

In addition to those living in camps, there are around 3 million migrant workers in Thailand, an estimated 80% of whom are also from states within the ‘official’ country of Myanmar (7).


The Need To Learn Holistically

Lisa Nesser has been working with refugees since she was a high school student in St. Louis, Missouri, USA, inspired by her uncle, who ran their family business and had accepted many of the influx of Bosnian refugees who were arriving in the town at that time (9). After studying photography at university she decided to document life in refugee camps to raise awareness of what is happening there. However, on her first visit, to a Tibetan refugee camp in Karnataka state of India, she realised that the main thing the inhabitants wanted was education (9).

“Everyone was asking for a teacher” (9), she says, and, responding to this need, she decided to return to the USA to get a degree in education. Having achieved this, she helped to set up a library and teacher training centre in the Tibetan refugee camps.  Once these were self-sustainable, Lisa then came to Thailand, around 15 years ago, to volunteer at an orphanage for people mainly of Shan descent. Based in Mae Hong Son she was so close to the border with Myanmar that “you could hear the shells at night” (9).

As mentioned, the Shan people are usually classified as IDPs as their camps are technically just within the border of Myanmar (8). Arguably, the fact that they do not receive much outside aid means that they are perhaps more innovative than those who are dependent upon the UN and other organisations and, if people living within such situations can find motivation and hope, they can create resilient communities.

For example, the head of the orphanage Lisa was staying in set up an organic garden (9). This was used as a key part of the children’s education, as well as providing them with a varied and healthy diet, and, perhaps crucially, a degree of autonomy and choice which could probably help with their mental as well as physical wellbeing (9). This inclusion of holistic thinking was an inspiration to Nesser and she continues to strive for holistic solutions in all of her work to this day.


The Art of Bringing Freedom

In 2005, Nesser founded Thai Freedom House (TFH) (4) in Chiang Mai to provide such holistic education. Since her first experience of working in Thailand was with Shan people, establishing connections with the Shan community was easy or her, and the centre now has a well-established reputation within this community, so that new arrivals are usually directed to the centre (9). TFH provides education in those skills which Nesser felt would be beneficial for people in such situations to learn. This includes language classes in Shan, Thai, Burmese and English; she encourages new arrivals, the fast majority of whom are illiterate, to begin by studying reading and writing in Shan since they already speak it, which can help them to gain confidence slowly (9).

As well as language education, Thai Freedom House provides health education with things like family planning and doula services (4, 9). One of the things that those who come to Thai Freedom House as students are perhaps missing is an ability to express their own story. As Nesser points out, freedom of information does not exist in Myanmar, especially when it comes to talking about the conflict, and many people who find themselves in situations where they could seek asylum or refugee status simply don’t realise they have any rights, because what they have been experiencing has been going on for so long that it just seems ‘normal’ (9). Thai Freedom House can help people to make sense of their own situations and express themselves, through creative classes such art therapy, music, dancing, drama and photography. They also provide training in Shan traditional skills as part of the Shan Cultural Preservation Society (10), to help to maintain cultural connections with their homeland.


Circular Economy

Free Bird Cafe and the circular economy
Photograph by Charlotte Ashwanden

Though Nesser is providing services to people who cannot pay, she has never considered asking for outside aid, but, using true permaculture thinking, prefers to set up reciprocal economic systems for self-sufficiency. To this end she founded Free Bird Cafe (11), a vegan restaurant, which opened in 2009 (9). 100% of the profits from the restaurant go to TFH and Nesser also uses it for hospitality and sustainable social enterprise training for the staff (9).

Continuing the circular economy, Free Bird Cafe also now houses two different shops. Free Bird Pre-Loved (12) is a second-hand clothing and household goods store, whose profits go to redistributing those items which are not sold in the shop to those at the border who are in need of them. My Best Life CNX is the first zero-waste store to open in Chiang Mai, selling cleaning products, foods like oil and vinegar, cakes and snacks, and other items which are all produced and sold with no packaging at all. Customers bring their own containers and fill them up. All profits from My Best Life CNX go to a scholarship fund for TFH’s students to attend universities (9).


Permaculture = Healing

Though all projects may seem diverse, they are all created with a central aim; that of healing (9). To Nesser, healing of people is achieved through serving clean and healthy plant-based food to help physical health. TFH’s services help with healing the trauma suffered by those who use them. The second-hand shop and zero waste store are directly contributing to environmental healing; which in turn can be said to be healing everyone in the world, psychologically and physically.

It is this continued dedication to paying attention to the bigger picture which seems such a key part of Nesser’s success. In Northern Thailand, the need for healing of earth and people is in some places all too apparent. Nesser’s work continues to be an inspiration to those wishing to heal in other places too.



1.  Ashwanden, C, 2015. ‘Human Permaculture: Looking at Migration as Flow to Solve Problems’. Permaculture News, 11/9/15.

2.  Ashwanden, C, 2015. ‘Permaculture and Refugees part 1: Turning ‘problems into solutions’ in marginalised communities’. Permaculture News, 25/8/19.

3.  Ashwanden, C, 2015. ‘Permaculture and Refugees part 2: An Interview with Rosemary Morrow’. Permaculture News, 25/8/19.

4.  Thai Freedom House, 2019. ‘About Us’.

5.  UNHCR, 2019. ‘Figures at a Glance’.

6.  Wilson, E, 2015. ‘Refugee or IDP – What’s the Difference?’ Preemptive Love, 20/1/15.

7.  Burma Link, 2019. ‘Refugee Camps in Thailand’.

8.  Calvet, J, 2019. ‘Life in the Border: The Forgotten IDPs in Southern Shan State’. Heinrich Boell Stiftung, 29/8/19.

9.  Ashwanden, C, 2019. Interview with Lisa Nesser, 21/11/19.

10.  Thai Freedom House, 2019. ‘Shan Cultural Preservation Project’.

11.  Facebook, 2019. ‘Free Bird Cafe’.

12.  Facebook, 2019. ‘Free Bird Pre-Loved’.

13.  Facebook, 2019. ‘My Best Life CNX’.

Charlotte Ashwanden

Charlotte Ashwanden (nee Haworth). Born in London, I am very interested in peace and community and have a degree in Peace Studies. I got my Permaculture Design Certificate in 2011, from Treeyo at Permaship in Bulgaria, and my Permaculture Teaching Certificate in 2018 at Aranya in India. For me, permaculture is about so much more than garden design; I am mainly interested in applying ‘human permaculture’ as a complement to peace practices. In particular, I like to look at how human permaculture can be applied through psychology, communication and education techniques. In 2015 I got married in a pagan ceremony in a field to David Ashwanden and changed my surname to Ashwanden. With my husband, I’ve travelled a lot in Europe and Asia and encountered many permaculture and community projects. I have lived in various situations, from squatted land to intentional communities, as well as more ‘normal’ places, in the UK, Spain, Italy, Thailand and Vietnam. A professional dancer, I do fire and hula dance and sometimes run dance meditation workshops. Currently, I live in the Andalucian mountains.

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