Subsistence and Commercial Activities. The Hmong economy is based on the integrated cultivation of dry rice, maize, and opium poppy as a cash crop. Rice forms the staple diet in most of Southeast Asia, where maize is primarily used as animal fodder, but in southern China and at higher elevations the cultivation of rice for subsistence is replaced by that of maize, millet, or buckwheat. Hunting and gathering play subsidiary parts in the economy, while the domestic husbandry of pigs and chickens provides the main source of protein. In certain areas the Hmong have surrendered the shifting cultivation of dry rice in favor of intensive irrigated rice cultivation on permanent terraced fields laboriously constructed on the flanks of mountains.
Maize and poppy form an integrated cycle because they can be planted successively in the same fields. Maize is usually planted in the fifth or sixth month, after the rice has been planted, and it is harvested in the eighth or ninth month, allowing opium poppy to be planted in the same fields for harvest after the New Year, at the end of the twelfth month. Forests must be burned off for the shifting cultivation of dry rice early in the year, and dried out before rice can be dibbled in the fields fertilized by the nitrogenous ashes. While rice fields can only be used for two to three years, maize fields can be continually replanted for some eight years. It has been argued that the increasing overpopulation of the hill areas of Thailand has led to increases in the length of time the same parcel of land is kept under cultivation, resulting in declining rice yields that force the Hmong to produce opium as a cash crop to buy rice from lowland traders. Opium is the best crop to grow because it adapts well to harsh soil conditions and there is a ready market for it. Many Hmong families are indebted to traders (who tend to be of Yunnanese origin) for their rice, and so must continue to produce opium in order to survive.
Industrial Arts. The Hmong do not produce their own pottery, but are famous for their silverwork, and in most villages there are blacksmiths specializing in the production of farming tools and weapons. Chinese silversmiths also often are employed; there are no full-time craft specialists among the Hmong. Women, however, spend a large proportion of their time spinning, weaving, and embroidering hemp and cotton in the intricate needlework of traditional Hmong clothing.
Trade. The most significant trading activity is that of opium for cash or rice. This takes place on an individual household basis, with organized paramilitary groups whose representatives visit villages on a regular basis, through itinerant traders who travel to the villages after the opium harvest to make their purchases, or through the medium of shopkeepers settled in the villages. There are no full-scale regional markets among the Hmong communities, although individual Hmong may visit lowland markets occasionally to make important purchases and sometimes to sell forest products or vegetables.
Division of Labor. There is no full-time occupational specialization in traditional Hmong society, all adult members of which are farmers. Individuals, however, may specialize as wedding go-betweens, blacksmiths, or funeral specialists. The most prestigious specialization is that of the shaman, whose duties are to cure illness and prevent misfortune. The main division of labor in agricultural work is between men and women. Women take most of the responsibility for housework and child care but also play a crucial part in agricultural activities. Child labor is also important in agricultural work.
Land Tenure. As traditional shifting cultivators, the Hmong have, in general, lacked permanent titles to land and, often, citizenship rights in the countries in which they are settled. Attempts have been made by the Thai government to encourage permanent settlement by issuing land-use certificates, but these remain limited. However, in some areas where the Hmong have turned to permanent forms of rice agriculture, they have obtained land-use rights. In general, land-use rights in shifting cultivation belong to the one who first clears the land, and lapse after an indeterminate period of noncultivation.