Subsistence and Commercial Activities. The dominant aspect of Kmhmu life is the cultivation of dry rice in swidden fields on mountain slopes. Traditionally they practice a sustainable swidden system in which fields are cleared, burned, and planted for one or two years, then left to regenerate as long as possible—ideally a dozen years or so. Where the land available for a village's cultivation is restricted by terrain or the proximity of other villages, it may be necessary to practice a shorter cycle, requiring longer use of a field and shorter periods of regeneration. This results in rapid depletion of the soil and requires villagers to seek fields farther from the home village. Governmental efforts in recent years have been directed toward sedentarization, discouragement of swidden agriculture, and the introduction of irrigated rice agriculture; these efforts have had only mixed success where they have not indeed been harmful. The sloping swidden fields are not plowed but planted with a dibble or planting stick. Maize, legumes, gourds and squash, taro and yams, chili peppers, eggplants, and herbs are sown among the rice plants. Pigs, water buffalo, goats, chickens, and ducks are kept for meat or eggs. A large part of the traditional diet, especially during the season when new fields are being planted and rice stocks are depleted, is filled by plants gathered in the forests and by fish, birds, and small game captured with nets, snares, and crossbows.
Industrial Arts. Kmhmu are well known to their neighbors as specialists in the crafting of baskets of all kinds, snares, and traps, all of bamboo. Women in some regions spin cotton and weave small shoulder bags using a backstrap loom, but in general Kmhmu are not known for textiles and have no broadcloth weaving. Clothing was traditionally acquired from neighboring Tai peoples, and is now most likely to be mass-produced in Western style. In certain regions Kmhmu may practice blacksmithing of knives, swords, and agricultural implements, or may make jewelry, but these are not prominent traditions.
Trade. Kmhmu live in close proximity to other ethnic groups and engage in frequent, albeit small-scale, trade with their neighbors. These trade relations are symbolized in certain ritual exchanges incorporated into court ceremonies, where Kmhmu provide beeswax, resins, stick 1ac, honey, and other products gathered in the forests, in exchange for metal goods, cloth, and industrial products. In China and northwestern Laos, Kmhmu controlled several salt mines and engaged in trade with others wanting this precious commodity. Historical accounts also describe Kmhmu as providing rice to their lowland neighbors, the Lao or Tai.
Division of Labor. There are few daily tasks that are restricted to one gender; under circumstances of necessity almost any task can be performed by either gender. Tasks associated with men are hunting and trapping, felling trees, blacksmithing, and long-distance trade that requires sleeping away from the village. Tasks associated with women are planting rice, carrying water, gathering forest plants, feeding animals, and trade with nearby villages. Both men and women perform most agricultural tasks of clearing brush, cultivating, weeding, harvesting, and carrying; either may cook, although men are said to be better and are responsible for butchering large animals. Child care is generally women's work, although men frequently carry their infants.
Land Tenure. The land surrounding a village is generally recognized by others as belonging to that village. Rights of usufruct ensure that those who have cleared a field and cultivated it have the right to its use in the future. The historical primacy of the Kmhmu is acknowledged by the Lao and other Tai groups in court rituals in which they pay tribute to the Kmhmu as the ancestral owners of the territory. Decades of war and the Socialist economic system of the Lao People's Democratic Republic led to massive dislocations and to collectivization efforts, both of which disrupted traditional land-tenure relations. More recently, efforts to sedentarize Kmhmu and discourage swidden agriculture have also changed the bases of land tenure.