29 September 2008

"Our Life is the Land"

    I see ducklings following mama duck, green fruits hanging overhead, chickens picking at leftover rice husks; piles of composting coconut shells. Buffalo snort from the stable next door, the smell of cooking chicken saturates the air, and coconut and banana trees intertwine in the canopy above us. I walk humbled and welcomed into my home-stay at Day-lang-thai village in Surin Province, Thailand. We, CIEE-Thailand students, have come to learn and live the ways of villagers who practice traditional small-scale farming. Day-lang-thai and two neighboring villages compose a part of the small organic farming movement in Thailand. The movement urges farming communities to revert back to sustainable, organic, and integrated agriculture in rejection of the dominant form in Thailand, which is mono-cropping and heavy chemical input farming. This organic lifestyle creates communities that value sustainability and community. CIEE students came to Surin to learn what the farmers’ bold direction means for their livelihood, their communities, and their future.

    What I see as I enter my host-family’s yard immediately indicates their diverse forms of livelihood. Our family raises ducks for their eggs, which they eat and sell at the market, raises buffalo, raises silk worms for silk production, farms rice and mills it in their own community rice mill, sells produce from their gardens at the market, and sells their recyclables for compensation. They depend on the land for a living, and instead of abusing and controlling it, they seek ways to work in harmony with it. While they used to farm rice like the majority of farmers in Thailand now, who grow only one crop and use chemical fertilizers in search of higher yields, my family switched to organic agriculture ten years ago with the hope of getting out of debt and increasing personal and environmental health. Now they are fully dedicated to sustainable agriculture and are consequently healthier, happier, and out of debt. In becoming self-sufficient, they no longer have to rely on the government or companies for any outside inputs to their farm. They fertilize their rice fields and gardens with a combination of buffalo manure, chicken feces, and food compost instead of chemical fertilizers. Not relying on outside inputs additionally cuts out the middle man in the rice farming production operation and instead places production and marketing directly in the farmers’ hands. Rainwater naturally irrigates their fields, and they let the beauty of integrated agriculture unfold in the rice paddies. By removing chemical fertilizer and allowing nature to take its course, an ecological balance restores the rice paddies: fish breed, providing nutrients to the soil and controlling pests. Planting certain flower species in the paddies is another natural means to improve soil quality.

    Through experiencing their lives first hand and having exchanges with organic farmers and NGOs in Surin, I learned that communities who work naturally with the land foster strong community bonds. Villagers create networks to support each other and share knowledge about farming techniques and consumer outlets. My family let fellow villagers use their rice mill free of charge, and families in the village often shared food supplies and had joint meals. Through organic farming domestic families remain more intact compared to families who practice mono-cropping, as well. Chemical farming necessitates expensive chemical inputs and hired labor that, over the long-term, generally forces the farmer into debts which he/she cannot repay. To pay off the debt the farmers will sell their land and migrate to urban areas so sell their labor. In these cases the middle generation—ages 18-35—migrate to the cities, causing a major generation gap. Families that farm sustainably, however, have a more varied and self-sufficient livelihood and thus generate less debt, allowing their families to remain more intact than their mono-cropping counterparts.

    In learning about organic agriculture in Surin Provice and other issues throughout the semester, CIEE-Thailand students work through our own community framework to access the knowledge we desire. The program terms this alternative learning model the “group process”, which places education directly into students’ hands. Our main venue for learning during the home-stays is through “exchanges”, where we literally have an informational and educational exchange with an organization, company, or community. While we stayed with villagers in pairs in Surin, we came together as a group of 25 students during the days to plan these exchanges: we brainstormed issues together, generated themes that developed into questions and organized the format and flow of the exchanges. “Unit facilitators” facilitate the unit to lead our planning sessions and facilitate the actual exchanges. In this learning forum the group becomes a vehicle for education—we present ourselves as an organized unit to our teachers, who are themselves organized within a larger movement. Our group process continually grows and evolves—it is a powerful tool where we constantly learn how to negotiate relations with others and learn about ourselves in how we interact within the larger group. I believe we are learning invaluable skills which we will carry with us into our professional and personal lives. We have a rare and rewarding opportunity to drive our own educational experience.

Ellie Jones - Macalester College

28 September 2008

Confessions of a Shopaholic

I have a confession to make: I am a shopaholic! I am a compulsive, impulsive, reckless, irresponsible shopper. That, however, is not even my worst trait. I over pack to the point of obsession: cat ears for the costume party, sequin shirts for ANY event, 100 shirts (just in case!), and the list goes on.

I decided, though, that packing for Thailand was my opportunity to work on this character flaw. In an effort to improve I came to Thailand with a meager suitcase, two duffel bags, a backpack, and laptop carrying case; all necessities in my opinion.

Aside from developing better packing habits, though, Thailand has taught me more than I can ever express. The home stays, in particular, have been humbling and enlightening. While the villagers may have little, their capacity for love, unending generosity, and infinite spirit have changed me in a way that I will forever cherish.

These home stays offer countless humbling experiences, but the best example comes from my last home stay. Five nights and six days and I was captured. I was ready to call home to tell my parents that I was staying indefinitely in a rural village in Surin. The goal of staying in this village was to learn and experience organic and sustainable farming practices; more valuable, though, than learning about agriculture was what I learned about the human spirit.

My home stay family was very involved in silk weaving, as were most of the other families in the village. Each day, I would walk across the street to the silk house where I was encouraged to participate in each step of the silk progression. I was so excited – I had found fashion is a rural village in Thailand! From helping feed the silk worms, to removing the silk worms’ cocoons from wicker baskets, I quickly began to realize how much work and effort goes into the garments that I have taken for granted. Fashion is not simply a finished garment.

Silk weaving, though, is not the only task for these women. The women of this village have many and varied jobs ranging from tending the rice fields to selling goods at the markets, and despite the work they never complain. The tasks were tended to with a smile and a fervent tenacity. Their happiness in the simple things humbled me beyond compare. The silk weaving house became my heaven on earth, my paradise as I marveled at what these women accomplished every single day. On one of my days in the home stay, I walked over to the silk weaving house. One of the women was working alone at the loom creating a length of silk cloth. As I watched her, she started speaking in Thai.

“Mai cow jhai, I don’t understand,” I said, shaking my head. Undeterred, she rose from her seat at the loom and motioned for me to sit down. I shook my head again, “My chai khab kun ka, No but thank you,” there was no way I was ruining her length of silk. ‘No,’ however was not an option and soon I was sitting with my feet placed on the pedals of the loom (not unlike piano pedals), pushing and pulling at the loom to create this length of silk. After a while, I got up to leave, thanking her in the process. It was only then that I noticed she had placed a needle on the silk cloth to mark the place where I had begun. As I walked away, thrilled with my experience, I grasped the importance of that needle. That needle was a marker for my work (heartfelt, but inexperienced) and a marker of how far back she would have to undo the silk cloth.

How can these women have so little and give so much – literally sharing everything with me so that I may learn? I am not saying that this experience has changed my entire persona (I still love to shop!), but it has given me a new perspective. I can’t keep stressing the small things, I need to be more willing to not only learn but to teach, and I can only hope that I do so with half the strength and character demonstrated by these women.

Natacha Petersen - Claremont McKenna College

22 September 2008

Fair Trade - Human Connection

Staring mindlessly at a world politics book, I am easily distracted by the clanking of coffee cups and the gentle patter of the rain. During a minor lapse in focus, I look up at the vibrant photographs of Columbian women laboring over fair trade coffee beans that have somehow made their way into my cup. In a trendy cafe in downtown Boulder, Colorado, the words “fair trade” grace my lips for a quick moment before I return to the manic life of a college student during finals week.

It is near midnight, and I am up late researching in the student activity room in Khon Kaen, Thailand. I recently signed up to interview a leader of an NGO in Surin Province, and I need to understand the nature of fair trade rice. While I can barely keep my eyes open, really want to ask somewhat informed questions, so I press on while I still have Internet access. We will leave for Surin in the morning.

I am excited and curious as I sit in my chair, pen set to take copious notes. Thanya Sangubon, also known as P’Nok, looks earnestly at our group of 25 CIEE students. She is the leader of Surin Farmer Support (SFS), an NGO that works to encourage local farmers to develop and maintain sustainable, organic, integrated farms.

Passionate and convicted, she explains that most farmers in Thailand send their rice to big mills, where they sell their rice for a low price, and then they return home without knowledge of whose mouths they are feeding. After the rice is packaged, the rice is distributed around the country, and mill receives the money. When the farmers sell the rice during harvest season, jasmine rice floods the market, so the farmers only get a maximum of 14 baht/kilo. Large corporate mills like CP give the farmers even less if the rice isn’t of premium quality.

Through the year, the global market fluctuates. During harvest season in November, the price of rice is low, since rice is abundant in Thailand. However, through the year, the price of rice rises steadily, and when farmers run out of their personal stock, they are forced to purchase rice for as much as 25 baht/kilo. This sends farmers, who already spend exorbitant amounts of money on inputs like chemical fertilizers and pesticides, further into debt.

Surin has a very different process of producing rice. The local, organic farmers own shares in Rice Fund, the local cooperative mill. As prices rise and fall through the year, the farmers directly profit from purchases. Rice Fund has importers all over Europe and in San Francisco, which makes rice farming profitable for traditional Thai farmers. SFS supports members of rice fund, encouraging farmers to grow other vegetables and sell locally to make other sources of income. With the organic model of rice farming, the farmers don’t spend very much money on inputs, since they have cows to make fertilizer and the integrated method of farming deters pests and produces excess food.

Fair trade rice production supports farmers who want to maintain their traditional livelihood and practices as farmers. In the rice market, it promotes sustainable, organic agriculture, while promoting awareness of the farmer’s movement. It also brings consumers and producers together, eliminating the middleman as much as possible. It “creates a relationship between people, to create peace in society,” P’Nok further explains. Fair trade helps people understand the issues others are facing around the world.

Back in my apartment in Khon Kaen, I appreciate the fruits my life has offered me. Contrary to the actual act of fair trade, I am neither buying fair trade rice nor eating the delicious organic produce that I ate in Surin last week. However, I do feel empowered. I know that I can be more aware of where my food comes from and help create a process that encourages better standards of food production and helps people. For me, fair trade isn’t a kind of purchase you can make, it is an understanding of how fellow human beings want to live, and supporting them.
Lyndia McGauhey - University of Colorado at Boulder

Building Community - One Vegetable at a Time

Organic farming. Natural farming. Sustainable farming. Perhaps you might find these words on the chalkboard in a university level agricultural class, but in Surin, Thailand they’re starting a little earlier.

Surin is in the Northeast region of Thailand, which is home to 2/3 of the Thai population and is also the poorest region in the country. There are a number of people’s movements that have taken shape in this region in response to oppressive government policies. One such movement is the local, organic and small-scale sustainable farm movement in Surin. Last week, our group had the opportunity to stay in a number of villages in Surin where leaders in this movement live. I was fortunate enough to stay with P’Pakpoom, an enthusiastic, outspoken and dedicated supporter of this movement.

P’Pakpoom is a member of an NGO based in Surin called Surin Farmer’s Support (SFS). SFS works to support sustainable agriculture and community development. One way that SFS is trying to achieve this goal is through educating younger kids in the community about organic and sustainable agriculture. P’Pakpoom, along with other Surin farmers and members of SFS, started teaching 10-12 year olds in the village elementary school, words such as organic, sustainable, pesticides, and chemicals in both Thai and English. They also teach the students crab, fish, snail, worm and other vocabulary pertinent to the natural environment around Surin.
To supplement the classroom learning, the farmers take the students out to their farms to experience life on the farm. I felt a sense of boredom in the classroom – as I’m sure many of us have, especially in 3rd grade – but once we got out to P’Pakpoom’s farm, the mood changed. The kids were so excited to be out on the farm. Smiles abounding, it was quite inspiring to see these farmers giving and receiving so much joy for what they feel so strongly about.

A very real issue in Surin is “the generation gap”. Looking around the village, it is hard to overlook the fact that there are no kids our age. Most of these kids are leaving the villages for Bangkok and the opportunity to make some money in the big city. The problem with this situation is that these small-scale farms and the sustainable communities that they are trying to protect need people to continue this way of life into the future.

Every year, students on the CIEE – Thailand program discuss this issue with villagers. When posed with this question, P’Pakpoom quickly responds by citing the school visit that I was lucky enough to go on. “The goal is to educate the younger generation so they realize they don’t need to go to Bangkok to be happy.”

Along with this local school program, SFS also facilitates a program called Kids Love Nature. Instead of teaching students in the classroom, Kids Love Nature involves a more experience-based model for learning. Every Sunday, the villagers take students out to a local community forest to teach them the local knowledge of the forest. Our group walked around the forest with a number of students in Kids Love Nature to gather fruits, vegetables, and herbs that are used for both eating and medicinal purposes. The students also use the goods they collect in the forest as a source of income to help support the club.

It was quite a humbling experience. To be guided around a forest by someone nearly half your age and shown that you could eat this berry, or that this leaf provided medicinal benefits really made me think about what I know about my own environment and how I should work to change that.

In conclusion, the last week in Surin opened my eyes to a whole new approach to community building. Not only are these farmers working within themselves to promote organic agriculture but they also realize that it takes all members of the community to truly build a community. And I feel that through these educational programs, they are building a bridge between the past and the future that will preserve this amazing community.

Spencer Masterson - University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

Surin Green Market - Community Pride

The corpse sits at my feet. I hover over it, my hands dirty, and wonder how this all happened. I'm a humanist, I think. A vegetarian, even. So how did I get here?

A few days ago, as I struggled to fall asleep during the never-ending drive to Surin, where I would be spending five nights with a rural Thai family, I rummaged through my backpack, until I landed on my copy of the foolproof CIEE Thailand Fall 2008 program guide. If I can't sleep, I thought, I might as well reread the schedule for the Food Unit, and prepare for the week ahead. For Friday afternoon, the schedule reads, "Return to the village and help your family prepare goods for the Green Market." This market, I've learned from readings and lectures, allows for organic farming families in Surin, like the one with which I'd be staying, to sell their home-grown produce and home-made treats to residents of Surin City every Saturday morning.

It is now Friday evening, and here I am, with my host family's "goods" before me, cursing my program guide, which never mentioned sitting around a fire, de-feathering chickens with my new Thai mom, dad, and 14-year-old sister, Jem. With only one month of Thai class under my belt, I'm still not sure how to say, "Listen, guys, I don't even feel comfortable eating chicken, so I feel kinda weird handling dead ones." I conclude that plucking is really my only option. And so, with three fellow CIEE students plucking away alongside me, I decide to take the plunge, and prove myself to my host family.

The following morning, having washed my hands post-plucking with only cool rain water and something that might have been dish soap, I wake up at four, and catch a ride to the market in a neighbor's pick-up truck, while my host dad stays behind at the house to work, and my host sister and mom drive the family's motorbike. When I am reunited with the women at the Green Market, I see that we'll be selling much more than chicken, passion fruit, ginger and beans.
Apparently I was deemed worthy enough to de-feather chickens, but was left in the dark when the family picked the guava, peppers, bananas and leafy greens that are now on display at my host family's stall. Seeing all this produce, and the fish and chicken my host mom is busy grilling on location, I realize just how much work my host family must put into this market week after week. And, of course, they do it all with a smile, eager to sell their organic, fresh, and delicious goods to their middle-class, health-conscious neighbors in Surin City.

As I watch Jem sell her family's produce, while my host mom sits by the grill, trusting that her young daughter is capable of handling the business end of the operation, I discover that the Green Market is about much more than just extra pocket money for my family, chemical-free produce for urban consumers, and the cultural edification of timid, vegetarian foreigners. This market is about pride, community, and tradition. I see this in the way my family works together to prepare each Friday, and in the way the next-door neighbor sees me as a friend who needs a ride, not as competition. And, finally, I see this in the way my host mom glows, as she tells me (with the help of a translator, of course), that when she grows up, "Jem will be an organic farmer, too." Dee mahg, I think. Very good.

Ari Kiener - Carleton College