22 September 2008

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


Kellyn said...

I know this response is a bit delayed. We have done several units since the food unit in Surin, so my response will probably incorporate not only what we learned about community during that week, but what I have observed in the weeks since.
Community has probably been one of the most profound aspects of Thai culture that I have experienced thus far. Surin was in part, a huge component of that. My Paw spent much of his time working on his integrated and organic farm, supporting not only the community of local farmers who are also struggling to preserve their way of life through organics, but making sure to return home several times throughout the day, investing in the community he has formed at home-his family. There was something incredibly beautiful about his labors-something markedly selfless. I wonder if he knows that the seeds he is sowing into these communities will reap far more benefits than only a few baht at the green market.
During my experience here in Thailand, I have discovered that I am far more impassioned by relationship than by environmental issues or ESC rights. Whether right or wrong, I found it beautiful that my Paw had found a way to weave both together, working long days and nights, perhaps longer than his neighbors who use chemical farming methods, "developing" both his family and his community.

JackieFan said...

After my home stay experience in Surin, following Paw Dong Maa around on his organic, chemical free farm for days and selling products at the Green Market I also saw the act and need of community building in Surin and also throughout Northeast Thailand. Particularly in Surin and working in the rice fields, it made me think and gave me a glimpse of my father’s past as a rice farmer in Southern China. Knowing that he did not enjoy the life of a farmer, he did everything he could given the circumstances of the Chinese government during that time, he was able to escape and refuge in the United States. Managing and cooking at his own restaurant in the United States, my father built a community through his restaurant for Chinese Americans and immigrants in my hometown. Spencer’s quotation touching upon the subject of the generation gap and urban migration, “the goal is to educate the younger generation so they realize they don’t need to go to Bangkok to be happy” encourages me to think that I could be happy with my community at home in the United States. In solidarity with citizens and community members, if desired I could enact change and better the community or happiness than move to cities where it may seem more appealing.

Anonymous said...

Spencer I’m currently studying abroad in Mexico and find a parallel between these two countries in that people are leaving their farming communities to work in the cities where the salaries are higher. Furthermore, in Mexico and El Salvador people are often leaving the communities to work in other countries, like the U.S. This places an extra burden on the families who are there. Oftentimes men head north and women are expected to watch over the farming land, the children, and the other daily activities, like cooking and cleaning. However, the media in the U.S. often portrays a sided-view of immigration and these issues, and therefore the communities that people are leaving behind are not brought into people’s view and therefore, their attention. However, this is something I can share with other when I return to the U.S.