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


Spencer said...

Awesome imagery in the opening. I felt like I was transported back to Surin! All of your descriptions are so vivid and descriptive. P'Phakpum, from my host family has switched over to integrated, organic agriculture even though the transition was quite difficult. P'Phakpum kept telling me that no matter how difficult it was, or how hard it was to repay his debts, he would never go back to chemical farming. His health, the ability to be self-sustaining and his love of farming was much more important. Another thing I learned from P'Phakpum was that not only is he utilizing compost in order to lower input costs, but he also makes ethanol from cassava and sugarcane and biodiesel from coconuts. Another thing that you reminded me about Surin is how generous the farmers were. Even with little money and large debts, they are still willing to help out anyone in their community that needs food. What a beautiful place.

Katie said...

Your post reminded me of my host family in Surin, and more specifically, of my host father during that unit. When you talk about living off of and loving the land, I feel like my host father really taught me the importance of that. After breaking-the-ice with my host family, I came to find out that my host father could speak English fairly well. So, between his English and my Thai, we were able to communicate enough that I learned he has two brothers who are engineers and have moved away from the village in Surin with their families. After my host father finished his own engineering program in college, he went away to work in Bangkok for a while. However, after only some time passed, he made the decision to return to his hometown in Surin out of love for his family and for their land. He took over farming for his father after his father passed away, because his other brothers were committed to their current occupations, and he has been taking care of his mother since then as well. Although I was only with my host family for a week, the experiences I had with them speak volumes, and now I see why at the end of every day my host father would smile and have a very content look on his face; he has his family and his farm, and after going organic, he is out of debt and has his good health back. What more could he ask for?

Matt said...

I agree that organic agricultural practices help to bind together both families and communities. The elimination of chemical fertilizer use allows the entire community to become a part of the process of cultivation and food development. For example, a farmer who uses chemical fertilizers can simply spread the fertilizer over the field, water the crops, and wait for the vegetables or fruit to grow. Organic agriculture usually requires a much more intensive process involving long work days, numerous laborers working in unison, and communal effort to harvest and store the crop yields. Community members rely on one another’s help throughout the growing seasons, and individual farmers know the aid they give to their neighbors will graciously repaid. Organic agriculture also allows farmers to become connected to the land that supports their family and livelihoods.

When a farmer uses organic agriculture they spend a good deal of time physically working the soil, watering their crops, and accessing the day’s prospect for rain. Internally, farmers who become more connected with their land, crops, and cultivation methods gain more pleasure form consuming and marketing their goods. The benefits of organic agriculture, in my mind far outweigh the potential profits brought by using “modern” technologies and fertilizers.

Matt Palamara - CIEE-Thailand

Christy said...

From reading your post, I am finding a lot of similarities between the people who work the land in Thailand and the campesinos (farmers) in Mexico. The land isn't merely considered to be property or a place for work. Rather, it goes far beyond the realm of an income but it's a means of life. The land is where people make their lives and belongings to their families and children as well. Thus, when the government tries to do projects on the land that is their livelihood, it clearly presents many problems.

For example, in Atenco, a city outside of Mexico City, the government tried to purchase the land to build an airport. They said the construction of this airport would benefit the entire community and the Mexican economy at large. However, what the government ignored was that this would eliminate hundreds of acres of farmland and homes for the people of Atenco. Luckily, with lots of work, the people of Atenco and many supporters successfully protested the construction of this airport. But I think this is just another example of how the land of a community is really important and often neglected by the government.

Cloe said...

What a head trip: to take a look back at Surin here during my final days in Thailand. It really was an incredible community there- I feel like if we hadn’t seen that so early in the trip it may have had a more profound effect on us. They were SO organic; that is the first time I drank rainwater and is certainly the first time I plowed rice fields with buffalo.

They had such positive vibes. I remember being shocked at how close the families were at our final exchange. Sitting, eating and laughing together (while we told stories of trials and tribulations) is something I will treasure forever. I remember Sarah Saavaedra (?) striking a pose to personify the “regal-ness” of her Meh. Fantastic memories.

And an even bigger head trip: reading your initial response/description of group process. I agree that I learned “invaluable skills” everyday for those first few months. In the future, the words “group process” will never fall on my ears quite the way they were intended to. And I’ll think back on my time at CIEE Thailand, beaming (with a hangover).