23 November 2008

A Life Worth Living

As of two weeks ago, I had met one person with HIV/AIDS in my entire life. He was a habitual drug user who contracted AIDS through intravenous drug use, and I was one of the few people he told about his disease. I tried to support him, to be there for him, but I had no idea what to do. When his roommates found out he was HIV+, they kicked him out of their apartment, and within a week, he dropped out of school and started abusing drugs and alcohol even more intensely.

If he was going to die anyway, “what was life worth,” he told me one night while he anxiously puffed a cigarette. I tried to console him, to tell him that every day was worth living, but honestly, I had no clue how long someone with HIV/AIDS could even survive. TV campaigns with emaciated African children dying in overcrowded orphanages were the only human images of AIDS I’d ever seen. I couldn’t help wondering what would stop him from experiencing the same excruciating reality.

A year has passed since I saw him, but in the last two weeks I’ve spent working with TNP+, I have met dozens of people living with HIV/AIDS, and they’re not dying in a hospital bed. They’re living, working, falling in love, and raising families.
TNP+ member P’Gaw, a tall and muscular rice farmer, told me that when he was diagnosed HIV+ four years ago, he didn’t want to live, just like my friend from home. Only a year before being diagnosed, he watched his first wife die of AIDS. When P’Gaw found out he was HIV+, he hid in his house for months, depressed and afraid, until a female TNP+ volunteer P’Sasi visited him.

P’Sasi, a petite spitfire nicknamed for her sassy personality, is not HIV+, but has counseled HIV/AIDS patients for years. Perhaps P’Sasi knew the exact words to lift P’Gaw’s spirit, but I suspect her joyful smile did the trick. Within a year of her first visit, P’Gaw and P’Sasi were engaged and married. Now, four years later, P’Gaw is the Vice President of the Northeastern TNP+ network.

P’Gaw, P’Sasi, and countless other TNP+ volunteers have not only destroyed my misperceptions about HIV/AIDS, but also have taught me about selfless service and the human spirit. Today I know that PLWHA can live normal lives if they receive adequate medical care. Until P’Gaw told me he was HIV+, I didn’t even know he had the disease. He looks just like any other normal, healthy Thai rice farmer, tanned from working long hours in the sun. The only “abnormal” thing about P’Gaw is that he devotes his life to helping others without asking anything in return.

If I had met P’Gaw a year ago, I would have known what to tell my friend from home: that his life was absolutely worth living, and that HIV/AIDS didn’t have to stop him from finishing school, getting a job, or falling in love. I would tell that if he could find the will to live, he could live the worthiest of lives: one dedicated to helping others just like him.

Alex Robinson - Davidson College

HR and Agriculture

To Whom It May Concern:

We have just wrapped up two weeks of craziness here in Thailand. Some of the other recent blogs may have mentioned this, as it pretty much consumed our lives. Everything else: past papers or projects, social lives, even meals at times, came second to the human rights reports we were drafting. As the time has come to a close, we hope that perhaps just a bit of what we have worked so extensively on, will prove to make a difference is someone’s life.

My team, consisting of 3 other members, have been researching the possibility of human rights violations in Surin Province. The area is beautiful…really, just breathtaking. I fell in love with the province the first time we went during the Food Unit, and also fell in love with the family I stayed with. Our Paw was/is an organic farmer who grows almost all of his food: from rice, to livestock, to fruits, to vegetables, and even peanuts and coconuts. He built his (lovely) home, with his bare hands, and with the wood he used from the forest he inherited from his father. He also built the loom our Maa (mother) and Yai (grandmother use to weave silk. Talk about a self-sustaining family.

This untouched part of the world holds a hazy sort of glow for me. Both the family and the beauty of the area stirred something deep within me. Yet part of what made it so beautiful is the fact that so much of what I experienced and found so touching was the typical life of almost any Thai farmer about 50 years ago (minus the tv and a couple lights).
This is amazing, because to be honest, it is very difficult for farmers to maintain their former way of life in Thailand. Global trends such as capitalism and the Green Revolution, embraced willingly by the Thai government, have severely altered the ability of farmers to be able to make a living off of their land as they once did. The Thai government began in the early 60’s to focus on development, on making its way up the international corporate ladder via international trade and producing goods for export. This, combined with the influence of the Green Revolution, created incentive for Thailand to research its rice varieties to both increase yield and production, and increase its profits. They discovered Jasmine 105, the high-yielding and fragrant rice, which so many of us consume in our homes in the States.

The brand was introduced to Thai farmers everywhere. Add this to the incentives they offerered farmers to use chemical fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides, and suddenly the traditional Thai farming system was drastically changed. Farmers switched to harvesting only Jasmine 105, neglecting traditional varieties in the process, as well as neglecting other crops. They also began using chemicals, ultimately degrading the soil, as well as their health. Illness in Surin related to chemicals, as we researched, seems to continue to be a problem.

Our group tackled these massive trends (as have been experienced by most farmers in the northeast of Thailand), and attempted to argue that the government had failed to fulfill its obligations as stated in the ISESCR. Let me tell you, arguing against global trends, against massive things that happened over 30 years ago and whose repercussions continue to exist today, against things that don’t seem possible of changing…is difficult. Furthermore, it was difficult for us as a group to determine what role we even felt they should have played. Sure they made mistakes, but what government hasn’t? And in this case, no one was dying. Was it the private market that was the problem? Or was it the government itself? There was no difficulty in saying that what had happened in Surin was sad, even upsetting and frustrating. But really, when this has happened almost everywhere else in the world…what do you say?

Our group wrestled with these questions as attempted to right the report. The process was long and tiring and more than a little frustrating. Beyond attempting to help people, I know I was also spending hours of time critically analyzing everything from my political views, to my faith, to my practices at home. Was what I was arguing against exactly what I in fact want? How can a beautiful palce like Surin stay preserved? And do we demand that the government be responsible for doing it?

Questions, questions…most of which I still have. Regardless, it is much easier to write a report when you have a face to attach to the issue. And perhaps what has been made even more clear in all of this, is the amazing fact that my Paw in Surin has managed to avoid, if not outright reject, the powerful forces he has faced in the past 40 years. With only a couple gadgets to evidence the reality that modernization has reached Thailand, one might almost be able to believe that he and his family still live in 1940 in Northeastern Thailand. Perhaps my report will make his efforts just a tiny bit easier. Or if not, perhaps it will make others reflect and think about how their efforts can.

Kellyn Springer - Wake Forest University

09 November 2008

Living in the Landfill

I just spent two nights in a landfill in Northeast Thailand. I slept in a community of houses no less than fifteen meters from the gigantic piles of trash, which our tour guide/home-stay mother referred to as “a different kind of mountain.” The people of this community rely on collecting recyclables and selling them to private businesses for their livelihood. The amount of trash that came in, on the one hand, looked good from the vantage point of a community that depends on lots of trash to survive. On the other hand, well I’ll just tell you a story about my only previous experience with a landfill…

I’m from Long Island, NY, which can get pretty rural in some places. About ten years ago, my father and I took down our old wooden fence from the front yard. The town had refused to pick up the old wood for whatever reason so we put it in the back of my Dad’s produce truck and were going to drive it the fifteen miles to our landfill.

I had never been there before and had no idea what a landfill would/should look like. When we got there, I remember being appalled- appalled by the smell, appalled by the site of so much indiscriminate trash, appalled by the massive machines used to lop the trash from one place to another, and, lastly, appalled by the young man’s face that came to the truck’s driver side window. I was in middle school at the time, so acne wasn’t something new. I can still vividly remember this man’s face, scarred and oily and downright monstrous. Like Rocky Dennis in “Mask.” I was ashamed at the way I had stared at him.

After we dropped off the wood and started leaving, my father (very uncharacteristically) said to me “Don’t ever work in a landfill.” He wasn’t saying that it was a condescending job. I think he was just commenting on how it was the cesspool of capitalism.

Maybe that’s a term that I’ve come up with, but this has been troubling me. The goal of capitalism is, in one way, to maximize efficiency. The ways in which it accomplishes this are highly visible- cities functioning with populations in the tens of millions, affordable technological marvels such as cell phones and IPods, spaceships traveling farther and farther out into the universe, the perpetual shrinking of the computer chip, etc. What is not so visible is the ultimate by-product of capitalism- trash.

The landfill community I stayed with in Thailand, Khambon Noi, is a perfect example. The city of Khon Kaen (just a few kilometers up the road) sends all of its trash there, yet Khambon Noi itself lies outside the jurisdiction of the mayor of Khon Kaen. The city is literally severed, politically and regionally, from its trash. How convenient.

We have completed the Human Genome Project. We have put astronauts on the moon and a robot on Mars. We’ve developed warheads that could end ninety-nine percent of life on this planet within a few days. Figure out how to use the sun’s rays to power a television? Check. The worlds largest building (Beijing Capital International Airport) built on top of earth-quake prone land? No problem. But let me get this straight- our best idea of how to dispose of trash is to bury it and/or let it pile up? What the hell is going on here? What are we, cats? I’ve stood on top of one of these landfills, worked an 8 hour day and witnessed thirty or more trucks dumping more capitalist stool. This happens every day.

Have you seen WALL-E? It’s an animated movie about the future, and humans have left our planet for a myriad of reasons. One of the most striking images is that of the barren city which at first looks to have these amazing skyscrapers, only when the camera pans in you see that they are made out of compacted trash. Our global society is growing larger and consuming more every day and there doesn’t seem to be a solution on the horizon as to where we plan on putting all of this waste. I’ll be dead in sixty, maybe eighty years. In that amount of time, I don’t see the current system causing any catastrophic problems. For the rest of you (you know, every human born after August 5th, 1986), choke dee. That’s Thai for “good luck.”

Dan Masciello - Northeastern University

08 November 2008

The Right to Lease

Living on land that isn’t really yours, or being denied access to fair and simple human needs such as water and electricity, or knowing that your education can’t be furthered only on the basis that you don’t have a paper for legal housing registration are common problems for many inhabitants of the slums in Khon kaen, Thailand. The poor poverty levels and bad hygiene lead to poor health, however adequate health is not provided to these citizens of Thailand on the mere fact that they do not posses housing registration because they do not have leasing rights.

Many villagers in Khon kaen have been protesting and fighting to get leasing rights. A couple weeks ago the villagers in aid with the four regions Slums Network marched on the streets of khon Kaen and self delivered letters to the mayor in order to grant them leasing rights. Some communities were successful whereas the others continue to fight. Many of the communities that that received leasing rights we also involved on a big march in Bangkok a few weeks prior to the march in khon kaen. Many community members of the slums say that they will continue fighting till the bitter end.

Take for example, Paw Gahn, he said, “The motivation that keeps me fighting is our children and grandchildren who are living on the land that we have invaded. They will not have any security in life because the land that we are living on does not belong to us. I have been fighting in order to be able to rent this land and make it more secure. Paw Gahn has been fighting for his community; he is 70 years old and still fights with great vigor. He is not sure what the future of this community entails but he wants to live in a secure community and in order to make a community secure people must come together in harmony. He says that, “Happiness will eventually happen if people are living in harmony.”

Like Paw Gahn, there are many. They hope to see their community’s become a place of peace. They want security. They understand that they are intruding on land that isn’t theirs however, they recognize that and want to rent the land so they can be given a housing registration because without such, many social services from the state are denied, limited and or have inflated prices. They believe that they have a right to fair prices on water and electricity and a fair opportunity in education and healthcare. They pay taxes for purchased goods thus they should at least be treated and cared for as a citizen of the nation.

The community members don’t want to leave their lands they have been living there all their life. Their parents died there and they were born there and it is legacy that remains in these communities. They love their neighbors and enjoy community interaction. They don’t want to leave but, they are conscientious of the fact that they are do not own the land that they are living on and because of that they want to be on the right path and lease the land. They want to do things right. That is why they continue fighting for leasing rights until it is granted and they can have equal access to public services. They will do what they have to, to reach the goal

Sara Saavedra - Hope College

Slum Communities in Khon Kaen: Development and the Depletion of Natural Resources

"Two women from a slum community in Khon Kaen pick vegetables from a field located next to the highway. The sign reads 'Land for Sale', and although the women are not the owners of the land, they take advantage of its natural resources to gather vegetables they can eat or sell to community markets."

The United Nations defines a slum as a dwelling that lacks one or more of the following: access to improved water, access to improved sanitation, security of tenure, durability of housing structure, and sufficient living space in which no more than two people are sharing a room. Last week my classmates and I had the opportunity to live with families residing in Khon Kaen slums, and after meeting with government officials, community members, and NGOs, we became more aware of how development directly affects slum residents. Specifically, we discussed how the path of development that the city of Khon Kaen is on right now may ultimately lead to such a depletion of natural resources that families living in slum communities will not be able to maintain their current livelihoods.

It was a Sunday, and my classmate and I were scheduled to spend the day with our host family working on the golf course that neighbored their slum community. However, as soon as we finished our breakfast of Chinese donuts and coffee, some neighbors of ours stopped by our house on their way to work and asked if we wanted to join them. My classmate and I had no idea where exactly we would be going, but we hopped into the cart attached to the side of the motorcycle and away we went. After driving for about twenty minutes and making stops periodically, it seemed we had reached our final destination: the side of a highway?

Our neighbors are just a few of the many urban dwellers in Thailand who take advantage of the wealth of natural resources available even on the side of the highways. During our short home stay with the slum community, we went fishing at a permanently flooded community rice field, saw a herd of cattle marching through the city, and watched our host family gather crabs that would later be eaten for dinner.

Natural resources still make up a large part of the developing city of Khon Kaen, but as we watched our neighbors pick vegetables and other plants from a small pond, we couldn’t help but to notice the huge construction zone next to us that seemed to be paving the way for a new high-rise apartment complex. As more-and-more construction zones are being established, natural resources that were once available for city residence to live off of are being destroyed. It seems that Khon Kaen’s landscape resembles that of Bangkok’s three decades ago, so if Khon Kaen continues its current trend of development, the depletion of natural resources will most certainly continue.

During a conversation my classmates and I had recently with an NGO representative, the representative claimed that slum communities in Khon Kaen live lives that are half rural and half urban. After experiencing the way of life that I described above, I see that this is very true. It is clear that a depletion of natural resources caused by the current trend of development in Khon Kaen would gravely affect the self-sufficiency of slum and like communities.

Yet, will it matter in thirty years if slum communities are no longer able to pick vegetables on the side of the highway? Will their way of life gradually be affected by city development anyway to the point that natural resources are no longer crucial to their daily survival? I believe that examples of slum communities in other large cities around the world are proof that access to natural resources is crucial to subsistence, and in situations where natural resources are not available to live off of, slum and like communities take a hit for the worse. Such may be the fate of Khon Kaen slum communities if Khon Kaen continues along the path of development it is currently taking.

Katie Jenkins - Indiana University

Urban Unit

The CIEE group just ended our final official unit. The urban unit consisted of a slum community home-stay, landfill community home-stay, and a day with HIV/AIDS victims. It was all connected because of the influx of migration toward urban areas. It was really awesome to live with the people and experience their lives. In the slums I went with my family to go fish in a pond near the city. They did not have much success which was sad because that is not just a pastime for them it is a mode of sustenance. My family’s main source of income though was picking recyclables out of trash. They travel all over the city and collect recyclables to redeem at a recycling facility. This has proven to be a relatively sustainable profession for them and they love not having an employer. After leaving the slums I went to live with a landfill community. Here they do a similar job. They pick the recyclable items out of the landfill, which they live right next to. Both communities have been hurt by the financial crisis in that they can’t get a good price for their goods. The collection centers have stopped taking cans all together right now and prices in other goods have dropped as far as 500%. This has made life very hard on the scavengers in Isaan.

Scavengers are not something I have really witnessed at the same degree in America. I know its illegal to pick other’s trash for health reasons or whatever but it’s interesting that people in Thailand are making enough money for a live off of scavenging while people in America are homeless and without a way to make money for themselves.

Today Americans are putting a lot of environmental focus on the need to recycle. This is a costly expense for taxpayers but it is necessary. Recycling can considerably cut down the need for minerals such as aluminum, steel, copper, or even plastics and cardboards. Recycling also gives the consumer the illusion that they are not being so wasteful.

While in Thailand it has really frustrated me that there have not been recycling bins or places where I can gain the illusion of reduced wastefulness for myself. I did not know what to do with bottles and cans. The only bottles I would buy if I could help it would be glass because they were reused and the storeowners would get a redemption refund. What I found while living in the slums and in the landfill community was that some of the trash I threw away was actually benefiting someone and the scavengers were sustaining themselves off of what I had discarded. I did not need to worry about the bottle I threw away because hopefully a scavenger would pick it up and make enough money to feed his or her family that night with my bottle’s help.

All this got me thinking while I was picking trash in the landfill. What would a recycling program mean for Thailand? If everyone was separating out most of their recyclables would there be a way for scavengers to make money? I’ve always thought of government run or private recycling companies taking a large role and picking up recycling as a good thing. But where people are allowed to scavenge and there is a reasonable way to make a living maybe there should not be a large recycling system in Thailand. What these scavengers do is a great service to the Thai people and to the planet through taking our waste and putting it back into the manufacturing system.

Wes Mills - Colorado Christian University