23 November 2008

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

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