24 February 2009

How does globalization affect the livelihoods of rural farmers?

At home, an industrial farmer might grow potatoes in Idaho in soil ravaged by chemical fertilizers, harvest them by machine, ship them to a distributor where they are packaged and sent to my local supermarket, where I might pick up a bag to take home to my house. A long chain of events separates the production and consumption of my food. Days, weeks and many middle men lie between the harvest of my potatoes and me eating them. I am not proud to say that I am thoroughly disconnected from the food I eat.

This all changed, however, when I went on my Rural Agriculture Unit homestay. We were all placed with small scale farmers who practiced organic agriculture. My family grew corn, tomatoes, chives, squash, herbs and purple sweet potatoes. Almost everything my homestay partner (Cortney) and I ate came from farm we lived on. I’ve had plenty of experience on what it is to be a consumer, but now I had the opportunity to learn a little about being a producer.

Laughter and smiles surrounded me and Cortney as we were handed hoes and directed to a bed of vegetables. After a brief demonstration, we “dug” right into our task of unearthing purple sweet potatoes. We had been put to work, and our family could not have found more enthusiastic helpers. Our enthusiasm proved to be a bit unrefined, however, as we tended to chop in half many of the potatoes we were digging up. The response to our blunders? More laughter.

The next day we sold those very same purple sweet potatoes at the Saturday Green Market. It was strange to stand behind my homestay mom, looking at those potatoes on display for sale. It had been less than 24 hours ago that I had seen them emerge from the earth like buried treasure.

It would have been easy for an outsider to look at this process and see a traditional way of farming that hasn’t changed in years. I know better that the globalization of agriculture has drastically affected the lives of my family, as well as every other farmer in Thailand.

Most Thai farmers switched to chemical farming during the Green Revolution, enticed by lures of higher yields and higher profits. Previously sustainable villages sold their crops away from their homes, and bought the food they ate from outside the town. This created a flow of capital away from the village to larger corporations, instead of keeping food local and sustainable. Many were put into debt, as they invested in monocropping and more and more chemical fertilizers. This created even more pressure to raise profits to pay off their loans.

It was the detrimental health effects of chemicals and the collapse of the traditional village way of life that has spurred a local organic agriculture movement. Many farmers were uneducated in how to safely use their new fertilizers, and health problems proliferated. My homestay mom had to go to the doctor many times before they switched to organic farming. With no local production and consumption of food, communities are less sustainable. Many villages have also experienced a decrease in biodiversity, as most farmers move towards planting engineered seeds promising high yields. Local varieties rice and corn are lost.

The decision to return to sustainable agriculture is not an easy one. Many are worried that they won’t make as much money, and be farther in debt than before. In fact, after a few years, organic farming is more profitable than chemical farming. My own family made the switch 7 years ago and is now debt (and health problem) free.

Industrialization of agriculture is a global phenomenon that distances people from the production of their food. Pressure to “modernize” can be seen all over the world as globalization becomes more and more prevalent. My homestay family has taken a stand against these influences, realizing that benefits of sustainable agriculture and chemical free farming are stronger than the utopia of higher profits painted by industrialists. It will be my challenge, when I return home, to integrate these same values into my own life in an effort to bring production and consumption closer together.

Evelyn Holt - Wake Forest University

How does globalization affect rural livelihoods?

Before living with a family in Yasothorn Province, a region in the Northeast of Thailand known for it’s close-knit, small-scale organic farming communities, my understanding of the true relationship between local agriculture and globalization was essentially nonexistent. My exposure to the concept of globalization in my university classes and assigned readings had painted a picture of effective trade policies, mechanisms of increased consumer access to goods and services and a growing, constantly connected world. Pretty romantic, huh? I admit that problems with globalization were brought up in my academic discourse, but never without a counter argument in favor of this international phenomenon. Because of my own failure to question these arguments, it wasn’t until I lived with one of the most wonderful host families in Thailand that I realized what globalization really meant. 

 It is incredibly difficult to isolate the effects of a force so powerful and dominating as “globalization”. The complexity of this phenomenon, defined largely by a socially constructed hierarchy of institutions and a series of power struggles between rich and poor, highlights the interconnectedness of every consequence of a globalized world. From where I stand now, I can speak only to my experiences, conversations and observations of life in the farming communities to put these consequences into perspective. 

            I was lucky enough to be placed with a host mother and father that have been farming in Yasothorn for their entire lives.  Born into a farming life, they place incredible value on preserving a harmonious relationship with nature, taking from the land no more than they give back and always replenishing the resources they use up. While this is the mantra they practice now, there was a time when they strayed from this philosophy. During the era of the Green Revolution, one of the most destructive forces of globalization, small organic farmers like my host family abandoned the practice of organic farming in the name of producing higher yields and gaining greater profits. Local farmers, unaware of the consequences of chemical farming, switched from organic techniques to chemical fertilizers and lethal pesticides. As my host mother explained it, they switched because “[a]ll the developed countries and big corporations, like Monsanto, said it was good, and Thai people just didn’t understand [what was really happening]”.

While I recognize that the era of the Green Revolution has come to a close, I reference it because it is crucial to providing a context for the current struggles that rural families are facing in Thailand. Fundamental to the development of the Green Revolution, the transition to chemical farming and monocropping has both undermined rural populations’ right to food sovereignty and forced rural families to migrate to urban centers, thus compromising the integrity of local farming communities and social networks. Food sovereignty, understood as the power one has over the processes by which food is produced and consumed, is a fundamental element of the livelihoods of rural farming families in Thailand. By transitioning to chemical farming, families were no longer capable of growing the foods they wanted to eat. The introduction of large-scale monocropping not only destroyed the integrity of the soil and biodiversity of products local farmers could grow, but severely undermined the capacity of farmers to be self-sufficient.

As I learned during my conversations in Yasothorn, no consequence of globalization stands alone. This challenge to self-sufficiency has also shaken the foundations of local agriculture by forcing some families to migrate to the cities, a trend that is now infecting younger generations. Forced to migrate in search of income, many farmers have taken on jobs as tuk tuk and taxi drivers, sending remittances back to their families in farming villages. These cases of urban migration are not limited to adults, but have extended beyond that to younger generations. In many instances, upon reaching the appropriate age, children of farmers need to (or, more increasingly choose to) leave their farming villages in search of income and opportunity. As local agriculture, particularly small-scale local organic farming, is dependent on the intergenerational pass on of knowledge and skill, this phenomenon has compromised the integrity of local farming communities, effectively unraveling the social fabric of farming culture.

To paint such a dim picture of a globalized world is a little unfair, so I will close on a positive note. While the consequences I explained above do exist, there are local farmers (like my host family) who are fighting against them. In Yasothorn in particular, many families have taken the initiative to return to organic farming. As a result, many farmers have regained their sense of food sovereignty and begun to detach themselves from the effects of globalization. It is not easy to fight such an ominous force, but the villagers of Yasothorn Province are doing it. Right on.

Alexandra Scott - Georgetown University

How has globalization affected the livelihoods of rural families?

Thoughts of globalization didn’t cross my mind for the first few days of the homestay. I found myself in a farming utopia. The village held a strong sense of community. My host parents seemed close to their neighbors; I couldn’t tell who was part of the family and who was just a friend or visitor. My host parents would give away most of their excess food rather than sell it. Everyone seemed to be looking out for each other My hosts seemed happy. At first, I viewed this utopia as being free from the flaws of the outside world. I saw it as being completely separate from my life at Khon Kaen University and separate from my life in America.

My host mother’s daily life fit into a schedule that she dictated herself. She answered to no employer or higher authority regularly. She could chose when she went to work in the fields and when she wanted to chat with her friends. Her life seemed to have choice and flexibility, because it was somehow free of the limits and regulations brought about by globalization.
This isn’t to imply that she lacked work ethic. She seemed to constantly be working. Her work had a certain kind of fluidity; it never really started because it never really stopped. One night, she stayed up late preparing her vegetables for sale at the Green Market the next day. The next morning she woke at three to pack up her produce and travel with it to sell in the city of Yasothorn. That night she only got two hours of sleep. But with this seeming lack of flexibility (she couldn’t get very much sleep), she had flexibility in other ways. Though she slept only a little, she could choose her own prices for her goods at the Green Market. The fact that these prices were not determined by my host mother rather than greater market forces (though I a sure they are connected).

In my understanding globalization and capitalism are inextricably linked. My host parents, though part of a capitalist system, have found a way to exist within this system almost completely self-sustaining. They are not profit driven, which seems essential to maintaining a capitalist system. They still manage to exist within our current set up. By spending time at the Green Market and by having an exchange with its organizers, I began to see how the market (and so my host parents) fit into a global market.

As the days went on I began to see globalization outside of market terms. My host father liked to talk about Obama. I couldn’t really ever understand what he was saying, because he would often speak Isaan, the Northeastern dialect, and I would stumble over my simple Thai phrases. But one night, we had P’Lek (one of our translators) for dinner to help us write a profile of our host mother. With her help, we talked some politics. I can’t remember now exactly what was said, but the very fact that international politics exists the way it does shows another aspect to globalization.

Globalization has to do with knowledge transmission as well as the creation of one international political system. This single system is made up of the relationships of each country’s individual governments. I imagine our host parents knew about American politics mostly because of their TV. Interviews with Obama were broadcast, we even saw some of the coverage during our time there. Our host parents understood that the election of Obama would somehow affect the Thai government, which would in turn affect the Thai people, which means they themselves would be affected. My host family in Yasothorn Province is not free from the effects of globalization, as I first thought. Instead, they have found a way to live a self-sustaining life with a globalized world.

--Catherine Fuller, Vassar College

How has globalization affected the livelihoods of rural families?

This is a picture of my host mom, taken while herding cows.

It is amazing to see how globalization has affected the lives of so many people in Thailand. During this past unit, which focused on rural issues and development, our group stayed with various families in Yasothorn province. These families were in support of the transition from chemical farming to organic agriculture. Their lives revolve around self-sufficiency and food– its production and its consumption. Many of our host parents were farmers and cow herders, who help sell their produce at a weekly Green Market. Besides being inspiring in their work to better their health and the environment, our families were extremely welcoming and open to us foreigners. They showed us a different way of working and living with the environment. However, even with these unique outlooks present in the communities, there were multiple globalizing forces present, which influenced people’s livelihoods in obvious and not-so-obvious ways.

One example of a not-so-obvious way comes right to my mind. One day during the unit we had a full day with our host families. In this time, I was able to herd cows with my host mom, the other CIEE student staying in the family with me, and our host mom’s friend (or relative, we weren’t quite sure!). This experience was amazing, and I felt that I was finally connecting with my mom, for I could somewhat understand what she was talking about.  This was a large accomplishment after many hours of miscommunication.

After taking a nap on the field with the cows, we headed back to the house to rest and catch up on some of the reading that I had put off during the day. As soon as I returned home I was reminded that “private time” is not really practiced in the same way in these communities. This was shown through constant interactions with neighbors, relatives and children passing by and wanting to talk. The combination of herding cows and the realization that I wasn’t going to have time to read, hit me with an overwhelming feeling of “Wow.” I felt completely out of my comfort zone, and completely happy. And right in the midst of this realization, my ears filled with the bumping beats of a hit Rihanna song, “Umbrella.” The song was being played from a boom box of a neighboring house. Soon following the start of the song were a few other voices, jumping on the chance to sing along. I heard many of these voices get loud specifically on the “Ella, Ella, Eh Eh Eh” portion of the song.

“Umbrella,” while completely popular in the states, felt so out of place in the community I had experienced so far. In class, I learned about ways in which agriculture and the livelihoods of our families had been impacted by globalization. But I had not thought of music as a globalizing force. What does it mean that a song such as “Umbrella” can cross borders and oceans, and connect lives that seem so different from each other? Is it a good thing that music can connect different people with such different livelihoods? Also, does this globalization of Western music have negative impacts on local music practices? These questions do not have straight answers, but only speak to the difficulty of analyzing globalization, since it has now become such a large part of social structures and individual lives all over the world. 

So, how has globalization affected the livelihoods of rural farmers? It has affected every part of their lived experiences, from farming practices to popular music. 

Julia Lee - Bates College

How Does Globalization Affect Rural Communities?

If I told you that I was staying in the most beautiful house I had ever seen, largely due to the effects of globalization on Rural Thailand- what would you picture?  Western colonial style infiltrating primitive rice paddies?  Pillars, shingles, flower boxes?  Think again.  For one week in a village in Yasothorn province in NE Thailand, this was my home.

There were no walls- none separating us from the kuay (buffalo), gai (chicken), and mah (dogs) below, nor any walls separating the one giant room in which we all slept, ate, and learned about each other.  The only real that existed during my time here was language- and even that melted away quickly.

My Meh and Pah grew up in this village, still living next door to my yaiy (maternal grandmother) with rice paddies squashed in next to each other.  Although their location has not changed in years, the scenery looking out into their fields certainly has.  Formerly, in yaiy's generation, food was a celebration of life.  The primary connection to the land.  Grow. Pick. Eat. However, as we learned from Ajaan (Professor) Dave's lecture before leaving for the home stay, the Green Revolution shattered that mentality and families, like mine in Yasothorn, are slowly beginning to revert back to that simple chain of consumption.

About 7 years ago, my Meh was in very poor health and had to go to the hospital frequently.  After comparing stories with other CIEE students upon our return to Khon Kaen University, many students found this to be a common lead into answering the question: "Why did you switch to Organic Farming?"  My family, like others, made the difficult change to Organic Farming in desperate hopes that their own health would improve as a result.  

Since then, not only has the health of my host-mother improved, but in a way the health of their land has grown stronger as well.  Due to the Green Revolution Mentality that producing only enough for your family is inefficient and unprofitable, families like mine bought into mono-cropping and particularly in Thailand, the homogenization of rice.  Despite a slight profit at first, these practices ultimately stripped the soil of their nutrients and created a system of dependency in which farmers could not get by without government produced fertilizers.  These effects and more are what have caused scholars to claim the Green Revolution is the worst thing that has ever happened to the planet.

My meh is proud to say that not only is she in good health, but that "mai chai pboey chemi" or "I don't use chemical fertilizers!"  Instead of growing one kind of rice for one portion of the season, my host-family grows a variety of crops and utilizes the fields during wet and dry seasons.  While I was visiting, I helped to harvest corn, sweet potatoes, cilantro, lemon grass, bananas, and squash!  And when the rains come, the fields will be ready for rice.

This abundance did not come easily, however.  Like many farmers switching back to organic methods, the first few years usually bring debt with them.  Without the super growing power of pumped up chemical fertilizers, the nutrient-depleted soil does not produce stellar crops for a few years.  Without profit, many farmers fall even further into debt from their years of dependency on government subsidized chemical fertilizers.  But after two years, most families we exchanged with reported an increase in profits and many have now paid off their debt.  7 years later, and my host father was proud to say "mai mee nee" or "I have no debt."

While in some ways, rural families like mine are moving back towards traditional knowledge and practices, in other ways the rural community structure continues to be challenged.  My host-brother, Pepsi, lives in Bangkok (or Glungteb as the Thai say), in part due to the generational lure to the city and in part to find good wages.  My younger host sister, Fantah, also plans to leave her village to study to be a nurse.  (The names in themselves not so subtly suggest the effects of globalization on rural communities...)

Leaving Yasothorn, one question has remained burning in my head: With traditional knowledge of living off the land finally returning to organic farming communities after years of environmentally irresponsible and impersonal practices, how will this knowledge be sustained if all the younger generations flooding the cities to find work?  

3 Generations of Women

Cortney Ahern, Colgate University