24 February 2009

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

1 comment:

Sarie said...

Hey Alex,
awesome post. Although it's been a few months since Yasothorn, I had an experience with my roommate that reminded me of the depth of these issues. In the last trip to Udon (You were unit fac-ing!) I did some farming with my meh and paw. (It wasn't organic, but thats beside my point) I really enjoyed it despite the fact it was a billion degrees outside. When I told one of my Thai friends about this and how much I liked it, she said, "Is that what you want to do in the future?" I though about it for a second and said that maybe I would, if i could get any land for it. She burst out laughing, and when I asked her why, she said "It is low-class!"
We debated about this for a while, but I'm pretty sure i didn't change her mind about anything. I get to thinking, and in many of our experiences with politicians and buisnessmen from companies, this mindset has become pretty apparent. In response to your line,
"children of farmers need to (or, more increasingly choose to) leave their farming villages in search of income and opportunity."
Is it any wonder that children would want to migrate away from their farming families, when success is identified by culture and media as being someone who makes a lot of money or has a lot of power? And this mindset is everywhere, not just Thailand. How many of us said that we wanted to be the president when we grew up? This desire for power has been instilled in us through the media, through the government, and through our education systems. Is it any wonder that our friends in Yasothorn are having such problems when facing such ideologies, and the institutions that support them?