12 May 2009

“Gold and Money are Fake, Salt Fish and Rice are the Truth”

“Gold and money are fake, salt fish and rice are the truth” reads the front of the shirts celebrating the Human Rights festival recently put on by University students in Isaan. This sentiment I think adequately describes how I have viewed development both in the past and through my experience here in Thailand. Development driven by capitalist ideologies commonly violates human rights, negatively impacts the environment, and creates social injustices. Yet, if we, as human beings, re-think, re-construct, and re-process development through a sustainable and conscientious lens we may create be able to improve upon our current world. I’ve come to realize through my experience on this program that I can have a strong role in re-directing development and globalization; that indeed I can make a difference, and that I can be an active agent in my own life.Instead of wallowing in the woes of the world, I have come to realize my own active role in this developing world.

As an Anthropology major I have enjoyed observing culture as a way to make sense of my role in development here in Thailand. I am experiencing development through many lenses here in Thailand : as an American, a woman, a Caucasian, and a youth. It has been especially interesting to observe the contrast between Isaan culture and development and western influenced globalization. Isaan culture stresses a care for one’s natural resources, in part because the people rely on their land to survive as farmers. Thus, sustainability seems to be in line with the core ideologies surrounding Isaan life. Yet, it is blaringly obvious that the large scale development is penetrating the Northeast. I often wonder how globalization will end up affecting Isaan culture.

One of the communities we have visited, Nang Jahn, rests in a National Park, somewhat secluded, without electricity. A villager said, “If you cover your roots with concrete, you’ll never be able to find them again in response to development within Nahn Jahn. This quote I feel accurately depicts how I view development, especially in Thailand. Culture lies deeply within Isaan’s roots, and many of the developing or as some like to say “modernizing” projects appear to go in direct opposition to these cultural values. My time here has caused me to consider how I can preserve culture, both my own and that of Isaan. Instead of juxtaposing “tradition” with “modern” we must create a space where they can co-exist while benefiting one another.

By participating in this program I feel I have accomplished this in many ways, especially by living in villages with the people affected by the development projects we study. These homestays have afforded me with the opportunity to understand personal stories and histories in an effort to gain a deeper understanding of Isaan culture. By living my life here in Thailand as a person of Isaan I have expanded my view on development, especially internationally. Before coming to Thailand, I often thought of development in respect to my own life within the States, without fully comprehending interrelationship development plays throughout the world.

By respecting and treasuring Thai Isaan culture and bringing that knowledge and experience home with me to theU.S., I hope to influence the way others view development from a socio-cultural level. My role in development is not only about my view of the world, it incorporates everyone within this world. Thus, with this knowledge and experience I feel truly like a conscious global citizen. By actively raising my own awareness by continually seeking information, and by trying to raise awareness throughout my communities, I believe my role in development can be positive.

Eliza Leavitt - Kenyon College

Sustainable Consumerism: An Oxymoron

This semester, my understanding of the definition of development has been shaped by its relationship to sustainability (social, environmental, etc.). Therefore, I have begun to see my role in development as living sustainably—or as sustainably as possible. When creating this role for myself, I have had to rethink my concept of sustainability in light of what I have learned this semester.

My understanding of sustainability has changed drastically after spending time in the rural villages of Thailand. At home, I measured my own sustainability by the items I purchased that made me more “sustainable” (e.g.: hybrids, earth friendly laundry detergent, Chicobags, etc.). But now I realize that buying into consumerist society is not the true definition of sustainability. In fact it is ironic that sustainability is used to market “green” products in the U.S. because consumerism is, by definition, inherently opposite. Being sustainable has become a trend that makes people feel good about themselves. In reality, it is likely that they are damaging the environment even more without even knowing it by following latest “green” trend.
I bought into it. I strongly encouraged my parents to purchase the Toyota Prius when they were in the market for a new car. Through my introduction to mining in the CIEE program and then further research on my own, I have found that Priuses are not as environmentally friendly as they are marketed to be. The nickel used in the battery comes from environmentally unfriendly large-scale development mining operations. On top of that, the battery only lasts 100,000 and then must be thrown away. Not so sustainable anymore, Prius, are you? But my family has already invested in three. But now that the damage has been done, in my new understanding, informed by the articles I have read and the waste I have witnessed in the landfill, it would be worse to give up on the Prius in order to purchase another new,“greener” car (which might have other-yet-to-be-revealed harmful impacts).

A change I have decided to adopt into my lifestyle is to change my relationship to consumerist culture and material objects by using things as long as possible and buying used. Before this program, I did not think twice about the waste created by purchasing things new. Similarly, I had never critiqued consumerism in the same comprehensive way (that takes into account social, environmental, etc. impacts).
But now that it is in the forefront of my consciousness, it makes decisions even more complicated and unclear. Answers are even more obscured, even in the exchanges with P’Bamrung and P’Suwit, leaders of NGOs in North East Thailand. During our exchanges one question that came up was: If it is impossible to buy organic, local, and fair-trade, which one should we prioritize? Or even here in Thailand: is it better to buy coffee from Starbucks, an international corporation that provides fair-trade coffee options or to go to the local coffee shop and support Neste CafĂ©? Even these esteemed academics and leaders of NGOs did not have a clear-cut answer for us.
But even terms like “organic”, “local” and “fair-trade” must be deconstructed in each specific instance to determine which has the overall lowest negative impact on the world and its people. Therefore, I’ve come to question those terms within themselves. What is local? If there is a huge industrial farm next to my house is that local? Or does local now refer to a philosophy?

While my previous conception of sustainability revolved around the purchasing of “green” items, it has been changed drastically after our home stays in rural villages. I didn’t understand that being sustainable is a way of life, not just items on a grocery list. After living with villagers who raise, grow, forage, and hunt their food (only visiting the market to minimally supplement their provisions), and build their houses out of materials from the surrounding environment (wood, clay, etc.), I realized that it is possible to live, and live richly, without ever exchanging Baht for essential living materials.

The difference, I have concluded, is that in the U.S. we consume to be “sustainable” within the larger context of the environment as a whole. Yet we are disconnected from the result. However, in the Isaan villages we have visited this semester, the villagers approach sustainability as a combination of self-sufficiency and respect of natural resources.

In light of my new understanding, I see it as my role to attempt to transform my sustainable practices into a sustainable way of life; however, I can when I return to the states. Appropriately, included in this new vision of sustainability is a pass-on, to anybody who is open to this new way of approaching it.

Mikaela Sutherland Dunitz - Georgetown University

Understanding Sustainability

Throughout the semester I have thought a lot about my individual role in development. As an American, it is impossible to not be a consumer. Since I am very much a part of a capitalist society, I cannot live in isolation from my surroundings. Capitalism thrives on production and ultimately consumption; I cannot avoid being a cog in this machine. In Thailand, however, capitalism is not as inescapable and some villagers have managed to live outside of it’s aggressive grasp.

The only true way to escape the uncompromising forces of consumer society is to live sustainably. Sustainable livelihood was not something I had really given much thought until I came to Thailand. The idea of sustainability in the West is inevitably about consumption. Living “green” has become a trend that encourages people to purchase appliances that use fewer resources. For example, hybrid cars have become a trend in the States, but driving less or carpooling has not. In Thailand, sustainability can exist outside of consumerism. Instead of being a trend, it is a way of life.

The first person to introduce the concept of sustainability to me was P’Bamrung. P’Bamrung is an active member of the Assembly of the Poor, the TAO of Yasothorne, and an idol to many who are pursuing organic agriculture. In Yasothorne, a province in Isaan, P’Bamrung helps farmers to transition from chemicals and mono-cropping to more sustainable methods. Farmers practice mono-cropping are no longer growing crops to feed themselves, so they must import food from other places for survival. According to P’Bamrung, “this is not sustainable.” The increased reliance on outside markets leaves the people of Thailand, especially small scale farmers, in a vulnerable position. It is for these reasons that he promotes returning to traditional methods of sustainability instead of advocating for new and more efficient ways to farm to rival with competing markets. By going back to more traditional practices, P'Bamrung is giving farmers in his village “something that the economy cannot take away;” that is sustainability.

Recent development schemes in Thailand, however, threaten to take away this peaceful lifestyle. In the process of building dams, mines, and water dredges for a larger development project, many villagers land is either directly taken away for a development project, or becomes indirectly infertile due to chemicals and salt in the water and soil. These development schemes are not surprising given the pressures of capitalism, which drive this initiative. If Thailand does not work to develop, the economy will suffer and the country will fall behind to other larger powers like China and India. The government addresses the villagers’ loss of land and livelihood by providing them with monetary compensation. Land is becoming more scarce in Thailand, so villagers can rarely purchase new land with the compensation money. The money only provides the farmers with a short term answer, but in the long run it leaves them with nothing. Monetary compensation fails because it is not a sustainable solution. Money cannot buy sustainability.

Many villagers that we have exchanged with this semester are fighting against development projects so they can continue their sustainable livelihoods. Given our awareness of the scarcity of resources, Western societies could benefit from learning from the villagers about sustainable living. If people stopped consuming and started living sustainably, then capitalism would fail. Since capitalism relies on constant growth and consumption, it will inevitably fail given our limitation in natural resources.

Globalization generally prioritizes growth, expansion, and productivity. As people we prioritize money. We think of new technologies and doing things with increased efficiency as progress. After spending a semester in Thailand, however, I see sustainable livelihoods and going back to traditional methods of farming as far more progressive than any new technology. I hope in the future I can learn to live more sustainably and contribute less to development.

Katja Nelson - Occidental College