28 October 2009

Welcome to Robmoyung Slum

What comes to your mind when you think of the term slum? Usually (to me at least) this word conjures up images of marginalization, squalor, or even hopelessness. Technically a slum is something that fails to qualify for one of the five following categories, access to improved water, access to improved sanitation, security of tenure, durability of housing, and sufficient living area. Yet, media and preconceived notions tend to purvey a very specific image of what a slum is. My experience in the slum, however, gave me a far different picture of what it means to be a slum community and what these communities can achieve.

I stayed in Robmoyung. The community had several factors that would qualify it as slum. First they do not have access to water and either had to use a well for water to bathe in and pay for water from a nearby village to drink. They also do not have access to electricity so they had to get it from a generator or neighbor. Yet this community had made great progress as they had secured the right to rent the land they lived on as opposed to living there “illegally.” This allows residents to live without the fear of being suddenly displaced (although the lease is only for three years). The lease was obtained from the State Railway of Thailand (SRT). SRT had been losing money and had the opportunity to sell this land to much higher paying businesses but instead were convinced to respect the rights of the community and give the deed to the community members currently living on the land. This is not the only success of the community. CODI also gave 30 households 20,000 Baht (approximately $600). In fact, we had our exchange with the community right after they decided who would receive the money, so we got to see the excitement and happiness that exists a community successfully progressing. The rest of the household would receive the money later. Furthermore, there is plan for the government to install power lines and grant the community access to water.

On a tour of other neighboring slum communities, we were exposed to even more successes. All had deeds to their land, and many of the communities did not resemble slum communities at all. Interestingly, the various communities looked like a timeline. Since the different communities received money at different times they were at different stages of development. Robmoyung was one of the last communities to receive money, so it was one of the least developed. Still by looking at the other communities, one could see the bright future and possibility of development for Robmoyung.

Much of the credit for this success must be given to the 4 region slum network. This is a movement throughout Thailand to help people get housing rights. By percentage, the Khon Kaen network is most successful. Nine out of the ten communities that have joined the network in Khon Kaen have received leases, while the tenth community only joined three months ago. Through successful organization, The Four Regions Slum Network has successful gained rights and funding for their communities. They look to continue their success through work the government and government organizations such as CODI.

This trip to the slums was striking for me because it revealed two important things. First, be careful about your preconceived notions. The slum communities I saw were far different than what I expected and places of progress. Second, these successful slum communities showed the power of organization. By working together among themselves and working with The Four Region Slum Network, these communities were able to achieve great successes. The development and progress of these communities shows the power of success organization and the potential it has to create change.

Matt Levin
University of Pennsylvania

Should the Government Be Required to Give Landfill Workers Safety Equipment?

At our exchange with landfill community members, I was surprised to learn that the problem with the village wasn’t that they desired different jobs, but that they wanted their job of scavenging in Khon Kaen city’s landfill to be safer. They wanted the government to simply provide them with boots, face masks and gloves. While this seemed an easy solution, I couldn’t help but ask myself, “Is that really the government’s responsibility?”

Don’t get me wrong- the scavengers are doing a huge service to the city by picking out plastic bottles, aluminum cans, coffee cups and a great deal of other trash. In fact, they have saved the landfill eight years of staying open by recycling all of this waste that other people have decided to simply throw out. However, this job is their choice. They enjoy their job because they can work whenever they have the need or the desire. They don’t have to meet certain quotas or take orders from a boss. They have freedom. Also, when asked if they would try to find another kind of job when the landfill does eventually close, they replied that they will follow the trash wherever it goes. Because this is their choice to do this work, how can you make the argument that the government is responsible for providing them safety equipment? If I decided to go off on the street and pick up litter, would it be up to the government to provide me with a trash spear?

While it is the government’s job to keep their people safe, it is also impossible for the government to cater to every small group. If every small group did come to the government with their demands, there is no way that they all could be met. If the government did accept this kind of job and legitimize their work by giving them safety equipment, would the scavengers then have to be required to pick out a certain amount of trash to be able to keep these benefits? As of now, if the government fulfilled their demands, who is to say that the scavengers would continue working as hard and saving as much time for the landfill? If the scavengers accepted the equipment, it seems that they would have some sort of implied responsibility, and would thus lose some of the complete freedom that they have now.

So is the real responsibility of the government to provide safety equipment for a group who chooses to do this or is the responsibility of the government to provide more avenues for unskilled workers? It is a very gray area. While the workers say that they would like to continue doing what they are doing, is this because that is the only thing they know, or because they really enjoy the benefits of freedom that much? It is hard to imagine that anyone would prefer to work in a landfill, digging through other people’s trash, no matter what the advantages are. Nearly all of the villagers who live in the community at present came to the landfill following their parents, and grew up doing this job as a child. In an area where opportunities were scarce, they created a job sector that didn’t exist before. This having been said, if new, safer jobs were created, would these people take them? And if they didn’t, would this be because they didn’t want to give up the advantages that they have now or because they would have to change their skill set to something they have never experienced before?

So this simple question is really not so simple. Ideally, yes, the government would provide these workers who are doing this great service a few things to make their lives a little easier and a lot safer. However, where is the line between government involvement and autonomy? Can you ask for something from the government without giving up a little of your own personal freedom? Would this just be an easy fix for a very complex issue? Would it be legitimizing work that is so ridiculously unsafe even with the simple request of boots, gloves and a face mask? Would this lead to government responsibility if a catastrophe did happen? There are so many questions with no right answers. The only thing for certain is that everything has a cost.

Jenny McGinnis
Western Michigan University

Tons of Trash and the Lives of the Marginalized

The drive from the university to Khon Kaen city landfill was one of nervous laughter and uncertainly of what lay ahead. We were to spend two days living in a community of 220 people who live directly next to the city’s landfill. The villagers live next to the landfill because they are scavengers; they search through the trash to find recyclables. The first day we took a tour around the huge area led by the community leader who explained how the landfill worked and what everyday life was like. The next morning I awoke at 6AM thinking about the trash that we would soon be scavenging through to find recyclables and other things of value.

A group of students and I prepared for the dirty job ahead with long pants, boots, gloves, hats, and scarves to cover our faces from the smelly fumes. Many of the workers only have boots and long pants. We were given rakes and baskets for the valuables we would discover and headed down the road. We arrived to find many people already working on the landfill, as many start the day at sunrise because of the cooler temperatures. A full-loaded garbage truck arrived and we all attacked the trash looking for plastic, glass, cardboard, and electronics. Diapers, rotting food, plastic food wrappers, toys, shoes, DVDs, toothbrushes, clothes, paper, and purses were some of the things found during our relatively short time scavenging. I thought to myself; this toothpaste or this plastic potato chip bag could have easily been mine.

The life of a scavenger is dangerous because you can easily step on glass or a needle from the bags of medical waste that arrive every day. Most of the scavengers have at least one story of a time they were seriously injured from something they stepped on while working in the landfill. Hazardous gas from the massive trash pile and contaminated ground water are part of everyday life. During the rainy season they drink rain water but during the dry season they have to buy water because of the dangerous chemicals in the groundwater. The community water for showering and cleaning is pumped about 100 feet from the edge of the landfill. They have been told there is arsenic in the water but were never told the levels of arsenic and what other chemicals the water contains. They keep working here because this is the only thing they know how to do and they are comfortable with this kind of lifestyle. During our exchange, I asked “What do you want for your children?” and they immediately replied that they want their children to be educated so they don’t have to work at the landfill like their parents.

During our exchange with the community we learned that the current community of 60 households started with a few individuals who started picking through the city’s trash and eventually moved to the landfill to live permanently. The economic downturn has made life more difficult for the community for two reasons; a decrease in consumption and therefore trash and increased unemployment which had led to more scavengers working at the landfill. More scavengers means increased competition in the landfill. However I was glad to hear that the villagers have an agreement not to steal or grab objects discovered while working alongside each other.

Before the economic downturn, villagers could earn 30,000 baht a person per month ($900USD). Today they earn 5,000-6,000 baht a person per month($150-$180USD). The economic downturn means less consumption and therefore less waste but also the price of recyclables has decreased as well. Today they earn 10 baht/kg of plastic water bottles or 28 baht/kg for glass bottles. Today most villagers work 15 hours a day and do not have time free time, but it wasn’t always this way. Before the economic downturn they were able to work fewer hours which left them with more free time to spend time with friends and family as well as organize together in an attempt to try to get equipment like gloves and boots from the local government municipality.

Modern capitalism coupled with consumerism encourages us to buy more stuff to make ourselves happy and to make our lives more comfortable without thought of the negative consequences. It is expected that we all take part in the massive consumption that depletes the planet’s resources. After we put something in the trash we never see it again; but it goes somewhere and the scavengers of Khon Kaen landfill will be the last humans to see it before it is buried under the tons of new trash that arrive every day.

I took pictures at the landfill even though I wasn’t sure if it was morally right to take photographs of the workers in the landfill. I did take pictures because I knew I would never have an opportunity like this again but I wasn’t sure if I would ever show the pictures to anyone. I'm worried that people in America will look at these pictures and think to themselves "those dirty poor people." This people have been marginalized by powerful external forces like globalized economies, government policy, capitalism, poor education, etc. One of your friends or family could easily have been born into a landfill community like this anywhere in the world. One billion of the world's population lives in slums and any of us could have been born there instead of a wealthy family in America. So think of the things you throw away everyday and don't take your comfortable life for granted.

Brodie Henry
Champlain College

07 October 2009

Thinking Self-Reliance

Our first unit brought us to Yasothorn Province, into the homes and rice paddies of our host families and the lives of people working for the AAN, Thailand’s Alternative Agriculture Network. We met with organizers and consumers of Yasothorn city’s growing green market, the president of the AAN and its regional coordinators, villagers and farmers. Aside from the foremost goal of assisting farmers through the transition to organic farming, a repeated theme was the hope to bridge the urban with the rural, and to spread access to safe food past the villagers who have already seen the promises of food sovereignty.

Ubon Yoowah is the AAN’s regional coordinator for Yasothorn. One of the things he said to conclude our exchange was that to foster community self-reliance, we need urban people who are aware of the situations for rural people, and rural people who want to connect with urban communities. It left me thinking, how do we build this bridge?

One of the AAN’s goals is to find this connection between Thailand’s urban and rural communities. And the green market in Yasothorn has made a lot of progress towards that goal, by starting to introduce city eaters to rural growers. But could there be a deeper connection between these two sides of their food system?

My host father in Yasothorn is a wiseman in our village. His organic rice paddies, divided by papaya, passion fruit and mango trees, rows of herbs and carefully chosen nitrogen fixing roots, are seen as an example of ga sayd pa som pa san, integrated agriculture. He teaches farmers in his village about seed saving, and spreads encouraging advice about the switch to organic farming to his more hesitant neighbors. He is sharing the wisdom of his ancestors. He is on the committee that started Yasothorn’s growing green market, and values a direct connection with the people that eat his food. He doesn’t think it’s right to grow food that isn’t safe for consumers to eat.

Right now he sells them a safer final product, but they don’t watch it grow. What would it mean for my host father to teach people in Yaso city what he teaches his fellow farmers? The rural producer could teach a lot to the urban consumer. What if one of those things was how the urban consumer could become his own producer? Members of the AAN told us all week that they hoped safe food could connect the city with the farm, and that they wanted to get youth involved in the movement. I walked away from the green market dreaming of an urban garden at the nearby school, tended by the students guided by the wisdom of farmers like my host father.

As high a value as I’ve always placed on a certain “worldliness,” and the importance of learning from other cultures’ perspectives, I was caught off guard this week by how strong my urge was to rush back home and work towards these connections in the States. At home, the mechanisms are growing through which we are weaving the rural into the urban: CSAs and farmers markets, even a few rooftop gardens and urban farms. But just as the year-old green market in Yaso made me think, even as it brings organic food to the attention of most city folk for the first time, is farmers selling their produce to those in the city a reciprocal enough relationship to connect the rural with the urban?

I find myself anxious to get back home and plant vegetables on pavement, bringing urban communities together by sharing what it feels like to be so connected to your food. For the next four months, though, I am learning what self-reliance might really mean in Thailand. To have seen (and tasted) the pride my host family felt in the food they grow and share, I think that on their weekly trip to the city market, they could bring a lot more than their food – they could bring the lessons of such a self-sufficient livelihood.

In Yaso and other cities, what is a farmer’s role in spreading the word about organic, self-grown food? For the AAN’s goal to bridge urban and rural, planting gardens in vacant parking lots sounds pretty fitting into the movement towards an alternative agriculture. I want to go back to Yasothorn to bring my host family, their compost, and their food wisdom to the city, to plant an urban garden that could help the green market teach the lessons of safe food to both the rural and the urban communities it feeds.

Maina Handmaker
Bowdoin College

Are agricultural subsidies the way to go?

In the U.S, I’ve come to know organic consumers as somewhat of food elitists. Sure maybe they’re healthier for it. But after watching the type of customers that stroll down the aisles of Whole Foods Market, I can’t agree that they are aware of anything more than the price they are paying for it. Being caught in the act of buying organic food, what I call “I’m better than you” food, reflects the power U.S. subsidies has on not just the producer side but consumer side of agriculture.

I never really thought whether this was the same behavior of consumers in Thailand or not; I more or less assumed it would be at least in comparing consumers between Bangkok and Isaan. But I realized through a week of exchanges with Northeastern farmers in Thailand that it’s clearly not the same. In an exchange with some members of Yasothorn’s first Organic Green Market, I felt it important to bring up the question of price dynamics and the difficulty poor Thai consumers may have in switching to buying a more expensive product. Apparently, my question was completely irrelevant as they informed me that organic vegetables are priced no differently than chemically-grown vegetables, sometimes even cheaper.

Later in the week we had another exchange with contract farmers at a sugarcane farm. Again, I felt a necessary question was something along the lines of “do you get paid differently for selling the company organic sugarcane versus chemically-grown sugarcane?” They quickly responded that despite all the terrible agreements they knowingly and unknowingly signed for in their contracts, the company had no preference whatsoever on the manner in which their product was grown so long as the appropriate yield was received.

So here’s the explanation from the perspective of a farang (white person) working with farmers in Isaan: The only reason prices are actually different in the States is due to the agricultural subsidies which create artificially low prices for large-scale cash crops. Without the aid of premiums, organic farmers are forced to sell at a higher price, but in doing so reflect the true costs of producing. Fair enough, I learned something new, still shocked.

My reflection over this unit brought back these thoughts of America’s agricultural subsidies. I really feel that increasing consumer demand would be a successful attempt in expanding the amount of organic farmland in Thailand. Furthermore, I want to think that a way to do that would be by incorporating subsidies in which Thailand could take advantage of promoting organic food as a better product and eventually push for a more organically grown, environmentally-safe agriculture industry- assuming consumers begin demanding it the way in which American consumers do. But at the same time, it could so easily take a turn for the worst too, as I have observed in the States. Take for instance, the latest push for Fair Trade products in the U.S. Another very interesting fact that I learned in my time here was that in order to get a certification label for a “Fair Trade” product, the company need only 2% of its product to actually be certified, a percentage lowered from 5% after Starbuck’s fought it down.

Although Fair Trade is not necessarily associated with organic, certainly it relates to my point in that regardless of the benefits in increasing consumer demand for organic food, it creates the potential for companies to exploit that demand by manipulating well-intentioned policies to fit their own agenda, thereby throwing out the purpose of such policies in the first place. So then how should Thailand or any country really, go about appropriately convincing its citizens that the way to farm is organic?

Kara Heumann
Indiana University

Eyes Wide Open

The look of determination and passion that is etched into my meh’s (mother’s) face while speaking about organic agriculture is one that I have become used to after spending nearly a week living and having exchanges with organic farmers in Yasothorn and Kalasin. My meh’s father was diagnosed with stomach cancer twenty years ago as a direct result of growing tobacco and using an excessive amount of herbicides and pesticides. While giving farmers subsidies for using chemical fertilizers, neither the government nor the fertilizer companies educated the farmers on the health risks involved when using such toxic substances. My da (grandfather) did not realize that applying such large quantities of herbicides and pesticides onto his fields posed any risk to him, his family, or his neighbors; he simply wanted to ensure that he had a high-yielding season. Sadly, this is not an isolated occurrence. Many innocent and oblivious farmers have suffered serious consequences from using chemical fertilizers, and many of them have decided to switch to organic farming instead of wallowing in despair and resentment.

I came to this program with my eyes wide open and unblinking. After spending 4 months in Thailand, and I want to leave this country having gained a new perspective on the world and its people. So far, I have successfully managed to witness many aspects of human nature that reinforces that people are beautiful, strong, and compassionate beings in a way that I have never seen before. I have met sugarcane and cassava farmers indebted to a sugarcane company that came into their village in 1994 and cut all of the forest surrounding the village down to make room for sugar fields, so as to force all of the farmers in that village to work for the company and become sugarcane farmers. This same company pays the farmers ten baht, roughly thirty cents, for ten sugarcanes, which does not sufficiently cover the costs and manual labor that it takes to grow ten sugarcanes. The farmers we met with are slowly switching to organic agriculture, but it is especially difficult for them because they are trying to get out of debt, which means that the first year after switching to organic farming in which a farmer’s yield decreases causes them severe setbacks in trying to pay off their debts.

I also met many villagers, including my homestay family in Yasothorn, who are proud to spread awareness to other villagers about the benefits of organic farming: more nutrient-enriched soil, more animals on their fields, a diverse variety of crops, and less expensive since one does not need to factor in the cost of chemical fertilizers, through the Green Market that they created one year ago. The Green Market is composed of roughly thirty stalls that sell only organic produce and organically fed meat. Their primary motive is not to make a profit, but to encourage others to lead healthier lives by eating organically, and to encourage others to switch to organic farming as well. The villagers I was lucky enough to meet with had a huge impact on me because they have dedicated their lives to a cause, even when faced with the obstacle of fighting against a government that constantly implements policies that are in direct opposition to the goals of the villagers.

After only a month here, I can honestly say that I have already acquired a new outlook on people. I have never experienced or witnessed much suffering throughout all twenty years of my life, which are both privileges and disadvantages. While I am lucky to have never suffered much, I have been sheltered from the struggles and pain that most of the world’s population endures on a daily basis. Since being in Thailand, the capacity of the human spirit and heart has amazed me. I was immediately struck by a feeling of awe while watching people who have been knowingly hurt and oppressed by their own government come together to actively fight against the injustices that face them in a struggle to preserve their culture.

Katherine Steinhardt
Goucher College

"A Pot of Food is a Pot of Medicine"

Khun Kriang, an herbal medicine doctor at the Herbal Medicine Center in Yasothorn province said, “A pot of food is a pot of medicine.” This thought traced me back to my connections with food and the role it plays in my life. Back in Boston, I prided myself in using my reusable bags at Whole Foods to purchase as much Organic or All Natural food as possible without burning a hole in my wallet. But why was I really purchasing Organic Food in the first place? My answer, at the time, would be- because it’s healthier. So if I had to choose between two apples that looked the exact same, but one was labeled “certified organic”- I bought it no matter the price. I never thought about where that apple had come from or why it was organic. I never wondered why I was going to eat the apple, or whom I could share it with.

After my experiences in Yasothorn living on an organic farm and participating in a Green Market, I realize that there’s more to food than just what you eat- food is a story; it’s a process; it’s a part of our lives. There are more times than I can count in my life where convenience and inexpensive “deals” overcame my desire to put thought into the food I was eating. But the feeling I had after a bowl of Ramen noodles as opposed to the feeling I have after I invite my friend over to eat the Filipino dish my Grandmother passed on to me cannot be compared. Food is more than just nourishment; it’s an experience, relationship and culture.

This all ties back to the concept of food as a medicine. Medicine heals you when you’re sick and prevents you from future problems. Food is similar in that way- it’s a method of sustaining one’s life through not only nutrition but relationships. Food is a culture and a means of bringing humans together. It’s a reason to gather together with people you love, it’s a tradition that can be passed throughout your families while also a livelihood for farmers and producers.

I worry in America we have lost this connection with food. Instead of having a food culture as a country, I find many Americans have to reach back into their own personal roots to find their food identities. But some have lost that connection to their roots, as it has been overcome by the convenience of fast food or the inexpensive processed goods. In Thailand, the price of organic food is the same as food grown with chemicals. The same people who can afford non-organic food can afford organic. But in America, we not only are slowly losing our food culture that is made up of the melting pot of different food ethnicities- but we are losing the equality of our society, all having the equal opportunity to eat what’s healthy and sustainable.

However, there is a slight glimpse of hope. The organic movement in America is slowly growing and making the demand of organic food more prevalent- thus making it much more available to all consumers. Also, I have always found that whenever I share my food identity with others- whether that’s inviting them over for a traditional Passover dinner or cooking up one of my Grandmother’s Filipino recipes- it sparks something in other people, wanting to share their food identity with me. I think we need to embrace the food that defines us, but not forget where it comes from and the hands that make or grow it. Food is not just breakfast, lunch and dinner. It sustains our lives for however long we live. Food heals in a way modern medicine cannot. It connects us with other humans, bringing us together to enjoy life.

So where do we go from here?

Rani Pimentel
Northeastern University

A Sack of Rice

Last September, my housemate came home from the superstore Costco with a sack of rice. We were all excited to have this seemingly endless supply—of jasmine, no less—for a cheap price. For the next four months, the rice sat prominently on the kitchen floor and was measured into puddings, curries and stirfrys for ten ravenous people. Looking back, I realize there is no way it was not Jasmine 105, the hybrid form of rice that has taken over much of Thailand’s farmland.

The Green Revolution of the 1960’s brought chemical agriculture to Thailand. The government encouraged the transformation from integrated, diverse farming to monocropping. These techniques were paired with Jasmine 105, easy to grow and in high demand by the market. Today, 95% of farmers in Surin Province use chemical fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides. Rice, Thailand’s nutritional and cultural staple, has dwindled in diversity, the number of varieties shrinking by 45%.

Buying the sack of rice was our way of being self-sufficient. Living in a house without my parents for the first time last year was the first time I had to plan and shop and cook on my own. My friends and I prided ourselves on our frugality and self-reliance. To me, self-sufficiency meant being able to get everything you need on your own—knowing where to buy milk and how to get a job and who to call when your sink leaks through the ceiling.

To the organic farmers in Thailand, self-sufficiency meant human survival at the most basic level: relying on the food you grew yourself, making many of the things you needed, and eliminating the ties to the outside entities who would dictate how you carried out your livelihood. Self-sufficiency was a goal for every organic Thai farmer we talked to. One activist farmer had never sold his rice. Another bought only oil and cell phone minutes.

Most people depend on people thousands of miles away for the food they consume each day. I am dependent on the farmers who grew that rice, and all of the people who packaged and shipped and sold it. Most Thai farmers are also dependent. In 2008, an estimated 88% of Thai farming households had significant debt. In Roi-Et Province, we spoke with a group of farmers who were under contract to sell their crop to a large sugarcane and cassava company. Reducing the pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers they bought from the company was their way of trying to escape the debt that forced them to sign contracts year after year. In another village, the company supplying villagers with chicks and buying back the grown chickens stopped providing them during the avian flu panic of 2004, depriving the villagers of their livelihood for two years.

Our mutual dependence in the face of agricultural globalization sunk in for me when, walking to my host parents’ farm in rural Northeast Thailand, I spotted a Cargill bag hanging over a bamboo fence. Cargill’s headquarters are 45 miles from my school in Minnesota.

Depending on an outside source, especially when it does not have your best interests at heart, can only expose you to problems. It can also allow you to knowingly or unknowingly ignore the realities of the things you are relying on because they are removed or far away. The Jasmine 105 I ate for four months was grown with nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium that depleted the soil and increased erosion rates. The chemicals polluted the water, and the degraded soil demanded more fertilizers, accelerating these processes. The people who planted and harvested my food likely have debt that is three times their annual income (if they are like 68% of farmers in Northeast Thailand) , and may have been sickened by overexposure to chemicals. Self-sufficiency, as one farmer here explained, demands awareness and respect for other people.

There are certain things we need to survive: food, water, shelter, energy. But of course, no one is self-sufficient. Even the hermit eating berries in a cave depends on the environment. That was something that these organic farmers understood absolutely. When the rains stopped too soon, “it’s like our hands and feet were cut off.” When the land was soaked in chemicals year after year, the worms disappeared and the land’s fertility ebbed away. We have to be dependent, and that fact can draw us closer to the earth and to each other.

But globalization and relationships between actors don’t have to, and shouldn’t, disturb self-sufficiency, at least in terms of our most basic needs. At each level, we should have a certain degree of self-sufficiency. Ideally, individuals would grow some of their food, repair their own appliances, or at least be able to function when the power went out. Communities, too, should have some self-sufficiency. They should be the source of their staple foods, depend on their own water, and provide their own health care workers, teachers and building materials. Finally, nations must grow food for their people to eat before they churn out exports and cash crops. This is why, as many have suggested, food should be excluded from free trade agreements. Food is more than a commodity. The International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights recognizes food as a fundamental human right (Article 11). If we “free” its trade, governments will be unable to protect not only their self-sufficiency, but their people’s livelihoods.

In Northeast Thailand, individual and community self-sufficiency through agriculture is growing. Three thousand farmers are members of the Alternative Agriculture Network, which works with farmers and the government to promote organic agriculture. In Yasothorn, the profitable Green Market has about 30 stands; in Surin, 80 families sell their organic food at a Green Market each week. One Yasothorn organic farmer explained, “We have rice to eat, freedom. We are director, manager, janitor. We eat everything we grow.”

Self-sufficiency is power. It is money under the mattress. It is food security and food sovereignty. We cannot and should not be isolated, but we must be responsible for the things we need to survive.

1 Hufford, Jonathan, et al. “Voices From the Margin: Economic, Social and Cultural Rights in Northeast Thailand: Surin Organic Agriculture.” CIEE Thailand, Fall 2008.
2 Hufford, Jonathan, et al. “Voices From the Margin: Economic, Social and Cultural Rights in Northeast Thailand: Surin Organic Agriculture.” CIEE Thailand, Fall 2008.
3 Kyotha, Bamrung. Exchange 9/22/09
4 Hufford, Jonathan, et al. “Voices From the Margin: Economic, Social and Cultural Rights in Northeast Thailand: Surin Organic Agriculture.” CIEE Thailand, Fall 2008.
5 “Fair Trade Rice Backgrounder.” Engage.
6 Yasothorn organic farmers exchange, 9/20/2009
7 1966
8 Alternative Agriculture Network exchange, 9/19/2009
9 Personal observation and Yasothorn Green Market organizers exchange, 9/19/2009
10 Yasothorn organic farmers exchange, 9/20/2009

Liz Aeschilmann
Carleton College

Yasothorn Experience

Living with a family in Yasothorn, a small province in the lower Northeast, I began to understand the life of a Thai rice farmer. Each day rolled into the next, my family seamlessly performing each day’s work which began well before sunrise. My meh and paw (mother and father) rose at 5 o’clock, paw heading to the rice fields and meh washing the dishes from the previous day, feeding the animals and beginning the day’s food preparation. The children woke up a bit later, washed, ate and headed to school- one by bicycle and one driven on a motorcycle. As the morning progressed my meh and her sister (whom share the same house) washed clothes, prepared sticky rice and tended to the cows, pigs and buffalo. After sunset the whole family ate together,usually watching a Thai soap opera or other comparable show on their television which resided on the roofed deck located a few yards from the house. By 10 o’clock, everyone was showered and asleep under the network of mosquito nets hung every evening. Besides a chicken or two unsuccessfully attempting to swipe a few grains of rice during meals, the day ran without interruption. There were no arguments, tele-marketers or blinking call-waiting signals.

As an American raised in New York City and the surrounding suburbs, I have grown accustomed to a slightly different routine. Breakfast is generally rushed or eaten on the go, parents commute to their jobs and housework is regarded as an unfortunate chore. Work, I have observed, is an aspect of one’s life to be separated from the rest. One’s occupation is not necessarily “who you are.”

Living with my Thai family, however, I realized that they do not consider farming an occupation. Rather, it is a lifestyle. While the mere proximity of the cows and rice fields signifies that there is no physical separation between work and home, it was clear from every activity I watched my parents perform that this division simply does not exist. The contribution my paw makes by planting and harvesting rice is not more significant than other work that must be done. While meh may not plant in the field as frequently as the male family members, the concept of a “stay at home mom” does not exist. The whole family functions as one unit; when asked their profession, every family member answers “ben chow na,” I am a farmer.

Both the average American family and rice farmers in Thailand are dependent on some sort of livelihood, but it is the definition of livelihood that changes. While I grew up defining this term as one’s salary, monetary gain is not the goal of my Thai family. Rather, they farm to feed themselves. Any extra crops are sold to afford only the food and amenities they themselves cannot produce. The Thai government may consider the farmers in my village impoverished, but I now realize that falling on either side of a poverty line established by officials who do not understand one’s life is meaningless. Experiencing this lifestyle for only five days has made me question the power I assign to money and the materialistic values that seem almost innate as an American citizen. While, as Americans, we may convince ourselves that our career cannot define us, the fact remains that the majority of our waking hours are spent in offices or tracking billables (at least until we retire at the ripe old age of 65). While I do not plan to abandon my future career goals just yet and certainly understand the positives of capitalism, I think it would do us all some good to question our perception of money and the consequences of categorizing our lives into “work” and “personal.”

Katherine Cahn
Georgetown University

Food From The Heart

I’ve heard about local food, but this was a whole new scale. Our lunch, eaten in a picturesque bungalow in the middle of Petch Thongnoi’s sun-drenched rice paddy, all came from within a fifteen yard radius. Bananas, fresh fish, rice, beanpods, bamboo, sawalots, and papaya came from the backyard; several types of chili peppers, lemongrass, and onions from the front. A feast, a cornucopia, performance art: Petch killing and gutting the fish with one artful swing of a knife as we roasted them over the fire, on a stick, like marshmellows. Our hands were soon covered in sticky and spicy food, our arms intertwined as we unabashedly reached and delved into the communal dishes at the center of our seated circle. Petch punctuated the end of the meal as he rolled up the giant place-mat banana leaf, scooping up the food scraps, and tossed it directly into the rice paddy water. Everything from the rich Thai soil, and everything back to it!

In America, how often is lunch a spiritual, or even memorable, experience? Living with the Thongnoi family (Petch, Nusaan, and their granddaughter Agnoon) revealed how one can exist mindfully, lovingly, sustainably, and full of faith in even the simplest daily routines. Their life revolves around the communal consumption of food, and around the cultivation of an incredible variety of plants growing literally everywhere. My host parents’ ethos is simple: “If you grow plants with love, and harvest with happiness, the plants will grow well. This is why it is important to be happy in all things.” This mindfulness during gardening transcends the act of merely raising crops. True to their Buddhist beliefs in self-awareness and moral action, they live their faith daily, emanating an intangible but undeniable warmth and wisdom.

Almost all farmers in Thailand switched to chemical agriculture at some point as the seemingly unstoppable Green Revolution and its chemical fertilizers spread across the globe. Members of the current reactionary organic movement have seen the environmental and human costs of planting monocultures riddled with chemicals, providing artificially high yields of a single crop for export. They recognize that depleting the soil of its resources at escalating rates and that selling produce permeated with carcinogenics to a faceless, nameless consumer are all dishonest and immoral ways to share food. As the villagers of Yasothorn reiterated, to grow food organically, one must have the love and the heart to do it. Their concern for their family’s health follows the Buddhist belief that change begins with the individual.

In a country that is 95 percent Buddhist, what does the day-to-day faith of its average citizen look like? How does the a Thai layperson reconcile the goal of being committed to renouncing the material world (the Buddhist paradigm) while being firmly rooted in it? I think it looks a lot like the Thongnoi family. They grow everything they need, create that which they can’t grow (soap from bamboo!), consume nothing other than cell phone minutes, have no debt, are mindful of their bodies, and get great pleasure from providing good food to others. Nothing they do is radical, but may hold many answers to the problems plaguing contemporary Thai society. The pastoral life of organic farmers like them across the Isaan region provides a model of living their faith by growing food mindfully with love for themselves, the environment, and the consumer.

One old man shopping at the Yasothorn Organic Farmer’s Market told us that he heard about the fledgling organic movement from his local wat, or temple. On the wall was printed the Five Precepts (abstain from killing, false speech, sexual misconduct, stealing, and taking sense altering substances), and included, almost as a footnote, a simple encouragement to eat organically grown food.

This encounter made me wonder: could Buddhism provide an endorsement, on a larger scale, for organic agriculture? The embryonic organic movement needs demand and awareness on the consumer side, to encourage current chemical-farmers to join the ranks. While the temple may hold less sway now than it once did, it still certainly remains a significant player in society. For the endorsement to be compelling, it would likely need to be more visible than something as passive as the printed suggestion on a temple wall. What if monks established a ceremony specifically for organic farmers, recognizing their position in society as different from farmers using chemicals? While this might feel like elitism, don’t they deserve this recognition? Or if monks only accepted chemical-free food for alms – how would that impact farmers? Would it drive people away from the temple?

As my host mom Nusaan said - quite profoundly - “Food is the number one issue in the world.” What role can religion play in making food more mindful, fair, and just?

Jon Springfield
Davidson College