07 October 2009

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


mia said...

I agree that its very powerful to learn about, and even more to physically witness, communities of people who have experienced such oppression and marginalization at the hands of their government and the global powers of the world overcome incredible struggles and resist.

During our ten-day trip to El Salvador, our group stayed in a community called “Nueva Esperanza” (New Hope), which was made up of refugees during the civil war who began organizing a cooperative while living in a refugee camp in Nicaragua in the 1980s and came back to El Salvador together to build this beautiful community. When they returned, the land was occupied by the Salvadoran military and they lived essentially as squatters until they were able to build homes and a successful agricultural cooperative, along with community centers, schools, and health clinics that support all the members of the community. The experience was incredible and the conviction and hope of the community inspired each one of the members of our group.

Amelia Fortunato, Oberlin College

Scozz Rockets said...

It is nice to hear your thoughts on your experiences in Yasothorn. While I was not able to attend this unit, reading your thoughts have allowed me to see clearer into this particular Thai community while also allowing me delving deeper into the global issues of privilege, disadvantage, change and strength of community
I agree with you wholeheartedly on how amazing the “capacity of the human spirit and heart” is in people. I have found that the strength of community and the personal ability to overcome hardships found in this Yasothorn example has also been introduced in our entire CIEE units here in Thailand, showing that when different problematic issues arise there is a way to organize and fight for our human rights. Yasothorn villagers have been dealing with an unsustainable, chemical, mono-cropped agriculture model which has been found to negatively impact the environment while also exposing the community to adverse health effects, but despite this they have collaborated together to try to make things better for their families and communities. They have made great strides and I believe that with this strong spirit and heart they will continue to make progress towards their goals.

Scott J. Pulido
University of Michigan