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


mia said...

I think it’s really interesting to think about food sovereignty in the context of places that have historically depended on small-scale farming and agricultural industries in general, and are faced with the challenges brought on by globalization and changes in agricultural production for the sake of “modernization.”

In Mexico, we have heard less about concerns about types of agricultural production and distribution, and more about farmers losing their jobs because of competition with U.S. agribusinesses under NAFTA (the North American Free Trade Agreement), which has meant the Mexican government no longer supports Mexican farmers through subsidies and farmers can not compete with large-scale production of U.S. firms.

Corn production is a prime example. While corn has traditionally been considered an important symbol of Mexican culture and a staple in the Mexican diet, since NAFTA, Mexico has transitioned to importing all its corn from the U.S. While initially the prices were cheaper, for complicated reasons involving U.S. agribusiness having a monopoly in the market, the price of corn tortillas (a staple food here) has risen dramatically.

Amelia Fortunato, Oberlin College

Ian S. said...

The conclusion of your blog struck me particularly because the solution you presented, stating your eagerness to ready an urban garden, could be more palpable than you may think. During an exchange with P'Decha two weeks ago, he informed me of his most recent effort: acquiring a piece of land in the heart of Khon Kaen - from the government - to initiate the growth and production of said urban garden.

Could potentially be a platform for your desire? Otherwise, while I understand how difficult it might be at times to focus solely on issues here in Thailand (keeping your thoughts/ideas from flying home) it’s great that you have the clear aspiration/motivation to turn words into actions, by participating in projects which could protest the difficulties we learn about both in class and throughout our home stays.