10 March 2010

Fish, Rum and a Side of Oppression

“It is calmest in the eye of the storm. There, you will not see the vast and ever growing chaos of the storm but rather the tranquility of being at its center.” - P’Ubon

The smell of fish and rum fermented in the blistering heat. It was nearly 11am and the last bucket of fish was being pulled from the river to be weighed, transferred to a tank and driven to the market. Having started at 8pm the night before, the community of fish farmers were stumbling around on their last wisps of sanity. Their veins pumping with a mix of rum, rice wine and Red Bull to maintain their energy and make the all night process of harvesting the fish bearable. Drunken laughter and cheering filed the air as the farang attempted to help the fish farmers who were using a pulley to lift the last bucket of fish out of the water and up the steep hill to the scales and truck waiting at the top. When asked how much profit they were going to make from their harvest, the fish farmers just laughed. “We will find out at the market,” explained one farmer. “Most of the money we make from fishing is needed to pay off our loans. Becoming a CP fish farmer is very expensive. We will make enough to get by.” The largest meat production company in Asia, CP owns the means of production in this community as the fish farmers must pay CP for the fish food, bio-engineered fish, chemicals, nets, and incubation containers. What appears to be a day of traditional fish harvesting in a rural Thai community is actually the end of a multi-million dollar mechanized system that works to control the means of production, worker and final goods created in the fish farming process. With every fish slung into the truck bed, the reality of fish farming in Thailand came into focus. I was witnessing the harsh chaos of the storm.

I was fortunate to have been able to see this process unfold. Day to day, the river is lined with fishing nets and littered with fishermen in what appears to be a Thai community using traditional methods to farm fish. Far from the truth, large transnational corporations control much of the fish farming in Thailand as well as the agricultural production. Nearly 80% of the seeds used in Thailand today have been purchased from CP and Monsanto. For many Thai communities the control that CP and Monsanto have over the food production in the country is not apparent as they use contract farming to force farmers to buy seeds from them every season and take loans out to pay for inputs needed in industrial farming like pesticides or equipment. This has caused many farmers to go into debt as their livelihood is no longer in their own hands but those of transnational corporations. Before coming to these farming communities in northeast Thailand, I, like many Americans, was unaware of the control American companies like Monsanto and transnational companies like CP had on farmers in Thailand. But upon talking with these Thai farmers, I discovered that many Thai communities are also unaware of this reality. Together, both American and Thai consumers were blindly supporting these transnational corporations and furthering the exploitation of these Thai farmers with every purchase we made. It would appear that CP and Monsanto have been able to manipulate who is in the eye of storm. Shifting the burden of consumerism to those that are limited in their capacity to fight back, these corporations are able to continue to disillusion populations in both Thailand and in the United States.

Kayla Nolan
Occidental College


CGE said...

Very interesting, Kayla. Mexico is facing similar problems. Facilitated by NAFTA and other neoliberal economic policies, huge agro-businesses like Monsanto have come to dominate Mexican agriculture. Small farmers suffer greatly as they are forced to buy seeds and other supplies from Monsanto. Some simply cannot afford to do so and are forced off their land and into the informal sector (as day laborers, street vendors etc). This has become such a prominent issue that informal migrant labor now makes up 80% of Mexican agricultural labor. However, while farmers are forced to sell their crops at below-market prices, consumers face skyrocketing prices. As the price of corn fell 45% in five years, the price of tortillas rose from 1.9 pesos per kilo to 5.5 pesos per kilo over five years. One Mexican family needs four to five minimum wages to buy basic food items. Food insecurity has become a serious problem in Mexico (and in many other developing nations). Mexico has gone from being food self-sufficient under the PRI to food insecure after the passage of NAFTA. In one article I read for class, the author summed up this problem nicely, “The profits of the gigantic agro-corporations betray them as primarily responsible for the price escalation and the increase en masse of people living in misery throughout the world, as a result of manipulation, hoarding, and speculation on inventories and prices.” (Desolation: Mexican Campesinos and Agriculture in the 21st Century, Sergio Zermeno).

Martha Clarke, Bowdoin College

April said...

Great post Kayla. After watching Food Inc. I was completely disgusted with the American food system as a whole and especially disgusted with the major food companies like Cargill and Monsanto. After watching this movie I realized how much power these companies had in the United States, but I never thought that these systems and companies would be on a worldwide level, affecting countries all over, including Thailand. I realized the powers of these companies have worldwide and in Thailand when I witnessed the disturbing scene at the fish farm that Kayla described. The fact that CP creates these unhealthy environments for both their employees, the surround human/animal population, the products they sell and the nearby natural environment is very disturbing to me. I was highly disturbed before I knew a lot about the company CP that those fish farmers work for, but after learning that CP is a company that works with Monsanto I was outraged/shocked that these the food systems worldwide are all linked.
April Morris

Emily said...


Sweet post. This makes me think of corn, interestingly enough. About how, studying food issues in the classroom or the city, I get fired up about how bad industrial agriculture is, and how horrible it is that all people grow in the Midwest is corn and soybeans these days. But then, driving through the Minnesota countryside, it's hard to see the horrible system, the oppression. It's just corn. It's green, it's growing. How bad can it be? When things don't appear to be all-out murder on the surface, it's easy to ignore them and presume that things are a-ok. Industrial agriculture can be pretty oppressive and violent, as we've learned, but it rarely looks that way on the surface. And if it does, like slaughterhouses, it's discreetly hidden from the world and plunked down in poor neighborhoods. Oy vey.