10 March 2010

Will we meet again?

The moment I stepped back into my KKU dorm room, I was overwhelmed. I didn’t want to check my computer’s overflowing inbox, I didn’t want to see whom I could potentially catch up with on Skype, and I cringed at the thought of Facebook. I wasn’t ready to come back into the technological world yet. I looked at my bed not longingly, but rather with a yearning for the mosquito-net enclosed mat that I had finally come to find comfortable. I felt claustrophobic in my small dorm; the clutter of books, clothes, beds, desks etc. contrasted immensely with the spacious yet peaceful, near empty rooms of my host family’s home. I finally picked up my phone to call my parents, reassuring them I was home safe. I knew they would ask how my homestay went. “It was good,” was the only response I could come up with, though ‘good’ is quite possibly the worst adjective I could have used to describe my recent experience with the Yasothon farming community. My mind, however, was too busy to process any greater description.

After hanging up, I decided to sort out my feelings by expressing them through a much more detailed email to my family. I sat on my stiff-backed desk chair, missing my much-practiced cross-legged position atop the handmade sitting mats, and reintroduced myself to fast-paced technology, which I had had a reprieve from in the past week. Hungry for dinner, but too overwhelmed to search for unprocessed and organic food, I began to type while trying to push out the cravings for my Mae’s farm fresh sticky rice and stir-fried vegetables.

I had just finished my first unit of the semester on food and agriculture and my brain was clogged with new theories, practiced realities, and reaffirmed beliefs. I had come into this unit with a relatively solid academic and theoretical background on food systems and organic farming practices in the U.S., but within this unit, I was challenged with the reality of chemical and organic farming practices in the Thai context which opened up my mind to a whole new web of questions and possibilities for agriculture worldwide.

I had spent only three days in Yasothon with the Nieulai family, and I was ready to settle in with them in their humble home. My Pa was one of three wise-men of the village. After switching back to organic farming ten years ago, he saw his previous debt from chemical farming decrease and witnessed his land, now in synch with nature, come back to life. He proudly sells his rice, yard long beans, and tomatoes at the two-year old organic Green Market supported by the Alternative Agriculture Network of Thailand. The organization is currently working on creating awareness of organic farming, offering training sessions and support to farmers who make the change. The market itself has become a medium through which farmers can share farming practices, create friendships, and educate consumers and other farmers on the benefits of organic farming.

One thing that continues to baffle me about the agricultural and social systems of Thailand is the fact that farmers are not considered part of the formal labor sector. I can’t fathom how the government and society do not give the credit, support, or respect to the people who provide life’s basic necessity. Policy and ignorance have perpetuated the cycle of exploitation and repression for farmers, but those in the organic movement are fighting back. In a small exchange with my Pa and the two other wise-men, he noted how proud he was of his farm and of his community. He lives simply, but is very happy with his life and the self-sufficiency of his family and neighbors. The community works together as a family, helping each other on their farms, sharing meals, and bagging rice to sell at the market, all done with overarching love and respect for the land and one another.

The villagers in this farm community admire the vitality of their self-sustainability. Everyday, they use the skills of farming, cooking, sewing, and building, skills long forgotten in the convenience store/megamall-laden cities that crave technology and fast-food. The Yasothon farmers maintain a sense of reverence for the earth and for one another that the massive agricultural corporations have chosen to ignore. It is my hope that with the rising organic movement, small scale farming communities can reclaim their land, their livelihood, and their dignity and can be fully recognized as the vital labor sector that they are.

As I sat back into my chair, sorting through all these thoughts, I realized I missed the love and sense of community I had felt even with only a meager three days in the village. I thought back to my Pa, his face always on the verge of relinquishing a smile, but never giving away too much. “If the world is round, we will meet again,” my Pa had said with a knowing grin. It was this send off that made me sure I would come back, and once again feel the connectedness of a community working hard to nourish themselves and one another while maintaining peace with the earth.

Caitlin Goss
Occidental College


CGE Mexico said...

Very interesting entry, Caitlin. I too had a similar experience last week in Amatlán, Mexico when our group had a rural home stay with families in a local farming community. Like you mentioned, after a week without technology and any means of communication, it makes you appreciate the smaller things in life because you are able to reflect on your experience and learn from those around you. I lived with Doña Irene Ramirez, a feisty 74-year-old female farmer. For Doña Irene, age has never been an issue, as she still works in her cornfield, harvesting her corn to make tortillas to sell in the market. I loved what you mentioned about organic farming and the switch from chemical to organic production; in Amatlán, farmers have had similar struggles with organic versus genetically modified corn seedlings. Although the government tries to make small farmers use genetically modified seeds, the farmers in Amatlán prefer to use their own that they have used for generations. Interestingly enough, their seeds actually yield better output (larger corn kernels) than genetically modified ones. Also, you mentioned the value of community, which was another major theme of what I learned during my time in Amatlán. There, land is owned communally rather than privatized. Coming from the US where private property is the dominant discourse, this idea was hard for me to understand at first. The people of Amatlán believe that they don’t own the land, but rather they are the land. Thus, land is something that is shared communally, rather than owned individually. I think it is interesting to see different perspectives from around the world regarding land ownership and practices. Rather than viewing these communities through an ethnocentric viewpoint, it is important to consider these practices and how they benefit the local community. As a result, it seems as though the people in Amatlán and Thailand have something to teach us about tradition and the inherent value placed on land.

Katy Jensen, Emory University

charlieg said...

This is Barrie...

Caitlin I think most of us in the group can relate to the weird feeling of checking our computer after a homestay. I get a thrill out of emails and technology, but why? Do I actually like it or am I simply just looking for a false connection. Since being in Thailand and not having a phone I feel I have been released almost. But at the same time I often have a feeling that I am being left out of something going on. Where is that feeling coming from? At the end of your post you talk about missing community. I think technology is a new way to form communities. There seems to be something missing from this picture. There is a big lack of real connection and natural meeting. I think we all realized this importance of this after watching Unit 1. We are continually watching this with each community we go to.