24 October 2010

A Slum that Defies Expectations

We have been in Thailand for two months and right about now is when homesickness is starting to kick in. I find myself longing for my bed, garden and family. I think about the way my house smells when my mom bakes pumpkin muffins and how magical my backyard looks when the leaves change colors. I love the way the wood floor feels on my feet and how comfortable our front porch is. To me, this is home.

Our second unit was focused on Urban Trends. We spent our time exploring landfills, slums, and markets. I was especially excited to hear more about the organization of slum communities during the unit.

Before we departed for a visit to the slum I thought I should mentally prepare myself for what I was about to see. I envisioned us driving to a new part of the city where I had never been. We have lived in Khon Kaen for two months and I had not yet seen a slum. I just assumed that I was on the wrong side of town.

However, we were only in the van for about ten minutes before we arrived at our destination of the Non Wang slum community. To my surprise, I found myself standing in the shadow of the biggest commercial mall in Khon Kaen. I must have passed this area fifty times and never thought twice about these houses.

Many of members of Nong Wang are descendents of people who were once farmers but migrated to the city in search of economic prosperity. However, when they arrived, they took low paying jobs as construction workers for SRT, Thailand’s biggest Train Company. As their workers, SRT encouraged them to live near the tracks in order to be close to work and avoid transportation issues. As a result, many settled along the side of the tracks but received no land rights.

Although the construction job has been completed for decades, their houses still remain on the side of the tracks. Today, the government is planning to move this community and build a train station where their houses are currently located. The community is scheduled to be moved in November of this year about seven kilometers away.

While we were walking through the slum I expected to see despair and I found the opposite. We arrived around the time work was ending and everybody was outside relaxing. The houses were fairly well kept and the community was beautiful. Kids were riding bikes and running around. We were greeted with huge warm smiles by anyone we walked passed. It was clear they knew the land, their neighbors, and how to live together. This is their home and even though it was a slum there was a lot of joy in their community.

When I first learned about the relocating of the Nong Wang community, I immediately thought “They should definitely take the deal. Get out of here and start new.” But I was missing the point. Some of these families have been living in the same house for sixty years. This place is not just a line of houses. A home is much more than four walls. A home has memories, community, and gives people a sense of belongingness. To them, this is their home and their community. No amount of compensation can replace a home, or a tight community, even if they only move seven kilometers away.

Abby Bok
Hope College

02 October 2010

Destigmatizing Farming

As the sun set on my host family’s rice paddy in Yasothon province, turning the sky into a kaleidoscope of different colors, I couldn’t help but utter a sigh of contentment and say, “นี่คือชีวิตที่ดี,” or, “This is the good life.”

For the entire day, I helped my host family manage their animals and crops through cutting down tall, thick grasses for the cows and pigs to feast on, planting tamarind plants and flowering trees, and sorting the white or unprocessed rice kernels from the local variety of rice that had a naturally rich, deep mahogany color. Afterwards, however, I was able to lay back and relax on a bamboo bench under the shade of an awning made out of straw. I was accompanied by the happy squeals of my young host cousins playing near the cow pen, the low-pitched, steady murmur of my host father, uncle, and grandfather as they talked about the day’s business and the laughter of my host mother, aunt, and grandmother while they made the day’s dinner.

Being a part of a family like this made me feel happy, safe – like I had a viable support system. So if this family structure evoked such a feeling from me, why does the farming occupation have so many stigmas attached to it? Why is everyone trying to escape the farming lifestyle?

In Thailand, the rural youth are increasingly migrating to Bangkok and larger urban centers for education and employment. For example, my host parents in Yasothon had one daughter who moved to Bangkok and married a man there with no intentions of coming back to the village. Similarly, my host parents in Roi Et province, where the farming lifestyle is similar, had two daughters who both moved to Bangkok to find jobs have not come back to help around the farm.

Perhaps this disrespect and negative mentality against small-scale farmers has allowed larger farming conglomerates to take advantage of both local and global markets and forced us everyday people to turn a blind eye to the issue. For instance, contract farming is a system in which a company hires individual farmers to grow a certain crop in a certain way and then buys the farmer’s product when it is ready. Although this provides the farmer with a guaranteed market, the company is not responsible for the welfare of the farmers that they hold contracts with. Additionally, some companies even require farmers to pay for certain types of seeds or expensive and nutrient-draining fertilizer from the company itself, thus opening up the possibility of the farmers accumulating a debt with the company.

Plus, contract farming creates other problems including the decision of whether or not to grow only cash crops like sugarcane and cassava to sell to companies or to grow in a more sustainable way without a contract for the sake of their community and livelihoods. If a farmer were to pick the former, then he/she would obviously accrue more money; however, he/she would be required to buy food from somewhere else instead of growing more food for his or herself. On the other hand, if the farmer were to choose the latter, there would be no guaranteed market for their goods, and he/she would have less money to send their children to school or afford electronics, for example. So essentially, I feel that contract farming has the potential to strip small-scale farmers like those in Yasothon and Roi Et from their rights and livelihoods through a system of exploitation stemming from a wide-sweeping disrespect for individual farmers.

In the US, too, I certainly feel that there is an air of, “I will never be like my parents,” if those parents are farmers. But from my experience in Yasothon, I no longer feel that sense of condescension because I now know those small-scale farmers. I’ve had a small taste of how they live their lives and how strong their bonds are. And ultimately, members of farming families are human, just like us. In a perfect world, what I envision is a total overhaul of societal thought in some way, and perhaps then, farming will be looked upon as an honorable, desirable occupation again.

Emily Srisarajivakul
Northwestern University