31 March 2011

Copper in the Backyard

Unit 3 has been a whirlwind –in less than 72 hours we have been able to connect with different villages to talk to them about solutions, and not just the problem they are facing. My team of six traveled to Huay Muang, a village that relies heavily on the surrounding mountains for their livelihood. Phu Taeb mining company is threatening the integrity of this community and 14 surrounding communities by proposing a copper mine in these neighboring mountains.

What struck me the most was a recurring theme of conflicting intentions within the government. The land the mountains lay on has been declared as National Preservation Forest, yet the government granted Phu Taeb company permission to survey the land. To summarize, this surveying involved digging 280 holes throughout the “Preservation Forest.” It is ironic to see that the land is being destroyed by the same stakeholder that aims to preserve it.

We learned in the past unit the complexities surrounding land tenure in Thailand. For Thailand, ideas of preservation and conservation sprouted from a department that was formed to oversee a logging and later cash-crop industry. Ideas of preservation arose to keep up with global players, like the United States. But in reality the motivation of capital gain and economic growth that the government was formed upon still lives on.

I don’t want to automatically assume Thai government is bad, but in every unit we have studied thus far, the root of the problem always lies at the hands of the corrupt government. For Huay Muang this sentiment manifests itself through the lack of transparency from the government and Phu Taeb they have received.

Villagers from Huay Muang were approached by Phu Taeb in 2005 asking to dig 28 holes on the land. After securing 230 rai of land from the villagers and government, they dug 280 holes. Besides these holes, villagers were unaware of the intentions Phu Taeb had for their community –the proposal of a copper mine. Further, community members had no idea about the potential health and environmental implications of a copper mine.

The Loei Network of Monitoring Effects of Mining Industry Policies funded under the Loei Fund for Nature Conservation and Sustainable Development enlightened the communities of Phu Taeb’s plans.

Since 2008 this community has been mobilizing to prevent the construction of the proposed mine by creating the Poohinlekfie Preservation Network (PPN). PPN works mainly to raise awareness about the potential effects of copper mining and also networking with affected communities in an effort to bring solidarity to the cause.

Despite villagers’ persistence in preventing Phu Taeb’s plans, strangers were found conducting tests in the mountain on September 2010. Upon questioning, villagers discovered that they were professors from Kaset University testing ground water in Huay Muang for the Phu Taeb mining company.

There doesn’t seem to be too much government involvement in the events described, but it is really what the government isn’t doing that is hurting the villagers. Villagers wrote several letters to government authorities protesting the mine with no response.

The government’s ulterior motives will indefinitely show during the upcoming April 7 “public scoping” hearing to be held in Loei City. In order to conduct the Environment Impact Assessment, Phu Taeb must confirm majority approval from all stakeholders. This meeting will serve as such. Hopefully the outcome of this meeting and the role the government will play in the EIA (the process is often found to be ridden with corruption) will disprove my theory…

Meghana Anugu
University of Rochester

A Connection to Home: International NGOs in Rural Thailand

I have always thought that I wanted to work with an international NGO in some capacity. In the past month, I started questioning this ideology for the first time. During the last two units, I have seen the importance of grass-root Thai networks such as the Alternative Agricultural Network and the Thai Land Reform Network in empowering villagers to fight for their human rights. Since this empowerment came from such a grass-roots level with everyone in the organization really dedicated and involved in the issues, I started to question how an international NGO could truly help Thai villagers. The international NGO’s I have experience working with provide funding to developing countries, but after seeing the importance of networking, the power in numbers and the importance of empowering people to fight for their rights, I’m wondering how much money from abroad can really do. And is simply providing funding that affective? How do you know where that money is really going and if it is really helping to empower and enact change? How do international NGO’s truly know how to help people when culture, language, and government structures are strikingly different in every country?

Unexpectedly, I gained an understanding of international non-profits in a way that hit close to home while on or our Community Consultation Unit trip. For this unit, I went to Baw Kaew, a protest village in rural Northeast Thailand. The Community Consultation Unit is where we, as students, visit communities and exchange with them to find possible project ideas or campaigns that we can help with at the end of the semester. Baw Kaew is interesting in that in the 1960’s the government took over the land of many villages in northeastern forest regions for commercial use to plant and sell eucalyptus trees leaving these people landless. Baw Kaew was set up as a protest village composed of people from all of these different villages who had been kicked off their land in invasive and violent ways by the government. After protesting for their land rights for about two years, Baw Kaew is finally in the process of obtaining a Community Land Title. Since they are confident in their attainment of land, Baw Kaew has decided to switch their focus towards becoming a truly sustainable community.

Their first step in becoming sustainable is to create a seed bank with the purpose of collecting and distributing local seed varieties that have been lost overtime due to expiration and the government promotion of cash-crops. This was one of many project ideas that we may be able to help with come project time. When I asked P’Promot, an NGO working with Baw Kaew, if he had any relationships with international NGOs, he answered that they had a connection with one international NGO called AJWS that is helping Baw Kaew become more sustainable. I immediately thought of American Jewish World Service, an NGO I have been in connection with in the past. But no, could it be? Could AJWS, headquartered in Washington DC, actually have connected with this small rural village of Baw Kaew?

After the interview, I asked one of the translators to come with me to ask P’Promot what AJWS stood for, and sure enough P’Promot confirmed that AJWS stood for American Jewish World Service”. I immediately asked what exactly they helped with and why he thought their help was valuable. AJWS provides Baw Kaew with the funding of staff and educational activities and also helps connect Baw Kaew with other international communities working towards sustainability. Under AJWS’s Fighting Hunger from the Ground Up Campaign, AJWS internationally promotes local food production with a focus on food sovereignty. AJWS is taking two village members to India in the coming months to network, collaborate and offer solidarity and support with other international communities’ sustainability approaches.

Needless to say, I am ecstatic than an international NGO I am familiar with not only sought out, but is helping such a hardworking and inspirational community like Baw Kaew. I now am starting to see, first-hand, the important balance of the collaboration between international funding and networks with a grassroots movement that empowers people for the success of a movement like Baw Kaew’s.

Lena Morrison
Brandeis University

Students Getting Active

It is one thing to learn about human rights and social justice issues within the confines of a classroom or within a book or article, but it is fully another to be able to feel as if one can go beyond just learning, and take the immense gift of being a student into the realm of project execution, empowerment and involvement of creating change.

For the first 2 Units within CIEE’s Globalization and Development program, we traveled to various villages within the Northeast, Isaan region of Thailand where we researched, exchanged and physically observed many issues that the people are currently combating. There was a wide range of topics discussed, from contract farming, chemical fertilizer to land title rights. Although these trips were rewarding and immense learning experiences, Many of us were left feeling helpless and distressed, wondering how to move forward effectively with the gained knowledge of these presently occurring injustices and organizations working to contest them.

Finally, within the second month and 3rd Unit of our study abroad program, we were gifted the opportunity to put many of our ideas into action, as well as be able to actively participate in the possibility of creating real results. Three separate groups of students traveled to different locations with specific objectives in mind. One group traveled to a community fighting the construction of a copper mine, one to a village we had previously visited working on creating a local variety seed bank, and another went down to Bangkok to speak with key players involved in Thailand’s current political situation. During each trip the students interviewed and spoke with individuals directly involved in the movements, and were able to ask them about exactly what ways we can help them achieve their goals. Immediately upon each groups return, we worked rigorously to write a CCC report, or “Collaborative Community Consultation Report”. The CCC reports are documents regarding the topic of human rights and social organizing, each one thoroughly recording the issues that affect the community or group that was visited. The report also includes a chronicle of relevant histories, up-to-date statuses on the progress of the cause, and ideas regarding collaborative projects that students can assist in implementing in the near future. The purpose of this was to enforce a continued effort in establishing and maintaining reciprocal relationships with the villages, organizations, and people living within these regions.

In the next steps section of the report, students detailed the suggestions of the communities in what way to act now that they had gathered this information, as well as additional ideas that the groups had come to a consensus on to further their needs. Each community also was explained intricately to all other group members, insuring full understanding of each student in the issues and current situations so as everyone could possibly choose to execute the next steps. The groups all laid excellent ground work for the coming project time, a crucial and final element with our program where the time is set aside for executing these concepts into actuality through these specified project and compilations of educational materials.

I feel that as students, activists and global citizens it is our responsibility to cherish our privileges and resources that are at our fingertips. Unit 3 was our first step towards taking advantage of this, and gave us an idea of just how effectively we can assist in causes creating positive change. It is a great blessing to be able to be granted with such knowledge and work with such courageous and righteous groups and individuals, and I look forward to the coming months where we will be given a continued opportunity to step out of the academic sphere and into the role of taking action; this is one of the beautiful and satisfying aspects of CIEE’s DG program, and I believe should be more alternative learning programs that reflects this model.

Lyric Rafn-Stoffer
University of Minnesota – Twin Cities

A Seed Bank of Culture

When you first look at Baw Kaew it appears like many other poor Issan villages: cluttered wood and grass huts, exposed to the environment and few amenities. But below this superficial speculation, lies a community that has reclaimed their land and is fighting in solidarity to take back what is rightfully theirs. For the last two years Baw Kaew villagers have been living in an illegal protest village to make a loud statement to the government. Their strong resistance to their government led the villagers on a five-day trek from their northeast Issan village to Bangkok. They took their proclamation straight to the Prime Minister demanding a community land title.

Since then Baw Kaew villagers and NGOs feel confident in their endeavors to receive this land title and want to make another statement to the public sphere about their radical community. The community is currently in a campaign transition from fighting for their land to living sustainably. They want to channel their focus and energy in educating the public about preserving local culture.

I had the opportunity to spend some time exchanging with Baw Kaew villagers, and the NGOs fighting with them, to better understand how this community wants to bring back Issan culture to the northeast of Thailand. They explained to me how their culture is disappearing before their eyes. Up until this point I hadn’t fully realized how much culture and tradition were tied to their farming practices. They don’t want other villagers to lose sight of the importance of Issan culture and those that have been using mono-cropping practices and seeds provided by the government have contributed to their vanishing livelihoods.

Issan livelihood is grounded in the land you live and work on. P’Nugain, a NGO for the Thailand Land Reform Network (TLRN), said, “Food shouldn’t be grown for profit but for household consumption.” With mechanized farming practices taking hold of the rice market farmers have to buy food elsewhere to sustain their families. There is little seed variety left in the farmer’s hands anymore and now eight percent of people’s incomes, living in rural areas, are spent on food not grown personally. That is why Baw Kaew’s campaign for local varieties has become the new focus of this protest village. Local seed variety is one step toward a self-reliant lifestyle.

Villagers and NGOs are working on constructing a seed bank in their community to have a common forum for other Issan villages to come and learn and exchange seeds. Today most rural farmers have no rights or voice over their own seeds and farms. By constructing this cultural bank Baw Kaew community members are working simultaneously to secure a land title and restore their local knowledge. A seed bank will allow for villagers to have an opportunity to return to farming sustainably. This campaign transition is legitimizing, even more, Baw Kaew’s fight for recognition as a community.

Sitting before these villagers and NGOs and hearing them all talk about the importance of preserving their culture, gave me goose bumps. The confidence and passion that was exuding from their words about their emotional connections to the land has never made me feel more inspired. This deep red clay building is not just a primitive infrastructure but also a symbol of Baw Kaew’s fight to revive their cultural roots. It’s an opportunity for these marginalized people to speak out on behalf of their heritage.
Walking through the village you are surrounded by handmade protest signs and banners, constantly reminding you of the fight these villagers are living in everyday. The new seed bank will just be one more reminder to the public that Baw Kaew will not step down and they will fight till their story is spread throughout Issan.

Cassie Schneider
University of Colorado at Boulder

The Importance of Land

For the past two weeks we have explored issues of land tenure and land rights in urban and rural Thailand. During this time we read about issues, sat through economics lectures, and lived alongside three different communities currently wrestling the government for recognition of land ownership. As we learned about the history of land ownership, the changes in land ownership, and arguments as well as counter-arguments for who owns pieces of land, several of us were feeling like there was a disconnect. Land ownership being discussed as a human right was a hard concept to wrap our heads around, and I couldn’t figure out why.

I didn’t discover the origin of this disconnect until post-trip. After each trip, we are given two days to reflect on the meaning of the unit, to synthesize our understandings of the issues, and delve into global connections. One of our reflection questions asked, “Looking back at the US, what is your own connection to land?” The answer to this question and other US-related questions shed light on this disconnect I’d previously been experiencing. In that moment I realized why land rights, in a place like Thailand, need to be understood as human rights. Growing up in Hawaii, I lived on my land, not off of it. This distinction makes all the difference when it comes to the importance of land. The ¾ of an acre I grew up on was for luxury- for me to play tag on and later to spend time reading there. It was completely disconnected from either of my parents’ income. Yes, we could always mortgage our house for extra money, but the direct connection between my quality of life and where I lived was insignificant and hard to see.

In the areas we visited, this direct connection between quality of life and land ownership was far from anything I’d ever experienced before. Now that I’ve made this connection I am able to look back on our homestay experiences of this past week and I am able to see the gravity of the problem.

Toong Lui Lai, one of the communities we stayed with, was established in the 50’s. Since that point in time generations of families have established themselves as community members and primarily as farmers. Somewhere along the way the government declared their village as residing under the newly established Federal Reserve Forest area, thus making villagers technical trespassers. Shortly after this declaration, conflicts between the villagers and the government arose. Since 1973, over 100 individuals from Toong Lui Lai have been charged and put through the judicial system for using the land their families have worked on for over 20 years. When people are prevented from farming, their main source of income, and are ordered to pay fines equal to $3,000 per ½ acre worked on, there is more to the conflict than legal issues, it becomes issues of humanity. Most families we encountered have no other source of income besides farming on their land and without the ability to do so they’d need to pick up their families and move to an urban area and start from scratch. The futures of their families are at stake due to land politics.

Looking at how my own family’s income is far from related to our land explains why I didn’t initially understand. In taking away my front (or back) yard there’d just be fewer places for me to lay out- it would have no effect on future generations of my family. I will never be able to truly relate to the challenges that our friends in Toong Lui Lai experience due to their intense connections to the land, but what I can do is work towards understanding why land ownership is so important here in Thailand.

I now see land as more than a parcel or area of soil; I see it as a gateway to other rights and freedoms that contribute to increasing and protecting someone’s quality of life. As issues surrounding land here in Thailand are becoming clear to me, I am left wondering about what other issues I’ve overlooked due to my American understanding of a concept. Although this is a big question, I know that the only way to understand more is to open myself up to the challenges of this program and to not only evaluate what’s going on in Thailand, but what’s going on in my backyard as well.

Maddisen Domingo
Occidental College

Definitions of Sustainability

As Paw walked ahead of me in the silent forest, the only audible noise was the soft crackling of leaves beneath his peeling leather boots. Sometimes he stopped, motioning and speaking in mumbled Thai towards one perfect rubber tree or a blackened kettle collecting sap beneath it. I followed blindly, looking on in disturbed awe and trying to process each identical, evenly spaced, vibrant green tree.

It may be easy to understand why one could be against the growth of such an unnatural, albeit beautiful, forest, as arguments of environmental concerns like soil depletion and mono-cropping arise. However, it is more difficult to comprehend why twenty liberal American students studying agricultural systems and environmental sustainability would be in support of these kinds of forests. What is the rationale for siding with villagers who aim to use their land to grow entirely unsustainable, invasive species like rubber or eucalyptus trees?

In understanding this dilemma, it is vital to understand varying definitions of sustainability, and whether this term can be understood in the way many idealistic students fantasize it to be.

In Toong Lui Lai, villagers have been struggling with the government for years in order to gain the rights to lease land their families have cultivated for centuries. Throughout the years, the government has implemented new policies for “environmental protection” and created “preserved” spaces, like “Wildlife Sanctuaries” and “National Protection Parks.” In doing so, they have indiscriminately redrawn land ownership borders without the consent or consultation of rural communities. As a result, many villagers that depend on the land have lost the rights to land that their families have cultivated for decades. Additionally, because the Thai government is increasingly striving to compete in a global export economy, there is more pressure on small-scale farmers to produce cash crops that will be readily sold on the market, rather than merely producing food to sustain themselves or neighboring communities. Thus, even if small scale farmers like Paw continue to cultivate and harvest their land, economic pressure forces them away from doing so in a sustainable way, the way their grandparents once farmed.

Based on this, it may seem that the government’s plan of “protecting” these natural spaces is more sustainable. However, rather than legitimizing its environmental protection claims, the Thai government often takes advantage of the land it obtains from villagers. Profits are made from this land as it becomes used for eco-tourism, sold to large corporations to be developed or even used by the government itself to grow cash crops like rubber and eucalyptus.

Thus, both sides of this debate over land use seem unable to effectively manage land in a sustainable way. So, instead of siding against all parties, it seems we tried to choose the lesser of the two evils: unsustainable practices by small scale farmers. Though many would like to go back to producing their own food and refraining from chemical fertilizers or cash crops, in many ways they are forced into this system. When villagers attempt to use their land to grow crops that do not require the chemicals required for many cash crops, they often remain unable to sell such crops in mass. There is no standard measurement of “organic” in Thailand and thus “organic” is not as valuable or marketable as it is in the United States.

After living with these families and attempting to understand the power dynamic that they are constrained by, it seems that many of us decided that it makes more sense to support those individuals that want to be sustainable (even if they are not), rather than the entities that often secretly choose to maintain such unsustainable practices.
I repeatedly nodded in faux understanding and genuine support, as my Paw attempted to explain the process of extracting sap from the rubber trees on his property. However, I still feel unable to reconcile my clear-cut definitions of sustainability with the complicated reality that I face in Thailand.

Joanna French
Whitman College

Development and Sustainability

Just last week I was in Baw Kaew, a protest village in Northeastern Thailand. There, villagers are continuing their 30-year struggle against the Thai government for taking over their land to develop a eucalyptus tree plantation. The protest village is illegally set up in the midst of eucalyptus trees. Back in the 1970’s as part of the national development plan, the government believed they were aiding reforestation by planting eucalyptus as a cash crop, which expanded industry. In reality, the plantation took over local villagers’ farmland.

This past unit looked at the impact of government policies on land. In addition to visiting Baw Kaew, we had a home stay in a forest village community named Toong Lui Lai. Near the forest village, the government established area as the National Forest Reserve and then later the Wildlife Sanctuary, which designated land for preservation by arbitrarily drawing borders that overlapped with local villagers land. Subsequently, villagers have been arrested and charged for trespassing while farming for what villagers believe is their land. To give voice to their struggles, both Toong Lui Lai and Baw Kaew communities have united with the Isaan Land Reform Network of Thailand to go protest in Bangkok and ultimately to help them attain legal community land titles.

Today, I find myself back in the city considering the greater implications of these villagers’ long-term struggle against the government’s policies and actions. Considering the issues from the villagers’ perspective, it is easy to vilify the government and its policies. The government policies have created challenges to attain adequate living conditions and retain their means of livelihood and subsistence. Development and globalization often times jeopardizes the human rights of people as well as the sustainability of communities. The community visits show the trickling down affect of policy on the community members. The networks, NGOs and community organizers give voice and legitimacy to the people’s problems. . As I think about the bigger picture, I am questioning the roles and responsibilities of the government to its people in causing and curing these larger issues.

One important distinction that I learned is the difference between sustainable-development and development. According to the World Health Organization, “Development can be achieved at the expense of future generations' survival, whereas sustainable development specifically seeks to achieve development in a long-term environmental framework that provides for the survival of future generations.” I find it unproductive to vilify the government and constantly fight against it. It seems that Thailand, like other countries is in a compromising situation by taking on more development initiatives rather than sustainable development. The problem is that industrial development comes at the expense of the local villagers. With conflicting interests in mind, sometimes the issues and problems faced between the government and community seem overwhelming.

When we asked P’Pramote, one of the NGOs we met with on land reform issues about the key way to affect change he gave his answer in a series of steps.

1. Understand the root of the issue.
2. After understanding, analyze where it comes from and how it functions.
3. Figure out where you fit in the structure to create social change.

As I come to understand the concerns of the communities we visit, the roles and responsibility of government is becoming clearer. P’Pramote’s advice is applicable not just to the community organizer working at the grassroots level, but it is also applicable in addressing the inadequacies from the top-down policy level. In either position, it is important to understand the system by which policies are shaped and formed, because in fact they eventually affect the people.

Jennifer Schwarz
University of Maryland

The Cost of Rubber

The most recent unit that we have finished was focused on land issues in the northeast region of Thailand called Isaan. Over the course of our unit trip, we as students uncovered a variety of issues linked to land controversies throughout Isaan. The most prevalent land issue that we witnessed was farm land taken from local people to be “preserved” by the Thai government.

We spent the majority of our trip in Toong Lui Lai, a village in the Chailaphum province of Isaan. The Toong Lui Lai landscape is incredible; lush green mountains towering over diminutive villages that scattered about the forests. The families throughout our homestay were more than welcoming, they became family. As our bonds became closer, we began to delve into the land issues facing the Toong Lui Lai villagers.

As a result of inaccurate land surveying by the Thai government, many innocent Thai people have been deemed “illegal” and therefore unable to use their family’s farm land. Instead of being cultivated by local people with local wisdom, the land is now used for preserving Thai nature by not allowing anyone to grow anything on it. The land is, however, turned into a variety of tourist attractions to promote more commerce and more economic development in the depleted Isaan region. Golf courses, eco-tourist resorts, or even “get your picture taken by the dam!” signs are now the appeals to get people to come to the northeast. Yet the damage that has been done to the native people is far more detrimental than anything the government could come up with. Or is it?

In the mid 1990’s, the government began distributing free rubber tree seeds and chemical fertilizers in an effort to make Thailand a leader in raw rubber material production. Many farmers throughout Thailand, mainly in the economically deprived Isaan region, were convinced to grow rubber trees versus an edible crop like corn or sugarcane. These ideas were later reinforced once Thaksin became prime minister in 2001, instituting “Thaksinomics”. One of the cornerstones of Thaksinomics is the phrase “One Tambon, One Product”, which indicates every subdistrict should focus its efforts on producing one product. In this case, rubber trees were the focus of the Toong Lui Lai village. Today, the majority of farmers in Toong Lui Lai and its surrounding villages grow primarily rubber trees.

Because rubber trees require farmers to use chemical fertilizers in its growth, farmers are now exposed to a variety of health problems. Moreover, the land that was once the farmer’s land, in an extremely muddled and unclear manner, is now owned and looked after by the government. As a result, farmers can now be charged with criminal trespassing and a civil lawsuit of violating global warming agreements, because of the use of chemical fertilizers and the growth of an environmentally unfriendly crop like rubber, Thailand made in the Kyoto Protocol. Thus is the dilemma of where do we go from here?

In 2011, the price of raw rubber material is estimated to double from $3600 a ton to $6300, due to its demand in China, the United States, and India. Therefore, it is in Thailand’s best economic interests to continue to grow rubber trees, although they are somewhat unnatural to the area they are grown in and their upkeep requires unsafe chemicals to both the environment and the farmer. However, Thailand must also uphold what it agreed to in the Kyoto Protocol and has a significant amount to gain from reclaiming land to be sold for carbon credits, although the farmers of the region are the ones paying the fines for “global warming” not the government. Overall, Thailand has a lot to gain in its GDP and a lot to lose in its weak efforts to care for its citizens.

Michalea Larson
University of Connecticut

08 March 2011

A Sustainable Life

Picture a farm. What do you see? A red barn, beautiful green pasture, rolling hills; perhaps you even imagine the sweet smell of cut hay and warm air brushing against your arms? Or do you imagine acres upon acres of corn. Or do you find yourself imagining a feedlot filled with mooing cattle and the stench of manure invading your senses.

Farms are something we grow up learning about. Old McDonald had a happy little farm with chickens, cows, pigs, horses, and a beautiful garden. We can only imagine that he also lived organically and sustainably. Of course his family was happy, well fed and had everything they could ever want. They weren’t worried about making a profit, or protecting their land from pollution.

Where is the reality in that story, I wonder? We are told everyday that farmers are disappearing and corporations are snatching up the scraps. Food is unsafe, filled with chemicals, and production is destroying the world.

Of course there has been a move towards living sustainably and organically, but until last week I didn’t see how we could ever go back to the happy story of Old McDonald.

Not until I saw my 73-year-old Pa plow his fields barefooted with a water buffalo did I see the truth and beauty in organic, sustainable farming. It’s not as if I didn’t believe it was best for the world and ourselves but I just wasn’t sure if it was possible to go back to the time before big machinery and chemicals.

According to my Meh who is 61 years old, they plow their nearly 15 acres of land with one water buffalo, use no chemical fertilizers or pesticides, grow nearly 100 varieties of plants, and loves her life. When I asked her if she had difficulties raising five children while farming, she said “No.” They grew their own food, didn’t owe anyone money, and didn’t need buy candies, or motorcycles to be happy. Her children have since gone to school to study agriculture but are planning to return in the next two years to begin learning from their Meh and Pa.

After seeing this perfectly sustainable system of life, I find myself confused. How can this family exist in rural Thailand living in such a way that they aren’t in debt, and have extra food to share and money to spare? They aren’t involved in contract farming; yet still find a market for their produce. They don’t suffer any health problems but are at the top end of the average life expectancy in Thailand.

When I was standing in the field watching my Pa plow his land with the dirt crumbling between his toes my Meh was nearby gathering long beans. The sun was setting; I could hear the cows grazing in the next field and I suddenly realized that this is what a real farm is. Organic and sustainable farming doesn’t mean having a sticker that says you don’t use chemicals; it means living in such a way that you understand the world around you in a way that is completely new to most Americans. It means working with the world to sustain ourselves not against it. It also requires considering what is necessary in our lives, what can we do without and what is just extra.

The first step is to just be aware of our impact. Once we do this we can begin to live a life that is more sustainable. And eventually, when we imagine a farm with a big red barn and green pastures, it will be a reality all over the world. Perhaps for me, I’ll imagine a Pa plowing his land with a water buffalo as the sun drifts below the horizon.

Kristi Huckabone
George Washington University

07 March 2011

Migration to the Cities

At first glance, Thailand is a place of exotic beaches, thrilling wilderness treks, and smiling, happy people. However, if you step off the beaches and away from the dazzling waterfalls, you’ll find a country desperately struggling with many issues tied to development. As I’ve traveled to several villages around Isaan (the Northeast), I’ve realized that mass urban migration is a major problem facing villagers today. In contrast to the United States, there are still many small farmers in Thailand, though there may be far fewer in the future.

During numerous interview and exchanges, farmers have said that they don’t want their children to take on their profession, as it is a very difficult life. Farming isn’t considered a desirable occupation in Thailand. In fact, the people of Isaan are often thought of as “hicks,” who consume sticky rice and fermented fish and aren’t accustomed to the fast pace of city life. Children grow up nowadays with a desire to leave the villages in search of a more exciting and profitable city life. Part of the appeal of city life may be a result of what the youth see on TV. I have now stayed in four village homes since I have arrived in Thailand; every single one of these homes has contained a television. Not only does the TV exist in many homes, but it is also a central part of family lives. The soap operas that one of my families watched as we gathered over dinner were never set in villages like my family’s, instead they always seemed to be in modern or urban areas. Whenever a darker skinned, villager-looking character appeared on the screen, they were the laughing stock, a joke of a person.

As young children grow up with this negative association tied to farming life and their parents push them to find easier lives, it’s no wonder that urban migration has now become a widespread phenomenon. Many children leave the village to go to a university in the city, where they may meet their spouse, find a job, and start their own lives, leaving their parents behind to toil on the farm. I never met my homestay parents at one of my homestays, as they were working in Bangkok – my grandmother took care of my homestay sisters and me. In cases such as this, the grandparents must continue to work while also taking care of their grandchildren.

Not only does urban migration create a strenuous situation for the elderly, but it also means that village culture is slowly dying out. During my last homestay, I asked my host father, an organic farmer, if he thought urban migration was a problem for his village. He replied, “I think it’s a big problem because a lot of the younger generation has lost, or don’t even know any local wisdom. So we try to work with the young people nowadays in order to have them learn about local wisdom.” My host father works with the AAN (Alternative Agricultural Network), which is an organization that is working to promote organic farming. One of the AAN’s programs works at raising youth awareness of the local ways of growing and cooking food. In the past, Thai farmers would grow vegetables and local varieties of rice both in order to sell and feed their families. However, the trend of large scale, chemical farming was introduced with the onset of the Green Revolution in the mid 1900s. Large-scale farming led the job to become less centered around family, and instead largely oriented towards the international rice market. The AAN sets an inspirational example of people that are working to reverse this trend, so that small organic farming will once again self sustaining, involving everyone in the family.

Patricia Noto
Bates College


During the trip to Yasothon Province, I continuously encountered the idea of self-sustainability. Before the trip I understood sustainability in theory, but I realize now that I had no idea of what being sustainable actually meant in practice.

In the US, sustainability isn’t an idea that I had encountered often. While I may have discussed the idea in classes, it was never something I talked about in practical application. It was never something that even crossed my mind outside of a classroom setting. When I came to Thailand and my other group members would ask about where I live, they were often surprised and fascinated to discover that I live on a farm. As I talked about my family’s lifestyle with my peers, and then as I studied and participated in Thai villagers’ farming practices, the more I realized that the lifestyle I had always seen as just being normal for my family had deeper meaning than I expected.

My family has lived on a farm in rural Ohio for over 10 years. When we moved to the farm, we planted a garden right away because not only are fresh fruits and vegetables delicious, but also because seeds are much cheaper to buy than fresh produce. If we have extra produce from the garden, we sell it at the local farmers market that my mom helped organize three years ago. We’ve also raised chickens for the eggs for about six years now because we realized that it would be cheaper than buying eggs. Four years ago we started raising a cow or two every years that we have butchered for the beef, again because it saves money at the grocery store. We never used any sort of fertilizer, chemical or otherwise, on our garden before we started raising cows, but now we use the cow manure as a fertilizer. The way of life that my family currently has was the result of a slow process of realization that gardening and raising cows and chickens would save us money in the long run. The idea of being sustainable never really crossed my or my family’s minds until I came to Thailand.

When we CIEE students arrived in Yasothon, the farmers in the village of Ban Dong Dip gave us a tour of their farms. As they showed their fields and explained their farming practices, I noticed many similarities to the practice that my family uses. The villagers plant many different fruits and vegetables, similar to what my family does in our garden. They sell their extra produce at the local green market, like my family sells our extra at the farmers market. They raise cows, among other animals like pigs and buffalo, and use the manure for fertilizer. I saw similar practices in other villages during the trip. While there are other similarities and differences, one important difference I noticed was the mindset of farmers we encountered compared to my family’s mindset. As I said before, one of the main reasons my family farms is because it saves money. While almost all of the villagers I encountered said that farming saves money, they have so many other reasons for using the farming practices they use. They don’t use chemical fertilizers anymore because they encountered health problems when they did use them. They grow herbs to use as traditional medicine. Most importantly, all of their farming practices and reasons behind farming revolved around the idea of being sustainable. By growing fruits and vegetables, they don’t have to buy them from the market. By growing herbal medicine, they don’t have to go to the hospital as often. By not using chemical fertilizers, they don’t have to rely on the company they would have to buy those from. They farm in order to be sustainable.

My time so far in Thailand has made me realize so many things, especially about farming, that I didn’t realize before. Through conversations with my peers, I’ve realized that gardening and farmers markets are more foreign to many people in the US than I thought. I’ve also realized that farming is also seen as exciting and trendy because it is so foreign to people sometimes. From my time with the villagers in Yasothon, I realized that farming has so many other benefits that my family doesn’t always consider. I also started thinking of how my family can use some of the villagers’ techniques, like composting, for my family’s farm. I hope that when I return home, I can help my family think of farming as a way for us to be sustainable, and not just a way for us to save money. With that mindset about farming, I think we will be able to become sustainable in other aspects of our lives too.

Meghann Venus
Case Western Reserve University

My Ideal World

P’Ubon, an NGI located in Yasothon, posed the question, “What does your ideal world look like?”. I replied, “A world with neighbors. Neighbors that form an interdependent community and promote sustainability.”

The focus of our first unit was sustainable agriculture. We visited two villages in the Northeast of Thailand. This part of Thailand is known for its environmental and human rights issues and its activists. We were able to live with two families, one in each village, that gave insight on the issues directly affecting them. The first village grows sugarcane, and the other village practices and promotes sustainable methods of farming. Through my experiences with the my two homestay families, I was able to understand the necessity of community living.

Community living creates a type of social security. Their food, income, health and survival are dependent on the connections between villagers. The farmers depend on food to feed themselves and the village and for income. The food brings their community together and promotes a sustainable lifestyle. A shared goal, such as producing healthy food and protecting the environment, reminds the community that they do not have to fight over resources. This also aids in preserving their traditional village lifestyle.

A community is rare to find in the United States. We live in communities and neighborhoods, but we do not live as a community with our neighbors. The rise of industrialization has lessened our need to rely on others. Maybe it’s the education system that pushes us to be the best at something that has little to do with real survival. Most villagers barely finished high school, but have more knowledge on how to live than we achieve from our expensive universities. Our detachment stems from the urban push for competition rather than for all to mutually benefit. There once was a time where the local store was named after the owner, the front porch was an invitation to socialize and you could actually ask your neighbor for a cup of sugar. We have removed the need for a community thus hurting our livelihood.

P’Ubon said, “We must start with ourselves in order to make the change we want in the world.” We must bring back the community lifestyle if we want to protect our planet and promote sustainability. This would include supporting local or family business, communicating and relying on neighbors. My homestay family provided me with a clear understanding of how food and community help them live sustainable and enjoyable lives.

The community the first village has created is through their struggle to produce organic sugarcane. They want to produce healthy food, but a large sugarcane factory has created difficulties for these families. Though they struggle, they depend on each other for survival. Village life is preserved because they need one another to increase their livelihood.

In the second village, most of the families my group stayed with are part of AAN, the Alternative Agriculture Network. This network brings farmers from other villages together in the quest for sustainable methods of farming and safe food. My homestay father is the head of agricultural research in the village. Though this is an unpaid position, he believes that his role is necessary in maintaining the social security of the village. When everyone depends on each other, jobs like this become a way of life. Working is seen as enjoyable because it increases the quality of life for your family and neighbors. If that was why we worked in the United States, our happiness, security, and health would drastically improve.

Lindsay Friedman
University of Colorado at Boulder