31 March 2011

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


Mirah S said...

I think this was such a smart post. How do we reconcile the fact that these villagers often farm unsustainably, even if it is not even their choice to do so? Time and Time again, we students can get really overwhelmed by the huge social and environmental issues we see here and at home. Sometimes this overwhelming feeling can paralyze us for a bit, but often it just makes us more passionate to live our lives more sustainably along with others who are trying to do the same. That’s our only answer to these massive questions: trying. When I return home, I am going to try and be more sustainable. I’m going to buy food from local farmers markets, and I’m going to ride my bike and take public transportation more frequently. But at this point in my life, it would be impossible for me to live completely self-sustainably. All I can do is keep trying, keep evaluating what I need and what I want, and work harder to treat the earth with as much respect as I can muster.

Lyric said...

This is a topic that I myself struggle with as well. Sustainability is a term not so easily defined as recycling your can or eating organic. It is partly an aspect of privilege and access, and mainly comes down to availability of choices for sustainable action. Although Paw grew rubber trees using chemical fertilizer, he was also extremely excited and proud to describe the multiple gardens surrounding his home, all of which were completely organic. It would be a beautiful thing if he could sustain the family by solely using these gardens, but in this modern age of development there are expenses existent beyond just food and shelter an basic needs, meaning finding alternative sources of income are crucial. I think it is a matter of balance, and trying to achieve a level of sustainability that one can actually sustain. Also, utilizing the resources available to you, and making an extra effort in one area if you find yourself needing to be consumptive in another. Like Mirah, I plan on taking every step possible to make sure that I live as environmentally friendly and "closed loop" as possible. It is practical for me to buy into a CSA farm for my vegetables with my roommates, take public transit/bike, create a compost and shop at thrift stores. I will do these things, even though I still might get rides in a car to work, use electricity, and shop at normal grocery stores because some things are too expensive at the fancy organic co-ops. Taking the extra efforts in areas where I do have a choice to be sustainable is what will make me feel effective, and it would be not taking these opportunities that are available and privileged to me that would be unrighteous and guilt-inducing.

Anonymous said...

Dear Joanna,

Your post made me think about land not only through the lens of sustainability but also in terms of human connection with the earth. When a farmer lives and works with the same land all his life, he puts all his soul into that soil; it becomes a part of him. This reminds is a quote I always keep on my wall:

“To be deeply rooted in a place that has meaning is perhaps the best gift a person can have. If that place has beauty and a feeling of permanence it may suggest to his unawares that sense of identity with this physical earth which is the humbles and happiest of life’s institutions.” - John Mistletoe

So what does it mean for these farmers to use unsustainable practices to produce cash crops? Eventually their soil will be so depleted that nothing will be able to be planted. What happens to the connection between the farmer and his land? What happens to whole villages, towns and cities as their land is taken by the government and they must find other ways of surviving? I believe that as the physical contact with land is lost, it becomes much harder to fully understand its importance in the bigger picture. For example, if a farmer hoes, weeds and waters for months in order to produce a head of lettuce, he will see the direct result of his work. When consumers buy a head of lettuce at the grocery without seeing the process from the beginning of its planting, they cannot feel that close connection between soil, seeds and harvest. In losing members of our society who work with land, we as a society lose a shared identity with the physical earth.

Carlos, my friend from the village of Rio Limpio here in the Dominican Rep├║blic, is seventeen. He is seventeen and about to graduate from CREAR, an alternative agricultural school based on the principles of organic, sustainable farming. He likes to joke that he was born from a tree, but he is serious when he says that he will dedicate his life to taking good care of the natural environment. When he talks about his work in setting up an youth group focused on environmental preservation, he has a magical way of seeming humble in his own actions but passionate in his need for others to join him. Although his plans to travel the world prohibit him from being “deeply rooted” anywhere, he believes that if he talks to enough people he will be able to fix the problem of unsustainable agriculture.

Even though I am upset by the many problems posed in this post, I believe that I should take some advice from Carlos: I must be realistic about the problems of contemporary agrarian systems but idealistic that in my trust that we, as all humans, still have a shared identity with the land.

From the Dominican Republic

cassiemarr said...

It has only been weeks since we wandered the forests in Tung Lui Lai, but our experiences there feel historical in their distance from tonight. Although I can’t deny that the rubbers trees enticed the same awe and serenity as any forest I would call beautiful, I am still scared to call it that. Your ideas here not only circle around sustainability, but more generally the complicated, knotted, confusing place we dive into when we begin to understand our realities. After Tung Lui Lai, I was working to understand the topics you’ve too brought up, while now I am thinking not only about potential solutions but also the role I could effectively play in charting new, more sustainable paths. Here, I am faced with the same problem: opaque complexities. Through our processes of analyzing both problems and solutions, rather than walking away with answers, I think I am going to leave Thailand aware that there is never only one answer but that positive social change takes multiple efforts from all people and intuitions involved.