31 March 2011

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


Julia Peckinpaugh said...

Although I didn’t visit this village on unit three, and wasn’t able to see the progress they’ve made on the seed bank, hearing their story and the struggles over land rights in Thailand has made me want to know more. Lately I have been really interested in the community land title process as well as the steps corporations and the governments are taking to privatize land. I remember the first time we visited Baw Kaew, Ngo P’Pramote talked about the relationship between the first world and the third world, specifically about carbon crediting. He said “The first world takes advantage of the third world, and the third world takes advantage of the villagers.” After hearing him talk, I was really interested in finding more information about carbon crediting in Thailand and what role institution (like the World Bank and the IMF) play. I found it appalling that first world governments are paying off third world businesses, who are pushing villagers off the land, all because of agenda to create a carbon crediting system that doesn’t work. What does it mean that governments have that much power? And what does this mean for villages such as Baw Kaew trying to preserve their culture? I guess it means to keep up the fight.

lena said...

I see the community of Baw Kaew is such clear example of the interconnectedness of our units. When we first went to Baw Kaew it was during our land unit and we learned about their fight for their land title from the government. Inspired by the community of Baw Kaew I decided to go back there for Unit 3 to help with the CCC Report. Expecting them to want help in terms of fighting for their land rights, I was surprised and excited to hear that they wanted help establishing a local seed bank. In Unit 1, my Pa was really involved with the AAN and spent his days going from community to community educating people about the importance of local seed varieties and organic farming. One amazing aspect of this program is the interconnectedness of all of the issues we study and this is seen when knowledge and experiences from one unit can transcend and evolve in another unit.

Sofia N said...

Till recently I was really interested in this idea of cultural preservation though other than romantic ideas I didn’t know why it was so important to me to preserve cultures. My opinions on the importance of preserving cultures changed when I went to college. In my anthropology classes we talked a lot about how some people in developed countries will live in whatever unsustainable way they want to live, with electricity and homogenized culture. My professors would comment that often times these are the same people who want to hold back developing countries, saying things like ‘isn’t it tragic that people in this third world village now have cars and electricity’ and ‘they lived so sustainably before, they should go back to their old ways.” And often times my friends at school will comment about how they wish modern technology didn’t exist and that everyone was farmers. The fact is that roads and cars allow much easier access to hospitals and schools, basic human rights that every person deserves no matter how unsustainable they are. There are some villages that purposely remain free of modern conveniences so that rich tourists will be happy. So it was with this in my head that I went into the semester and learned about these communities in Thailand trying to preserve the ‘old ways.’ This is why reading your blog and hearing from Baw Kaew and the rest of these communities and their efforts to restore a healthy way of life that follows their values has taught me a lot. I have come to a new understanding of what cultural preservation means and why one should fight for it.