19 April 2011

Sustainability, According to the Villagers

The sun is rising, the day is starting out sizzling, and there are nearly 100 people standing within feet of the nine tents where sleepy students lay. Any other day I would most likely still be asleep, however it’s 5:30 in the morning and I hear the sounds of pickup trucks and people laughing, and decide it’s time to get out of bed. I craw slowly out of my tent to find villagers piling into the 30 Rai area, housing the Tamm Mun Network Community Sufficient Economy Learning Center, in the Northeastern Thai Province of Srisaket.

Today is the day; the day the villagers have spent months planning for. Today villagers from all different districts and provinces in Northeastern Thailand will gather along the Mun River to celebrate their (wat tan a tam) culture and (wit tee chee wit) way of life. The need for such celebration stems from the necessity for the villagers to preserve their culture and way of life. For the past 20 years, residents have been fighting to sustain their livelihoods from the Khong-Chi-Mun Irrigation Project and the potential construction of more dams in the northeast; which, if built, would destroy the culture of river communities.

Sustainability, according to the villagers, means sustaining their livelihoods so future generations can know and enjoy their lifestyles. Meh Rampan Chantarasorn, a Learning Center leader, explains it perfectly, “Before the dam was built these different communities were friends. They lived together. They were brothers, sisters, and lovers, living in the wetlands. The flood has broken culture and relationships. This center is to bring this culture back for future generations. If we don’t preserve it, youth will never know about it. They won’t know the word wetlands, only the word dam!”

Thinking about the usage of the word sustainability in northeast Thailand dared me to think about how the term is used in the villages of Isaan verses the ways in which the expression is commonly used in America and other first world countries. For these Isaan villagers, the word sustainability is far removed from the culture of the word in developed countries. In America, the word sustainability seems to pop up on every supermarket shelf, on every billboard, and on every commercial advertisement. Being sustainable has turned into a fashion craze that the mainstream media has picked up on. But what does this world really mean? For most Americans, and people living in developed nations, I believe the term generally refers to the desire to protect the planet by reducing our carbon footprint, buying more “eco friendly products,” and driving a high-gas-mileage vehicle. While applying these practices to our everyday lives seems sustainable; is it really?

Over the past couple of weeks I have learned how to fish using a homemade fishing net, how to weave a sticky rice basket, how to look for and catch crickets, how to plant and harvest rice, how to properly do an Isaan dance, and how important it is to preserve culture. For the villagers effected by the Hua Na and Rasi Salai dams, sustainability means sustaining their livelihoods from the destruction of commercialism and capitalism. Sustainability to these villagers means living off of the land that they grew up on, it means eating food that is caught or grown on the surrounding land, continuing ancient celebrations, using instruments reflecting the culture, speaking in the local dialect, and eating the incredibly delicious treat of (kaew neow), sticky rice. Sustaining and protecting the planet doesn’t happen by supporting large corporations and businesses selling products made halfway across the world, or buy buying items that contain a “green” label. According to the villagers, in order to really be sustainable we must preserve ancient cultures and protect the livelihoods and way of life for villagers, threatened by corporate greed, around the world.

Julia Peckinpaugh
Transylvania University


Patricia said...

Hey Julia,

I have been thinking a lot about sustainability also since I’ve been in Thailand. The issue of sustainability has been emphasized in many of my environmental studies classes at home, and I’ve never quite decided how I felt about the issue. While it’s easy to see the villagers’ version of sustainability as more true and down to earth, I think we can still find value of the sustainability movement in the United States. It is definitely true that the word “sustainability” has lost a lot of meaning in Western countries, but it still holds significance past “green” consumerism for many individuals. Although many Americans view their “green” purchases as their good deed for the day, without truly questioning the products they buy or attacking the issue at its roots, there are many others of us think more deeply about environmental and social issues. For me, the large number of farmers markets around the United States is one inspiring example of how people are thinking about sustainability and following through with their ideas.


Rachel said...

Hi Julia,
I am currently studying in the DR Service-Learning program. It is really interesting to read your group's reflections because many of our experiences here have brought up similar questions. Like you, I have been struck by the difference between developed and developing countries’ understanding of the word “sustainability”.
About a month ago we visited a rural village in the west called Rio Limpio. In 1982 an American volunteer founded a sustainable agricultural high school that transformed Rio Limpio into a center of education, regional outreach and sustainable agriculture and rural development research. It was the first school of its kind in the country. While we were there we talked about the fact that the idea for the school had been “imported” from an American and the irony that it was meant to help the village grow—not necessarily sustain itself. Developed countries also see sustainability as something to be achieved, which suggests that it needs to be gained. One man that we met had a completely different idea.
Rio Limpio also hosts the first organic coffee farm on the island and we had the privilege of meeting the founder and taking a tour of his fields. There was a system behind the maintenance of every plant on his land and there were all kinds of plants besides coffee bean trees. Yet the fields looked untouched. Nurturing nature as it exists is his form of maintenance. He sees his life as an organic farmer as a call to protect nature by letting it be. He recognizes that the Earth is naturally self-sustainable and so his idea of sustainability is the ability of everything to live naturally; if something is not naturally meant to continue living than it won’t and it shouldn’t. This is interesting when you think about the efforts Americans are making to be sustainable. How is it possible to decide to “be sustainable” or not? The fact that we see it as an option in our lives shows yet another difference in our definitions.
Thank you for sharing this, have a great rest of your time there!

Anonymous said...

This is a really great post Julia, and it makes me think about a similar theme we have been dealing with here in the Dominican Republic. Throughout our time here we have stayed in two different campos/communities, called Rio Grande and Rio Limpio, and in both communities our work was focused around the idea of sustainable living and protecting the environment. These communities both depend on their environment to sustain their lives. In Rio Grande, we worked with a group of youth called "Brigada Verde" or "The Green Brigade" whose goal was to increase the awareness in their community about protecting their environment and why that is so important. They gave talks to oher students and community members about the connection between the environment and health, the importance of recycling, and why littering can be detrimental to the earth. In Rio Limpio, there is an organization called "CREAR" which is actually a school for high school students and they learn about organic agriculture and work on the farms that sustain the whole community. They even have a biodynamic farm, they're pretty awesome. But the point is that the environment is a top priority for them and also a huge part of their culture and way of life, just like in Thailand. The nature and beauty in both communities were the most gorgeous sites I have ever seen. And it is because of their work to protect what is around them and take care of their environment so their environment can take care of them too. After each of these stays I have really tried to keep that mentality with me and those practices that I learned from the members of each community. The passion they have for the environment is so beautiful, it is almost a spiritual connection. I want to take what I have learned and incorporate it into my own life.

Aysha, Dominican Republic

Meg! said...

Whoaa Julia --great blog, very well written :)

I really like how your ideas have culminated into maybe a new understanding of sustainability. But I am really curious about this sentence:

"Sustaining and protecting the planet doesn’t happen by supporting large corporations and businesses selling products made halfway across the world, or buy buying items that contain a “green” label. According to the villagers, in order to really be sustainable we must preserve ancient cultures and protect the livelihoods and way of life for villagers, threatened by corporate greed, around the world."

If the above is true, what does it mean for those of us who don't live on a farm and grow our own food and make our own clothes?

I'm at a standstill, I've come to some of the same conclusions, but how practical can implementing the villagers ideas be in our lifestyle when we're back on our college campus? What does it mean that the only way I can be sustainable is buy those "green labels?" Isn't that better than nothing?

Samantha said...

Great posts and good questions here.
The Dominican Republic, (IMO) generally has been growing "organically" for a very long time. Only recently have the local farmers utilized synthetic fertilizers. This is in part due to their economic situation. They cannot afford to buy these products. Pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers are only available to those who can afford them.
In the 'campo' many, if not all indigenous peoples do not grow with the use of these luxuries. Chemicals are typically used by wealthy Dominicans or better yet by many foreigners who have large plantations and are often "absent land holders" exploiting the cheap labor.
Sustainability, respect of the environment and recycling is a very new idea in the DR and is considered by most "too much of an effort". This means work. Extra work....than normal living practices.
I give kudos to those that are implementing organic farming and putting an effort into sustainability. This can only be achieved by ways of educating the communities. Education by means of foreigners and Dominicans sharing amongst themselves this knowledge.
There is a place in Puerto Plata called Eden Ranch that is working on teaching sustainability, organic gardening and environmental awareness. They have been around for a while but the message is slow to absorb into the local population. I have been there as a volunteer and the wealth of knowledge I left with is priceless. They are foreigners and struggle with changing the mentality of the peoples in their community. One Dominican showed me his way of growing and basically threw seeds on the ground and then said it is up to GOD if there will be a harvest. This is another issue that the locals need to be educated on. Yes, it is up to "GOD" whether or not anything lives or dies. However, after explaining to the Dominican that besides faith there are many other factors to consider in obtaining a good yield it was difficult to really get this across. It's hard to teach an old dog new tricks....
Anyway, I recommend anyone going to the Dominican Republic to check out Eden Ranch and join their efforts in this cause to get a real idea of the difference between 'developed' and 'developing' mentalities that seem to me to be a major hurdle in CHANGE!