05 October 2011

Sticky Rice in the Northeast

While at my university in Los Angeles, California, I occasionally order one of my favorite desserts—sweet mango sticky rice—from the numerous Thai restaurants in the neighborhood. Until I came to Thailand to participate in CIEE’s Globalization and Development study abroad program, this dish constituted the extent of my knowledge about this dense, chewy variety of rice. I never imagined sticky rice would be used for anything else.

I could not have been more wrong.

Sticky rice, or khaaw nieo in Thai, is a staple of Northeastern Thailand’s traditional diet. It grows well in the region (henceforth referred to as “Isaan”) and is typically consumed by rolling the rice into a ball with the hands and using it to pick up other foods in the meal. Unlike jasmine rice—a “standard” variety globally—sticky rice is steamed rather than boiled. It is glutinous and also comes in a number of colors, such as red, black, and white.

The Unit One Trip of the program, which focused on human rights and environmental issues surrounding agriculture and food, brought the CIEE students to numerous villages in Yasothon Province. We learned from organic farmers and community organizers about the significance of national agricultural policies, the effects of globalized technologies on farming practices, and the importance of food in Thai culture.

As Leedom Lefferts writes in his work “Sticky Rice, Fermented Fish, and the Course of a Kingdom,” Isaan people “make references to khaaw nieo . . . as mechanisms for the assertion of regional pride and ethnic group identity and cohesion”. Rice farming, likewise, is more than a profession; it is a way of life, oftentimes determining the activities of whole villages during planting and harvesting seasons.
Thus, when the government began to support monocropping of the genetically engineered rice variety Jasmine 105 in order to integrate Thailand’s national agriculture into the global economy, it was an affront to the very cultural foundations of Isaan people.

“Since 1960s, many developing countries worldwide, including Thailand, began embarking on the Green Revolution as the central goal of their agricultural development,” states Vitoon Panyakul, author of the report “Thai Rice: the Rice of Freedom”. He elaborates, “When farmers began adopting the improved varieties, they also had to adopt the rice farming technology package developed for the Green Revolution. This includes application of chemical fertilizers, intensive pest control with pesticides, and efficient water management through irrigation.”

As Supanee Taneewuth writes in Free trade Agreements and their Impact on Developing countries: The Thai Experience, “the government . . . developed high yielding varieties and hybrids with no concern for the impact on long-term sustainability. Farmers lost control of managing their own seed. Farmers have to buy seed, which was added to chemical fertilizer and pesticides as part of the input burden on farmers.” These hybrid seeds have to be bought every year, and the amount of chemical additives must constantly be increased as soil quality degrades with its continued use. With almost all of the seeds trade controlled by transnational corporations, the Green Revolution and its agricultural reforms have deprived farmers of the traditional wisdom, self-sufficiency, and autonomy they once took pride in.

In response, many Thai farmers have joined organic movements and grassroots organizations to resist and advocate against national policies promoting “improved” agriculture. They are renouncing the farming practices that alienated them from their traditional livelihoods, caused extensive environmental and health problems, and marginalized their indigenous food preferences.

After relishing red khaaw nieo at least twice a day during the week of the Unit One homestay, after seeing the deep connection my host family had with their rice fields and native foods, I can fondly declare:

Long live sticky rice.

Mariko Powers
Occidental College

04 October 2011

Northeastern Thailand: On the Verge of a Life and Debt Situation?

After spending five days in the Kudchum district Yasothan, northeastern Thailand’s “Organic Province,” I have an even greater respect for small-scale, organic farmers than I had before coming into our first unit (Food and Agriculture) as a self-declared, “Foodie.” The farmers of Kudchum reap the bounties of the land without using chemical inputs as a crutch, relying instead on traditional knowledge as well as community organizing and support. Along with other members of Thailand’s Alternative Agriculture Network (AAN), the farmers of Kudchum are role models for farmers all over the world, demonstrating the potential of the collective, bottom-up action of grass roots movements to effect change.

Reflecting on this unit, however, I am also left with the sinking feeling that some twenty years from now, the green, integrated, organic fields of Yasothan may once again be showered with chemicals, unable to withstand the agribusiness-powered monsoon. In our last exchange, one sub-district official in Kalasin province admitted, “We cannot withstand the influence of transnational corporations. We can only try to be as self-reliant as possible.” The sentiment carried throughout the rest of the unit’s exchanges; nearly all of the speakers emphasized the importance of work done at the community level, farmer-to-farmer, rather than any that was done to push government policy to protect small-scale farmers from the influence of transnational corporations.

“We have learned enough to know we can’t put all our hope in [government action],” explained one NGO official. Even coming from a democratic society, I know this to be all too true. Politics can certainly be a hindrance to effecting change. Up against the Monsanto “monster,” however, I remain unconvinced that grass roots movements can make any long-term changes without government support. The one example that still stands out in my mind is detailed in the documentary, Life and Debt, about the effects of international economic policy in Jamaica.

As Jamaica incurred more and more debt, government officials found it necessary to take on loans from the World Bank and International Monetary Fund, which would require opening up more local and domestic markets to international influence. In one case, Jamaica opened up the market for the import of powdered milk from the United States with zero to minimal tariffs. As a result, the sudden influx of cheap powdered milk pushed local Jamaican dairy farmers out of the competition. Forced to dump out gallons of fresh milk daily, many farmers were eventually left without a livelihood.

If Thailand continues to incur debt from international loans, and therefore continues to increase dependence on foreign governments and mainly, transnational corporations, what will protect the small-scale farmers of northeastern Thailand from a fate similar to that of Jamaican dairy farmers as depicted in Life and Debt? Even if small-scale farmers continue to decrease their dependence on external inputs, they cannot necessarily guarantee that they will be safe from the loss of markets in Thailand’s ever-globalizing economy.

I by no means have the answer to what strategy small-scale, organic farmers in Thailand should take, only the concern that without the support and protection of government policy, the movement will be unsustainable in the long-term. The same Kalasin sub-district official explained that farmers have “no power to negotiate with the government.” So how do farmers gain that power? Again, I certainly do not have the answer, but I am not sure that grass roots movements do either. It is certain, however, that the question must be answered to protect the people of northeastern Thailand from a situation of Life and Debt.

Amelia Evans
Santa Clara University

Cycle of Greed

Prior to coming to Thailand, I viewed food safety as something the U.S Government took care of. As a country, I was aware that we had banned agriculture chemicals from our soils to not only ensure the safety of the workers but the consumers as well. Never had it crossed my mind that the chemicals were banned from use, not production.

The exhaustive issue of chemical use on products externally from the States that are then imported in stuns me. This had been a topic long removed from my thought. I knew of complexities in food issues, but I never thought I had to worry about banned chemicals still ending up in my food.

Exchanging with organic farmers throughout the Issan provence of Thailand with CIEE, we were continually ask to take action against U.S chemical companies importing banned chemicals into Thailand. It was through this that I came to understand the worldly impact of a ban on a chemical. “There are many banned chemicals from the United States for sale in Thailand,” describes the Alternative Agriculture Network (AAN), a national NGO that assists farmers in transitioning into the organic market. With growing awareness of food systems within the U.S., chemicals now seen as unfit have found new residence in developing countries that lack the governing restrictions.

Corporations have been able to successfully make deals with the government to support and encourage the use of chemicals on crops. “From 1991 onward, imported pesticides were exempted from all taxes and levies,” states Vitoon Panyakul in a study of Thai rice by Green Peace South East Asia. Through this transaction, corporations have an outlet to distribute product and governments can now hope for higher yield and production.

Yet, these products create vas health issues. “I feel that they are trying to destroy us,” says Meo a small farmer who has switched to organic production since witnessing health effects from chemicals. “Thailand is amongst the countries with the worst records of pesticide abuses, especially from over use,” state Panyakul. Currently the Thai Government is in the works of allowing four new chemicals to be introduced for agriculture use. A protest held to rally against this had a span of multiple generations of farmers who voiced their voices against the chemical industry.

In an exchange with the AAN, regional leaders left us with this, “Although the chemical is used in Thailand, please remember that the products that are produced in Thailand are being exported to your country. This chemical is bad in the States and is used in Thailand. But you go back home and you still have a chance of consuming a product that has been contaminated by the chemical. So in order to stop this, Thailand cannot fight on its own, it needs allies from other people and other countries as well.” The small scale farmers have switched to organic farming for a reason, “It isnʼt right to grow food that isnʼt safe for consumers to eat,” explains Anon Nieulai, a Green Market Farmer.

Itʼs been asked for us to take action against this violation of well-being. Itʼs our role as students, itʼs our role as Americans, itʼs our role as humanitarians. Stop the suffering from these harsh chemicals of the producers and the consumers, they were banned from the U.S for a reason.

Sara Stiehl
Pacific Lutheran University

Community & The Urban/Rural Divide

We stayed in two villages over this past unit. The first, Bahn Dong Dip, was transitioning to farming organic sugarcane and rice. We stayed there for one night, and had an exchange with them about their process. The second, in Yasothon province, had transitioned long ago to integrated organic rice farming, growing most of their own food and selling the surplus. (The group was in several different villages, we never learned exactly where we were.) We were there for four nights, exchanging with the villagers and NGOs. Both villages had their own distinct struggles, but both showed a commitment to community support that struck me.

It seemed like everyone had a part to play. Especially in Yasothon province, where I sat in at a meeting for one of the groups involved in the area. I’m pretty sure it was called the Love Nature Network, but a Google search pulls up nothing, so perhaps something was lost in translation. There were about 90 people there representing 90 families, my host dad being one of them. He was actually a speaker, one of the earlier members in the group, when it came to Yasothon province a few years back. These 90 people gathered to learn about and discuss the organic movement in their area, and how they could work within their own community to include others and improve the process. This is the way it was in Dong Dip as well. Villagers came together to improve their lot in life through a shift in process.

It was all very impressive to see. There was a spirit of self-sufficiency in everyone we exchanged with. The government isn’t looked on too kindly here, to varying degrees. At the very least, everyone agreed that the government doesn’t have the best interests of the farming majority in mind. Corporate interests take precedence because of the Thai government’s interest in joining the global economy. Progress is seen as raising the Gross National Product, and these farmers feel like their needs are being ignored. Most farmers in the country are growing for profit, growing the Jasmine 105 rice that the government supports, and have to buy their food from market. On top of this, the government is supporting the use of chemical fertilizers that are banned in the US, the EU, Africa, and most of the other Southeast Asian countries. This is the issue the villagers in Bahn Dong Dip and Yasothon province have gathered around, and the reason they have decided to remove their ties to the government where possible, growing organic and selling their surplus in their own markets.

Since the beginning of our trip it’s been apparent that most people living in these villages are older. My parents this last trip were in their mid 50s, and all trips before that, my parents ages were similar. There are children running around, but no one who could really help on the farm. Thailand only guarantees education up to the 6th grade, but many families see their children through high school and into university. These children typically don’t come back to the farms; instead, they find work in local cities. For those who don’t complete school, they try and find work in bigger cities. What’s interesting though is that when these children have children of their own, they typically get sent back to be raised by their grandparents. It’s unclear whether or not all families eventually come back together, but there is still this bridge between the urban/rural divide that keeps the community bonded, somehow.

My second host mom this past trip spoke a lot about warm families; her two children are working or are in university. She misses them a lot. Hopefully, she said, they would come back to help on the farm. Otherwise there won’t be anyone else to keep it alive. She seemed confident, though, and she still has a whole community of support behind her.

Aiden Forsi
Cornell University