04 October 2011

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


Ariel Chez said...

Aiden, having stayed in the same village as you I can concur that the villagers all had this sense of solidarity and commitment that seemed to run very deep. Your host father was a good friend of mine, who was the head of Issan’s Alternative Agriculture Network (AAN). He was a busy man, and while we were staying with him he had a large group of those working for the agricultural department of the government staying with him. These government employees were there to learn about his organic farming and production of local varieties. They spend a few days staying with Paw Boonsong and would take tours of his fields, learn to make compost, and sit in the back room and watch him package his own rice. From talking to them, I found that the Thai government on a whole may not support organic farming over chemical agriculture, but that there are sectors of the government who are. Even more importantly that there are many employees within the government which believe in alternative agriculture full heartedly. Thus, I think that change might be sneaking up on the Thai government from within its own ranks.

Anonymous said...

That is a really interesting observation Aiden; I believe urban migration is one subject that needs to be discussed more if we are to try to understand the trajectory of future farming practices in all nations that currently have economies heavily dependent on agriculture. According to the United Nations, by 2030, 4.9 billion people will be living in urban areas (compared to the 3.2 billion today). The age demographic tends to lean heavily towards the younger generations, but as families not to leave the city they slowly move the rest of their family into the city with them. Interestingly, Thai families seem to have split their lives between city and village life. It was interesting to see the older and very young generations living in the village while those in their 20’s, 30’s, and 40’s worked in the city. While they have given up their life as rice farmers for the time being, they may return to this practice in their later years. (Remember how the farmers at the AAN meeting were all 50+?) Because this trend of urban migration is supposed to increase in the next 30-40 years, it is difficult to predict how this will affect future generations living in Thailand. As Ariel pointed out there is definitely a great sense of solidarity in these communities, so the return to a village might be a trend that continues to play out. However, the trend of urban migration will definitely increase the quantity of food needed to be produced per farmer in Thailand, probably resulting in the need to develop large scale farming projects because the burden on small scale farmers would be too great.

Megan Harrington