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


Morgan Tarrant said...

Hey Amelia, Thanks for this comment. I wonder if you still agree, four units later that grass roots movements can’t make any long-term changes without government support. After having spoken to government officials on multiple different occasions, do you see a strong enough interest in the government maintaining the livelihood of people without incentives for direct monetary gain from foreign investment? Do municipal offices or local governments receive enough revenues from such development projects in order to compensate villagers. What do you see as the role for NGO’s in Isaan communities? After speaking with P’Suvit I gained more of an understanding of the role for NGO’s to educate, organize and form plans for action in order to combat the framework of capitalism and globalized values. My question is, do NGO’s have more than a human rights framework to the make the case that the government is acting contrary to the interests of its own people in the long run? As the justice system is currently the best tool for the state and capitalism to prevail over the villagers, should the international governing bodies act in order to change the justice system in Thailand? Do international economic interests contradict the incentives to revise the justice system, including corporate abuse of contracts and Environmental Impact Statements?

Aiden F said...

I question whether or not Thailand will be incurring more and more debt from the World Bank. It seems like the Jamaican situation from 'Life and Debt' had other factors contributing to Jamaica's economic collapse. I do agree that the World Bank had a lot to do with it. However, it seems like Thailand has a lot of support/power in relation to surrounding countries, namely in relation to China. Countries like Laos and Cambodia are perhaps getting to this point... but they too have economic plans as a region that can perhaps pull them out of World Bank debt. (Not to say where they'd end up in such a case is a good thing...) Jamaica had no support from anywhere but the US, and there were trade agreements to work with.
I guess what I'm saying is that I think it's possible for these communities to survive without government involvement, because there's less pretense for nabbing their land for development. Things are more economically stable. Also not saying it won't happen, because development is an insatiable monster... Ha!

Erica M said...

You make a very interesting point. I am inclined to agree about the role of government, mostly because I think NGOs are substituting where government should be functioning. In an ideally governed society, NGOs would be unnecessary, but until then they are part of our current governmental form in a broad sense of the word. I think Thailand has taught me that many issues are better dealt with by a decentralized local government than by a national or international governing body. However, I believe that a perfect system requires both components, both the ability to protect local rights and interests as well as the ability to balance the rights and interests of different groups of people on an international scale. One of the flaws I see in our current society is that our main system of international governance is capitalism, one that no one in particular ever agreed upon or voted for. An inherent flaw in capitalism is that people are capable of "voting with their dollar," resulting in a system where more money means more votes. That went a little off topic, but I'm just trying to make this feel like a real internet conversation!

Jenn F said...

Hey Meilz, as a proponent of realism bordering on pessimism I initially held the same view of grassroots movements. It seems like a hopeless effort; how can one community compete with an entire government that is focused on the use of agrochemicals to further boost the nation’s GDP? But as our units have progressed I’ve learned that grassroots movements can have success. The return to organic farming has been a steadily growing trend for the last few years and has been slowly but surely spreading. I agree that without a certain level of government assistance (or at least assistance from a big name nonprofit) grassroots have the odds stacked against them but we’ve seen examples of a few idealists that spread an idea around and turned it into something significant. Assuming Thailand follows a similar pattern to western countries, I predict that in the future there will be an increase in organic farming and the use of dangerous agrochemicals will decrease.
Love your insight though. Also you’re a great final project partner. 