27 March 2012

Trees & Tigers: A Look at Land Rights in Northeastern Thailand

Ralph Waldo Emerson once said, “No man acquires property without acquiring with it a little arithmetic also.” After spending time living in several rural villages of Northeastern Thailand, I can assure you the villagers are acquiring more than their share of arithmetic. Last week, I stayed at the home of Poon Ded Prahgo and his wife in the small agricultural village of Toong Lui Lai. As part of a land unit in my Development & Globalization study abroad program through CIEE in Khon Kaen, Thailand, I’ve begun to study the history of land titles in Thailand. While it is sometimes hard to look at issues of property ownership without using the Western lens I’ve developed growing up in the United States, I’ve realized how unjust the current system of land titles in Thailand is to the people who have lived on the land for decades.

After forty-nine years on his land and with the transition to organic farming underway, it’s hard to understand why officers from the government’s local wildlife sanctuary recently threatened to cut down Poon Ded Prahgo’s trees under unsubstantiated charges of global warming and trespassing. “How can planting more trees cause global warming?” Poon questions. When Poon moved onto his land in 1963, his biggest fear was tigers. Tigers ate local dogs and instilled a sense of fear for personal wellbeing into the village. Now, in 2012, Poon’s biggest fear is of the Thai central government. The implementation of Western land ownership ideals instills a sense of fear for personal wellbeing and property into the Toong Lui Lai village. In February 2012, Poon traveled to Bangkok with the Isaan Land Reform Network to formally petition for his land rights. Government officials claimed land titles would be granted, but for now Poon and his wife continue to wait. “They have a pen and paper, they can sign whatever they want. We don’t have that pen. We have to suffer, we can’t fight back,” Poon says. Holding fast to his Thai heritage and his family values, Poon remains steadfast. “My neighbors, everyone knows I benefit from that land,” Poon says. With half a century on that land under his belt, Poon is not going anywhere, no matter how the tigers attack.

Thailand first introduced the concept of land titles in 1954, and even then the concept began in legislature without any formal structure for spreading the idea into rural areas like Toong Lui Lai. As Thai law begins to enforce a system of private property ownership akin to that of the United States, the Thai government must make significant changes to its current policy and strategy.

1) Communication must be inclusive to citizens in ALL parts of the country. Policy changes are reported in major newspapers, but these publications do not reach the rural villages of Isaan, the northeastern region of Thailand. Villagers have little means of communication outside of word of mouth and the occasional cell phone. Utilizing the same system of pick-up trucks with speakers announcing their wares used to sell goods in rural villages could be used to broadcast major government news. This change extends a positive impact even beyond land rights by creating a more well-informed populace on the whole.

2) Remember the various interest groups involved in the land rights issue. Private businesses, wildlife sanctuaries, governments at the local and national level, and thousands of citizens- each of these parties carries a distinct interest in the handling of private property and land distribution in Thailand. Hosting a forum held IN the communities where land disputes are occurring, with representatives from each of the aforementioned groups, could provide a step in the right direction for achieving widespread understanding.

At the crux of traditional land ownership and a politically-driven system of private property, the Thai government faces no small task in handling this issue. Most importantly, the villagers must have a voice. They have been attacked by tigers in their past, and it now seems as if other threats lie in wait for them. When communication and understanding become central goals in this process, villagers like Poon Ded Prahgo can begin to have a voice in the struggle for their land.

Molly Johnson

Texas Christian University

26 March 2012

Grassroots Organizing in Isaan

A Kok Yao village woman recounts the arrests of her husband and son to CIEE students.

Unit 2 was devoted to the study of land rights issues in Northeastern Thailand, particularly the conflict between the state government and villagers. Government policies on forest and wildlife preservation continue to vex villagers whose land overlap with the preserved forest. To combat the loss of land, villages near the preserved forests organized at the level of the community. The relationship between the community organizations and external groups influence how successful the villagers can be.

Villagers of Toong Lui Lai in Chaiyaphum Province in Northeast Thailand organized in order to support one another through the legal procedures. Sanctuary officials had charged many farmers with trespassing on the preserve forest (a criminal offense) and causing global warming. They came together as a group to fight against the injustice of the lawsuits and for the right to use their land. Their rights as Thai citizens were violated, and they came together to fight against the injustice that the state government inflicted upon them.

Relationships between people are the foundation of community organization. The group decides upon a leader within the community who will represent them. Because the leader comes from within the community, there is more trust than if the leader was external to the group. The power to decide lies within the individual villagers, and given the opportunity to exercise this ability, the villagers and the community become empowered. They can organize themselves in order to fight for their rights.

External groups can help or hinder the community as they battle for land rights. The wildlife sanctuaries within Thailand, which is under the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment, are the representation of the state government at the community level. Each sanctuary is headed by a different government official who has the power to enforce the state’s policies. Bordering Toong Lui Lai and Kok Yao is Pha Peung Wildlife Sanctuary. The relationship between the two groups is antagonistic as the officers strictly adhere to policies that advocate the filing of chargers and arrests. In Kok Yao village, a group of 200 men consisting of soldiers, police, and sanctuary officers came to arrest the villagers. The extraordinary display of violence demonstrates the unequal relationship between the sanctuary and the villages. On the other hand, Pha Daeng Wildlife Sanctuary in the neighboring province of Petchaboon had recently become friendlier with the bordering villages. The current head of Pha Daeng is Phiramet Teuthanstkul, who has taken initiatives to build a relationship with villagers. His model of wildlife management focuses on a stable relationship between villagers and the sanctuary so that both parties can work together to preserve the forest.

Students are another external group that assists community organizations. The CIEE Development and Globalization Program in Thailand has a long relationship with NGOs and villages. Through the Land Reform Network of Thailand, the CIEE program asks villages to accept and teach students about the problems that the community face. Five out of seven exchanges in Unit 2 were with villagers, and each time, our student group was asked: what are we going to do with this information? The program allows a space for students to assist communities with projects, and we can do so within our role as foreign students.

Mina Dinh

Williams College

Women and Land Rights in Thailand

In visiting many communities dealing with land issues and fighting for rights of ownership, multiple grassroots movements have sprouted to overcome these issues. Of the organizations established, one in particular stands out known as the Iron Lady. The Iron Lady is an organization comprised of women fighting for land rights through organizing protests in Bangkok, working within their villages to attract media attention, and overall demanding land rights with their fellow villagers. I bring attention to this organization in particular because it is headed and was established by women. And after speaking with the Kok Yao, Huay Gon Tha, and Baw Kaew communities, women play a large role in land issues in Thailand.

In Thailand, land is passed down on the women’s side. While in the villages, I was unable to discern whether women held a higher position or were uninhibited by their gender since property is dependent on them. When it came to organizing in Kok Yao village, it was stated that women have the same amount of respect in the leadership positions they occupy as men do in their positions and more and more women can be seen are on the frontlines movements.

Many of the women of Kok Yao village have participated in demonstrations in Bangkok that have lasted over a month. One yai (grandmother) in particular, named Yai Awn, spent a month demonstrating and protesting outside government buildings, spending her days demanding for a community land title and sleeping on curb side roads at night for she knew no one in the city. This drive for land ownership, a symbol of security that most people take for granted in their daily lives, pushed Yai Awn to stand her ground until she received the land title. Unfortunately, Yai Awn was not successful in receiving a land title. Nonetheless, her persistence and appearance in the demonstration allowed for her voice to be heard and reminded the government this land issue was a serious matter.

In Huay Gon Tha village, mostly populated by women, one particular mae (mother) demonstrated her frustration and anger of land rights when the police first raided the village. Mae Puuk, with long black hair tied back in a ponytail, her stern features left naked for eyes to see, recounts when and where she was on the day the police first came to arrest the villagers on claims that they were trespassing on reserved forest land. She, along with other women, were working in the fields when the police first approached. Carry guns and ordering the women to follow them to the police department, Mae Puuk and the other women refused because they did not know why they were being arrested. When one officer pointed his gun at one woman and threatened to fire, Mae Puuk stepped in-between grabbing the head of the gun and fiercely telling the officer no. Putting her life at risk, Mae Puuk knew that an injustice was happening to her and her fellow women deciding to fight for her rights and not being silenced.

These two roles demonstrate the roles women have taken on and continue to adopt within the land movement. Whether they are demonstrating for days on or putting their lives in danger for what they believe is right, women continue to adopt active roles in the politics of land issues in Thailand. Part of the reason why women are able to take on a greater role is that men play a less active role. This not to say that men are not participating in land issues, because both men and women have been arrested and charged, but more men stay at home tending to the farm and harvesting. This gives women the opportunity to take charge in organizing demonstrations, participating in demonstrations, and traveling to other provinces to collaborate with other organizations on land rights. Overall, women are actively taking charge, demanding their rights, and risking their lives for what they believe in.

Jennifer Lopez

Whitman College

Global Warming Charges in Isaan

While staying with forest communities in Phechaban province, I came to realize that Thailand is facing an epidemic of governmental land grabbing. By establishing national parks, forest preserves, and wildlife sanctuaries, the government has empowered itself to seize property owned by communities who own, live in, and rely on these areas. On the surface it appears the government has good intentions: preserving forest ecosystems, protecting wildlife, and maintaining a space for visitors to enjoy the natural beauty of the country. A much closer look reveals that, despite its persecution of villagers’ longstanding practices, the Thai government has objectives beyond and even contrary to saving the environment.

One of the most ridiculous aspects of this land issue between the villagers and the government was the issue of global warming. While this is normally something that I associate with the use of fossil fuels and the faults of big business, this is far from the case in Thailand. The Thai government claims these people’s land as their own, convicts them for trespassing on that land, and then charges them for global warming! Using an arbitrary (and fairly unscientific process) the government calculates how much a villager, just in tending to the land, contributes to the increase in temperature not just of their isolated area, but globally. Villagers are then slapped with a hefty fine, one which most of them cannot afford to pay. Clearly the ridiculousness of this scenario does not need to be explained, but it is heightened in numerous ways.

First, the government does not charge industries or scooter riding urbanites with causing global warming. Some of these villages don’t even have electricity. Second, the government itself contributes to environmental degradation, and by their own standards creates global warming. Particularly concerning is the state’s current promulgation of eucalyptus for the country’s pulp industry, much of which is grown on land taken from villagers. According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, Thailand has an estimated 300,000 hectares of eucalyptus plantations. Much of this is owned by the Forest Industrial Organization (FIO) .

One of the village leaders we met, Den recalls soldiers forcing him to slash and burn his cornfield, then forcing other villagers to plant eucalyptus for the FIO. Villagers in Baw Kaew were forcefully evicted in order to make room for an FIO eucalyptus plantation, but after over 30 years have moved back in as a protest village. Both villages have seen the literally draining effects the tree has had on the land. Before the plantations, villagers would grow food in between trees. Now, however, the soil has been depleted and the thirsty trees have absorbed much of the ground water. Kok Yao used to have a community pond for fishing and to provide water to the village but it now sits empty, sucked up into the trees. The water supply has been so heavily reduced that plans have been put into motion to create a new dam within areas of the village, preserve, and sanctuary, a plan which calls the government’s push for “conservation” into question. Other projects, such as highway expansion, resorts, and golf courses within state-owned forests further suggest a false conservationist intent.

Third, these communities live off the land and so are actually very concerned with preserving it. Though technically part of Phu Pha Daeng sanctuary, the village of Huay Ra Huong decided to declare their own community forest in 2005 on 1,500 rais of land. The forest has been “ordained,” by monks who have wrapped most of the trees in yellow cloth to prevent them from being cut down. They have also established a fire protection zone to make sure fires are well contained. The community has been working to replant the area with native species, and while it doesn’t practice agriculture within the forest it does have an area designated for gathering naturally grown food and herbs–the “community kitchen,” as one of the village leaders fondly calls it. In order to ensure the protection of this community forest, village leaders have drafted a set of rules and regulations for its use. Not only does this ensure that the forest remains preserved, but it is also an effort to show government offices the community’s intention to respect the land. “Villagers are already preserving the forest, you don’t need to send in officers,” said one of the men who uses the community forest.

Other communities have also employed formal rules to maintain forestland. For example, in Kok Yao villagers are barred from using chemical fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides. Instead they make their own compost and have to switch out crops to replenish the soil. “We have our community trying to preserve the forest because we want the forest to be there for our family,” said Mr. Jan Puan Rung See, the head of the Community Land Title Committee of Tuang Lui Lai village. Many forest communities are trying to secure community land titles (CLT) with help from NGOs like the Isaan Land Reform Network. CLTs are State-recognized segments of land that are owned and regulated by the communities that live on them. Such an arrangement empowers communities to equally and sustainably utilize their land while also preventing land from being bought off by industry. Unfortunately, of the 451 CLT applications submitted to the Prime Minister’s CLT Committee, only 55 have been approved, and of those only 2 have actually been formally recognized. Neither of those two were in a forest.

It is clear that the Thai government is using global warming as an excuse to kick villagers out of their land to use it for their own means, and it is unfortunate that they are going to such lengths to do so. Unfortunately the Thai political system is very centralized, and politicians have a lot of power. Fortunately, the new Prime Minister has set aside 7 billion baht (almost $250 million) for community land bank and CLT promotion. There is also a Community Land Title Bill that is coming up for a vote. If it is passed, the CLT will be formally made into law rather than just be a project. Formalized CLTs will help stop this global warming nonsense and actually help fight global warming by keeping land in the hands of self-sufficient communities rather than letting it slip to the government and/or industry.

Alex Acuña

Occidental College

04 March 2012


As our first unit on food comes to a close and we begin our next unit on land, I cannot help but reflect on how my views of our food system in America have changed as a result of the families I stayed with and interacted with on this first unit. While I have always been conscious about the food put into my body, I never really considered where it came from or the journey it had to make to sit before me. I have always been pro-organic, and as someone who eats mostly vegetarian, have always embraced my love for fresh vegetables. However, after leaving Yasothon, the region in Isaan we primarily worked in on our past unit, I can safely say my views on organic farming and sustainability have changed for good, in a way that makes me want to change my role in the food system today.

In Yasothon I stayed with Paw (father) Wan and Mae (mother)Meow, both farmers that live in a house with their daughter and her partner, and their other daughter’s child. Both Mae and Paw are active members of the sustainable organic farming movement in Yasothon. Paw is an active member of the AAN, the Alternative Agriculture Network. He switched from chemical farming to organic farming in 2001. In 2002 he joined the AAN, seeking to switch the farming community in Yasothon to totally organic.

Mae Meow is also a farmer and sells her products at the Green Market in Yasothon that gathers a couple times a week. At the Green Market, Mae sells the vegetables and rice that she and Paw grow. Other Maes sell their produce there as well. The market is completely organic and is frequented by members of the organic community as well as members of the community that still farm with chemicals.

On the last day of our home stay in Yasothon, I accompanied Mae to the Green Market. I arose at 5 am to meet her there, although she had been gone since 2 am to arrive at the market by 3 am to set up. She was up late the night before, too, making sweet coconut pastries wrapped in banana leaves that she would sell for 10 baht a bundle, the equivalent of 30 cents. When I arrived at the market, I was overwhelmed by all that I saw: white rice, red rice, brown rice, small bananas, pastries, potatoes, cucumbers, tomatoes, and many other kinds of vegetables and drinks. All completely organic! I wanted to eat absolutely everything.

There were about thirty women working at the Green Market, and many of them were selling the same strains of rice and similar fruits and vegetables. However, I noticed that there was really no sense of competition. If one Mae made a sale, there were no glares from the other sellers, no apparent bad feelings brewing. All of the women were happily selling their foods together, as if they were all on the same team. Their organic community seemed to be all for one and one for all. In fact, at the end of the market, my Mae told me that she would trade her goods for other goods that had not been sold. When I asked her if she ever needed to go shopping at a supermarket, she replied that she could sustain her family on food that she and her husband grew. What she could not grow, she could trade for with other women at the market.

This sense of support and community through agriculture and sustainability is something almost foreign to me as an American. At home it feels like there is much competition between stores and sellers, and most of the food is processed in chemicals and sold for way more expensive than it should be. The Yasothon community’s sense of sustainability has made me really consider where my dollar truly goes. I now more than ever am aspiring to buy local, trying to find a way that supports local farmers that are constantly being overpowered by an unfair and corrupt system.

-Abby Friedman

Kenyon College

Seeds for the Future

Thailand, or as I like to call it, Siam, is made up of eight major ethnic identities. The Isaan region of Northeast Thailand (where the Development and Globalization program students are studying) consists of people from the neighboring Laos and has a very distinct agricultural and rural culture. This served the students in my program well when it came to studying issues surrounding food during our first unit. Each of us were paired up and stayed with homestay families while attending exchanges with non-profit organizations, a sugarcane factory, herbal medicine clinic and a hospital, all of which helped us gain perspective on topics of organic and sustainable farming, its affects on communities and health as well as the role capitalism in the current food system. However, the best insight I received about the aforementioned topics was during my own homestay from my paw, or father, and his experiences as an organic farmer.

I will start off by saying that my homestay paw (“father”), a rice farmer of fifty-two years old, is one of the dopest and most admirable people I’ve met in Thailand. After using chemicals like herbicides, fertilizers and pesticides while working on other farms during his childhood and even on his own land for thirty years, he proudly switched to organic farming ten years ago. My thought after hearing this was, what could make a rice farmer switch from using chemicals to grow food for thirty years to successfully transition to organic rice farming? “First, it was the health of myself and that of my family,” said my paw during a conversation. He continued throughout our conversation stating that the chemicals were ruining the farmland, the water in the village and affecting his health.

Why does someone use chemicals for thirty years in the first place? “Because the government supported farmers who used the chemicals fertilizers and even gave us hybrid rice seeds to grow called ‘Local Jasmine 105.’” Of course the government would do this, I thought. It would promote fertilizers and hybrid seeds because it would make them and the corporations that make both of those wealthier due to the higher yield produced. However, as paw continued his story, I began to understand that the option of using chemical fertilizer also helped him and his family save money for his children’s education from the profit he too gained (but not as much as the government adn corporations) from the high yield of rice on his farm.

So, what makes my paw such a baller? Two things. “I want to consume what I plant.” Paw grows not organic vegetables, beans, rice, chickens, ducks, cows, fish, and pigs, all of which either help him produce food organically and for his family to consume. My mae, or mother, sells the extra yield at the Green Market, where she goes once a week to sell with other organic farmers from the area.

Further, my homestay father has been a member of the Alternative Agriculture Network (AAN), a national resources network in Thailand that promotes sustainable and organic farming, for eight years and has been collecting data with a local university for the past year. Paw helps research and gather information to preserve indigenous native rice seeds that were lost when the government brought hybrid seeds to the region.

Paw is resilient and hopeful of preserving the rice seeds important to his culture for the future. “The purpose of this research is for the next generation.” Paw recognizes that his generation is the last generation of farmers, “but I do think there will be people interested in rice, both locals and others.”

“We [AAN] are thinking and trying to support and distribute local species of rice and giving it to other districts because we want them to do organic farming...I want every area to be organic in Thailand.”

What do I say to all of what my paw does? That’s whats up.

-Fátima Avellán

Occidental College

Self-Sufficiency: Paw-yoo-paw-kin

Since 1973, ubiquitous King Bhumibol has proposed a "Philosophy of a Sufficiency Economy." This connotes sufficiency, moderation, and economizing for agricultural communities, but on a deeper level, what kind of farming does this support?

During our agriculture unit and home stay (in Yasothon Province in Northeast Thailand) there seemed to be widespread support for this initiative. However, I struggled to gauge what effect it was actually having on quotidian agriculture practices. There seems to be a huge disparity between what the government supports with its policies, what the king promotes and how farmers farm. Government policies have generally supported the import of chemicals from China, with the market now surpassing $250 million. Chemical farming has long since become the norm, partly because Thai cities were built on the rice tax imposed in the 50's and Thailand is now one of the world largest exporters of Jasmine rice. The majority of this rice is grown using pesticides to increase the yield on a crop that Thailand cannot afford to lose. Thailand is a 95% Buddhist country, and within Buddhism there is an important tenet – paw-yoo-paw-kin, or self-sufficiency. Thai people are being bombarded by notions of self-sufficiency from every angle, but when asked about their motivations they still seem to diverge from the King's and Buddhism's teachings. Throughout our exchanges, everyone we asked from members of the Alternative Agriculture Network, conventional farmers, even sugarcane companies were all supportive of the initiative. However, when asked why most farmers switched to organic farming, their motivations were never because of the initiative but for health, social and economic reasons.

I stayed in the home of two organic farmers, Mae Jim and Paw who transitioned almost twenty years ago because of health reasons. They plant rice, herd buffalo, raise chicken and have an edible garden. Their meals are comprised of herbs, fruits, vegetables, rice, eggs and chicken from their own land. Each week Mae Jim goes to the market three times to sell produce and buy produce other members of the local organic community. This community is extremely tight-knit within the community it is normal for villagers to trade produce with each other, and help each other with their harvest. These exchanges have led the organic villages to become primarily self-sufficient. Meanwhile, comparable conventional farming villages rely on their crops for exports. Their food goes far away, and the food they eat comes from far away. Based off of these trends it would seem that a switch to self-sufficiency would also entail a switch to organic, but that is not what the government seems to be proposing.

-Fay Walker

Occidental College

Where Have All the Farmers Gone?

On our first unit in Yasothon district I stayed with a family of rice farmers. I had a chance to talk to my home stay dad, Wichian Weluwanarag, about what he hoped to see for the future of his farm, and more specifically, the future of his three sons. He told me that his eldest son is already out of school and works in the city, his middle son attends the university in a nearby province, and his youngest son is still in primary school. He told me that his only hope for his children is that they have enough education so that they can later support themselves. When I asked whether or not he thought that his older children would come back to work with him on the family farm, he shook his head: “My oldest son may come back, but not to farm.”

This is a photo from Nong Weng, one of the slum villages our group visited. Some of the families here that have migrated into the city in the hopes of finding jobs and economic stability are now fighting for both land ownership and basic human rights.

This situation of my home stay family in some ways illustrates a trend that is emerging in Thailand among the younger generations of farmers: migration to the city. Rather than taking up the family farm, a lot of the younger generation farmers are moving from their villages into larger cities, in most cases for education, work opportunities, or out of economic necessity. As my home stay father explained, people are beginning to move away from their farms because they no longer have large enough areas of land to provide enough money to support their families. As more and more families have to leave their farms, the younger generations are less and less familiar with farming practices, or in the words of my home stay father, “the young just don’t know how to farm.”

As a result, in some cases, like the Weluwanarag family, the younger generations of farmers are encouraged to migrate into the city for education and for career opportunities. Here they may be removed from the economic stressors that working as a farmer can create. However, these men and women may just likely find similar economic instability by moving into larger cities. With large amounts of people coming into the cities, the opportunities to find well-paying jobs or higher careers become limited and harder to find. In a lot of these cases these men and women may have to move into the slum villages, that our group was also able to visit, where they will face issues concerning not only labor rights, but questions of land ownership and legalities of basic human rights.

This means that as the numbers of younger generation farmers are moving out of the villages their families at home are hiring outside help. For the Weluwanarag family this means hiring two to three people from their community to help out during harvesting season. However, for other families this may mean hiring from outside the village to other districts and provinces or even from outside the country. This can in some cases put another economic stressor on the family, but also seems to just fuel a cycle of migration.

This trend in the younger generation of farmers seems like it may mimic in some ways the migration patterns that are happening in other countries, like that of the states. However I am not sure to what degree these trends are similar—this is something that I would want to research more, in addition to further research on this seeming trend in Thailand: is this something that Thai people, other than my home stay family, are noticing? Is this even an issue?

By the end of our conversation my home stay father turned to me and said, “My youngest says he doesn’t want to do anything else. He only wants to farm.” Can’t speak too soon.

-Hadley Mowe
Whitman College