04 March 2012

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


Jennifer said...

This post did a good job on touching multiple perspectives encompassing a transition to organic farming. While many could have argued that the dietary benefits of eating organic, lessening the destruction on the environment, fairer labor practices and compensation, and supporting our local farmers are the usual accolades surrounding organic farming. By demonstrating that organic farming is more traditional, it shows that farming is a cultural lifestyle amongst Isaan villagers, by performing more manual labor sans machines and planting tradition seeds handed down through centuries, and that modern farming is jeopardizing the practice. I hope that more villagers will continue to switch from mono-cropping to organic farming and that their children, or the younger generation, will uphold it as well. Great post!

Alex Acuña said...

I've been reflecting a lot on the disappearance of the rice farmers to the city, and for me it's crazy how your paw and organizations like the AAN are working so hard to preserve the very fabric of Thai culture. For those who do not know, rice in Thailand sets the calendar, defines the life of a villager, and is more important than any other food. In Thai, you don't ask if someone has eaten yet or would like to eat; you literally ask if they would like to or have already eaten rice. Something so inGRAINed in the culture, and so diverse and special to each region, does not seem like something that should be allowed to be subject to the whims of the government and corporate interests for the sake of economic gain and cultural hegemony.