16 March 2013

Beautiful but Broken

I have never been to Yellowstone National Park or Yosemite National Park. The closest I have been is sitting in front of the television as a little boy and watching Yogi Bear and Boo Boo pull their usual tricks on unsuspecting tourists. In my later years I have enjoyed the work of Ansel Adams and the perspective he provides through the lens of a camera of these great “untouched” landscapes. What none of these medias provide is a whole clear picture. What is even more baffling is our education system sheds no light on the subject of our nation’s national parks; instead, we are fed the impression that we have some of the greatest national parks in the world that are kept pristine for all to visit and take pictures.

Myself, along with twenty-one other American students have learned the injustices that our beloved Yellowstone and Yosemite have committed. Even worse, these two parks have become the model for establishing national parks all around the world. It took traveling half way around the world to understand that American national parks have been kicking people off of their land for over 100 years. In traveling to Thailand we were faced with the issue of land rights and how the implementation of wildlife sanctuaries and national parks are displacing rural families and their livelihood.

Learning about Yellowstone and Yosemite was a difficult pill to swallow. “Legislation signed by President Abraham Lincoln in 1864, a 16 sq. km patch of Yosemite Valley became the model for national parks throughout the United States. Indeed, the basic formula-fencing off an area and removing its inhabitants” (Usher, A.D., “The making of thai wilderness”, 2009). To process the idea that President Lincoln was freeing slaves in the east and imprisoning Native Americans in the west challenges my thought towards him being one of the greatest American Presidents ever. I understand that Native Americans have been forced off of their land all across the United States, but to impose the idea that they will ruin the land as a means of justifying displacement is absurd.

After reading through Usher’s articles along with several other land rights issues, our group was faced with the challenge of interviews with wildlife sanctuaries, lawyers, the district office, NGOs, and villages. Trying to be nonbiased and asking questions that do not place judgment was hard to do when trying to get to the heart of these sensitive issues.

On one side are the villagers who say their families have been on the land for several generations and they have maintained and preserved that land as well. This is a simple argument but one that makes complete sense. These villagers want to be able work the land to be sustainable for their families and communities. They maintain that the government has been corrupt and have lied to villagers for the past 50 years.

The other side is the government and their attempt at preservation of natural lands using the model from American National Parks. They too have valid arguments and are working towards their objectives set by the Thai National Government. They maintain that not all villagers have been on the land for generations and are simply looking for the government to hand them some land. The government also carries the burden of insuring that the land reserved for preservation is not mono-cropped or heavily farmed using chemicals.

The arguments from both the government and the villagers are compelling, which raises the question: at what point do we, as Americans understand that our model of national parks is broken. If this is acknowledged then why does it continue to happen more that 100 years later.

Keith Warner
Ohio University

The gap between legal and human rights

The villagers in Baw Kaew community, located in Northeast Thailand, have spent the first few months of this year fighting for their right to have electricity. At the end of January, the government granted them access to electricity. But the conflict did not end there. Instead, the Forest Industry Organizations (FIO) demanded that the police arrest the electricity officers and cut off Baw Kaew’s electricity immediately.

The FIO, a national organization, was involved with Baw Kaew because the FIO technically owns the land that the villagers live on. The villagers live there illegally, and as a result, the FIO contends that they have no right to electricity or other government services. But the villagers have some right to these government services, even if it is not specifically a legal right. Indeed, access to basic infrastructure is a human right that both the Thai Constitution and the international covenants on human rights (of which Thailand is a signatory) claim to protect.
Essentially, the conflict between the FIO and Baw Kaew community illustrates the disconnect between legal and human rights that so many countries face. While the term human rights remains controversial and ill-defined, I take them to be values or ideals that a government promises to uphold. For instance, Part 6, Section 44 of the Thai Constitution proclaims that, “A person shall enjoy the right…to living security.” While living security is vague enough to cover any number of rights, basic infrastructure like consistent electricity certainly should be included under it. Moreover, the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), which Thailand ratified, stipulates in Part III, Article 11 that, “The States Parties to the present Covenant recognize the right of everyone to an adequate standard of living for himself and his family, including adequate food, clothing and housing, and to the continuous improvement of living conditions.” Without electricity, the Baw Kaew villagers lacked what many would describe as an adequate standard of living, but more importantly, the FIO’s attempt to retract Baw Kaew’s electricity violated the villagers’ right to continuously improve their standard of living. In fact, the FIO’s fight with the villagers consistently violates this right because it endangers the villagers’ future, and denies them any sense of living security.

Throughout this fight, however, the FIO has not violated the law. Indeed, it is the villagers who face legal repercussions for their actions. We spoke with the Chief District Officer (CDO), who oversees Baw Kaew village, and he emphasized that it was the villagers’ duty to act within the bounds of the law – otherwise, the government could not help them. Because many of the villagers never had a legal title for their land, and so were squatting illegally, they had no grounds to demand government protection. For example, the FIO sued thirty-one villagers from Baw Kaew for trespassing on forest land, and at the moment, the case is in the highest court. The CDO does not believe that the villagers will win the case, because they have no legal documentation supporting their right to the land. In other words, the FIO can kick them off their land, so they will have no living security or access to a means of supporting themselves.
The CDO did acknowledge that human rights exist, but they are subservient to the law. As he put it, “In human society, there have to be ground rules for people to live together, and that is the law.” In his eyes, the law precedes values and morality, which comprise human rights. The government can and should protect human rights only when they fall under the purview of the law.

This sort of thinking, however, lacks internal consistency. The foundation of Thai laws is the Thai Constitution and the international laws that Thailand commits itself to upholding. When the laws do not abide by the Constitution or the international covenants, they lack legitimacy within the Thai legal system. As the gap between the principles of the government and its actual laws widens, the legal system loses its internal coherence, and actually endangers itself. Without internal coherence, a legal system begins to falter because, as in the case of the Baw Kaew villagers, people demand the principles that the government promises, and reject its laws. An incoherent legal system cannot go unnoticed, and cannot survive indefinitely.
Maia Cole
Amherst University

Alternative Education

My first experience with alternative education happened when I participated in ENGAGE University as a student intern, summer 2011. Seven of us students designed the five-week program, selecting readings, facilitating themed units, and coordinating everything from housing, transportation, and meals, to interviews, workshops, and the development of community-based projects.
There, along the Mississippi river, I learned about popular education, as pioneered by the brilliant Brazilian theorist of critical pedagogy, Paolo Freire. In the term popular education, “popular” means “of the people.” More specifically, “popular” refers to society’s oppressed, the poor, the working class. Popular education, as a form of alternative education, recognizes our unavoidable cultural, political, and class bias, and therefore concludes that education cannot ever be neutral. Hence, education that fails to challenge the oppressive society only serves to perpetuate oppression. 
My five-week introduction to alternative education with ENGAGE University caused in me a serious reflection of self. After fourteen consecutive years of prestigious schooling I felt as though I had never known less. I worried that my education at a mainstream private liberal arts college served only to perpetuate the existing class structure of a highly stratified society. ENGAGE University taught me that alternatives exist to oppressive schooling. Should I choose so, my education can be explicitly and actively engaged with human liberation. And so, two years later, I came to Thailand with CIEE to continue that alternate education.

Once here, I got to read more of Freire’s writing. His concept of education rejects the “banking model” where all-knowing teachers deposit knowledge into the minds of empty-headed students without any communication or inquiry into the process of human liberation. And as Freire notes in Chapter 2 of Pedagogy of the Oppressed, “…only through communication can human life hold meaning.” The ongoing process of communication through dialectics, praxis, and reflection can only happen when students dialogue both with their peers and their teachers. In contrast, the banking method does not encourage students or teachers to ask the question, “Why?” Instead, banking education presents our situation as fatalistically unchallengeable. In fact, banking education instills no reason at all to think our lives ought to be challenged.

“Authentic liberation- the process of humanization-“ writes Freire, “is not another deposit to be made in men. Liberation is a praxis: the action and reflection of men and women upon their world in order to transform it.”

While here in Issan (Northeast Thailand) I’ve been assigned to read incredible works like this. This is the kind of thought that revolutionizes one’s approach to education- how you relate to your peers, your teachers, yourself, and the world you fit into.

Our study abroad program also assigns authors like Jamaica Kincaid, Cherrie Moraga, bell hooks, and Audre Lorde. These are writers included in an education that is critical in the intentions of its pedagogy, and challenging to structures, both personal and societal, of oppression. It is no coincidence that these authors are all women of color. Furthermore, they represent poets, feminists, social activists, lesbians, and radical theorists. These sexual, gendered, racial, cultural, and political identities are too often left out of education. If we are to move past a society defined by stifling, normative oppression, these are the voices we must continue learning from.
Mariko Dodson
Occidental College

The Challenges of Growing Organically

“Every household in this community that grows sugarcane is in debt” the headman of Ban Dong Dip village explained to us. We were sitting in an exchange, or conversation between the villagers and CIEE students, learning about the farming practices of the community. The villagers were in debt because they had contracted to sell sugarcane to a factory, which held them to a certain quota. More often than not they were unable to meet the quota, and this meant that they had to make up for that lose in their next harvest. This almost always required villagers to use more chemicals in their fields as they struggled to produce the extra sugarcane. They know the detriments of the chemicals, but that is not what concerns them the most. What concerns them most is that they must survive, and their livelihoods rest in the success of their sugarcane harvest. Sadly, this is a story common to many agricultural workers in Thailand today.   

I came into this food unit having done a lot of research on food production and being a very strong supporter of organic food growing methods. It seemed pretty obvious, organic food is healthier, better for those who consume it, those who grow it and for the environment in general, so why isn’t everyone just growing food organically?

It didn’t take long for my preconceptions to be squashed by the villagers, the people who were actually growing the food that I could just step into a store or market and purchase. Making a living in agriculture is scary and uncertain, and when you need to guarantee a livelihood for yourself and your family it is much easier to conform to the system than to go against it and risk losing everything.

What I mean by conforming to the system is scarily similar to the dilemma farmers in the United States face. Unsurprisingly, the same movement, the Green Revolution of the 1960s, influenced both Thailand and the U.S. The Green Revolution merged technology with food production; it introduced widespread use of chemical fertilizers, pesticides, irrigation and improved variety of seeds.[1] The government of Thailand suddenly began to exhibit a strong influence over the farming practices used in the country. If farmers wanted access to new improved varieties of seed they would also have to submit to the rice farming practices of the Green Revolution, meaning more fertilizers, pesticides and irrigation. In addition to this pressure to conform to government promoted farming methods was the government’s promotion of chemical fertilizer and pesticides, which made them incredibly cheap and accessible to farmers1. Yields did increase initially, and many farmers fed into the system, eager for larger yields and increasing incomes.

Our food unit trip took a group of us to Na Samai village, a community that largely practices chemical agriculture. We were able to speak with a woman who farms about 70 rai of land, a huge area. She too uses chemical agriculture, and when we asked her why she explained that everyone else was doing it, so why shouldn’t she? Interestingly, this woman purchased organic food for her family; they did not eat the rice that she grew chemically. For her, farming was her business, her way to support her family and live a comfortable life. She also explained to us that if she did switch to organic she would need to hire twice as many workers, and that it would still take these additional workers more time to prepare the fields then it now takes for one man to do.

Unfortunately, these are the realities of switching to organics. First, you must go up against a government-supported system and risk having a poor yield. You must spend more time preparing your fields than you would have to with chemicals, that is if you can even obtain organic compost to begin with. For many people, the threat of losing their living is much more powerful than knowing the harmful side effects of the chemicals they use. This unit has truly opened my eyes to the human element of this situation, it is easy for me to do my readings and research and conclude that everyone should grow organic, but in reality it is much much less clear cut than that.

Kayla Murphy
Tulane University

[1] Vitoon Panyakul. “Thai Rice: The Rice of Freedom.” Green Net, May 2003: n. pag. Print

The Alternative Agriculture Network: Providing an Unconventional Approach to Food

The practice of using chemical fertilizer, pesticides, and cash-crops was widely implemented as the idea of globalized agriculture began to permeate Thailand’s economy.  Small scale farmers are now faced with a myriad of problems: lack of land rights, mounting debt, continuing health issues, and an absence of choices.  It is this blaring lack of options that the Alternative Agriculture Network (AAN) has decided to tackle head-on. 

As the Assembly of the Poor began protesting in Bangkok during 1996, they grouped their complaints into specific categories.  The AAN grew out of the section on agriculture in order to address what were seen as major issues developing around the country.  The AAN works with farmers throughout Thailand who want to escape the system of contract farming whether they grow crops such as sugarcane, rice, or cassava or practice animal husbandry.

The AAN is spread throughout Thailand and has projects and influence in the four regions of the country (Northeast, North, Central, and South).  The organization at the national level meets biannually allowing its leader to make decisions about the regional branches.  The AAN mostly works with communities in which there are pre-existing organizations so that they can act as a partner in achieving their combined goals.  The AAN strives to ensure that local agrarian families and communities are self-sustaining in order to reduce dependence on corporations and the government. 

The AAN provides a bridge for local communities to have contact with international organizations like La Via Campesina which strengthens the movement against more powerful proponents of modern agricultural practices.  The AAN also helped create the Na Sa Mill, an organic rice mill that help farmers receive a fair price while being in contact with Green Net, which helps the mill to export rice to Canada and the European Union.

Since the AAN works with a bottom-up approach, many farmers are still reluctant to join the network.  The central government can give money to the headman of villages who then disburses it throughout the village but the AAN can, for the most part, only pass on ideas and help communities develop plans for their projects.

However, support and knowledge goes a long way in terms of changing the current agricultural system.  The AAN tries to w
ork with the government to create policies that support and empower small farmers.  In addition, they work to create a self-analysis of how communities spend their money to see more clearly where debt comes from in order to identify solutions. 

One of these solutions and a main goal of the AAN is to encourage member communities to incorporate organic farming techniques into their fields, a scary prospect for people whose lives depend on an annual crop yield.  The AAN is able to provide information about organic techniques and pass on local wisdom that may have been lost in the community as well as showing successful concrete examples of past organic farming models.  This is often just the push that some farmers need in order to take their first step towards alternative agriculture.

The AAN’s agenda has also expanded to focus of using and preserving indigenous seed varieties which helps support local food culture.  This is mainly done through resisting capitalist seed production and ownership that comes with certain varieties of crops like Jasmine 105.  As the Thai government has pushed for one or two varieties of crops to be grown, the AAN has helped farmers store local varieties to preserve and to eat. Seeds within the network have expanded through farmer-to-farmer exchanges and there are now currently 73 farmer-researchers in the network, with over 140 rice varieties saved for preservation and expansion.

It is pointless to expect that all chemical farming practices and monocropping will disappear from Thailand.  It is simply impossible.  However, it is possible to empower the farming class while reducing the amount of destructive patterns seen in new-age agriculture.  Considering this, it is pretty remarkable that the AAN has been able to gain national legitimacy and clout while helping many farmers realize the importance of integrated agriculture and alternative methods to the status quo.  Progress is progress and the AAN is slowly but surely helping Thailand realize that going against the grain isn’t always a bad thing.

Kaiti Reed
Susquehanna university