16 March 2013

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

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