From Sept. 10 to the 15th, the CIEE Fall 2008 student group came to stay and exchange with SFS farmers and NGOs. CIEE students stay here in Surin every semester, but in the past they have stayed in only two communities. This year, we decided to change things up and host them in six different villages (Donlengthai, Tabthai, Tamor, Lamduan, Khok Phet and Tanon) - members in each community have different focuses in their sustainable agricultural practices, so it was a good opportunity for students to see the diversity within our membership - despite some logistical complications with getting students in the CIEE vans, our new plan worked well and hope to do the same next semester. Thanks to P Joy (below) for making sure logistics worked out.
After our visit at the Charoen Pokphand (CP) rice mill in Buriram Province (above), one of the largest agri-business conglomerates in the world, we headed back to Surin for students to settle in with their new, small-scale organic farmer hosts. I think that for some students, the contrast between the work of a company like CP and members of SFS, was already becoming pretty clear.
The first day of our "Alternative School" was on Thurs. the 11th, and a group of about eight CIEE students came to learn with the village children and see Pakphum's fields. As it was our first session, it was mostly an introduction to organic agriculture, trying to help the children understand what the differences were between using chemicals and organic techniques, as well as getting them into the farmers' fields and seeing the diversity of plants on a sustainable farm. I also taught a little English lesson - having the phonetic pronunciation of agriculture related words in Thai made teaching something like "vegetable" (a tough word to pronounce for Thai 5th graders) across much easier.
On Friday the 12th, the students headed into Surin city for an exchange with SFS and Rice Fund at the Rice Fund Cooperative mill. The exchange covered a fairly wide range of topics, but I found P Than's explanation of Fair Trade to be especially useful, in response to a student's question she said, "[Fair Trade] is a market with understanding. Most people don't know how producers live, its like a story that has been buried underground."
Saturday brought the students to the Green Market (which SFS considers a more localized form of Fair Trade). After a nice 4 AM wake-up for most folks, everyone helped their families with selling produce and snacks to the urban consumers - always interesting to find American college kids on the other side of the market stand - and got to try out the wide range of fruits and snacks that farmers sold throughout the day.
We also had an exchange during the afternoon with P Tip, an SFS staff member who organizes the Green Market, as well as three Green Market consumers, who helped share a different perspective on how the market works. The students - despite an early wake-up and plenty of work in the morning - were real troopers, staying focused and engaged with P Tip and the consumers. An important theme emerged from their discussion, focusing on 3 essential parts of the market, as it creates concrete producer-producer links, consumer-producer links, and consumer-consumer links. The Green Market is a place not only for farmers to sell their organic produce, expand their membership and prove the viability of their work, as well as to create close and equitable relationships with consumers, but for consumers to create new friendships (and maintain old ones) centered around local, organic foods. The Green Market has become a well-known meeting place!
I invited my friend, Sun (below, in green jacket), who works for the Assembly of the Poor (AOP) to come and listen in on the exchange, and possibly give some input. When one of the students, Sarah, asked him about the role of students in local, organic food movements in Thailand he gave a passionate response, talking about the "resurrection of local knowledge" and a vision for supporting community self-reliance. I think the students weren't quite sure how to respond, but I was happy Sun had a small forum to express some of his ideas. Unfortunately, most Thai university students aren't thinking the same way.
On Sunday morning all the students headed over to Tabthai village for "Kids Love Nature" in the nearby community forest. After sitting and introducing the club, and all the students getting paired up with village kids, we headed out to label trees that had been planted earlier in the year and find forest edibles and medicinals.
After everyone came together and did a little show and tell about the plants they found, we sat under a shady tree and talked a little bit more about the importance of the community forest and the ways that the Kids Love Nature club is hoping to educate village children about the uses and benefits for their community of a conserved forest.
Sunday evening was the final exchange with SFS members in Donlengthai village. Following dinner, the students gave a final presentation, based on our ideas from the Pangaea Project group, which shared their feelings and experiences with their families, and was intended to show them how much they had learned while staying in the villages. The presentations then flowed into the exchange, where villagers challenged the students with tough questions about the Thai-US FTA, which they struggled to respond to. While the evening was a fun night, I think both farmers and students were left with unanswered questions - an important part of this learning process.
The students left the villages the next morning, and headed up to Mahasarakam Province for an exchange with P Ubon Yuwa and P Thoy Banjamlong, both from the Alternative Agriculture Network (AAN). P Ubon has been a long-time ally of ENGAGE. This exchange was a valuable opportunity for students to get at the bigger picture, of the global food system and all of it's irregularities and injustices. P Ubon gave a history of the Green Revolution and how it transformed Thai agriculture (and destroyed 30 % of forests, and generated 80 thousand baht debt for Isaan families), leading to a situation of corporate domination by corporations like Monsanto and CP, with close ties to Thai governance.
P Ubon and P Thoy also explained the emergence of the AAN, its early work to generate villager-research based policies with the government (which were rejected) and its current work to support the 100 thousand or more organic farmers without the power to change government policies. The students really enjoyed the discussion and asked engaging questions, including one about the potential for small-scale, family farms to feed populations (a criticism often directed at the organic movement). P Ubon talked about the notion that these farms are insufficient as "illusory" and related it to the realities of international pressure and policy that makes it easier for governments to work directly with corporations and not small farmers, as well as the fact that food exporting countries like the U.S. and Thailand continue to have parts of their population who lack sufficient access to food. Food's commoditization has meant restricted access and international trade continues on without "reason" (or what P Than might call "understanding").
Sustainable agriculture must compete with the offers of the capitalist system and the reality that organic farming is harder; you must rely on yourself. But for the AAN, controlling one's production and not being under the control of corporations, working in groups (as in the village farmers' groups that students stayed with) can mean small victories, concrete ways of taking back "the old knowledge" (much like my friend Sun had shared at the Green Market).
Going against convention, or a complete change of thinking that stems from experience and struggle, takes 4 years.