CIEE started their semester off last week, learning with farmers' groups in Yasothon and Kalasin provinces. Instead of coming to Surin this semester, CIEE and SFS decided to connect students with other parts of the network. Given the success of the spring 2008 semester's Yasothon Green Market project, building new relationships with Yasothon communities seemed to be the best next step.
The students met with a wide range of people and groups connected to sustainable agriculture in Isaan. They exchanged with the Yasothon Green Market's organizers and a few consumers, the AAN-Kudchum committee, P' Grieng - a local herbal medicine specialist, the families that they stayed with for 4 nights, bureaucrats at the Yasothon city hall (the Governor was unavailable) and finally, P' Ubon Yuwa and P' Bamrung Kayotha, of AAN-Isaan. It seemed like the diversity of perspectives and knowledge in these exchanges came across clearly to the CIEE students. Exchanging with villagers and NGOs was both engaging and challenging for the student group, and they worked to develop a better understanding of the sustainable agriculture movement in Isaan. To read directly about their experiences, check out the CIEE blog. Inspired by what I saw on their blog, in response to the question "How does globalization affect rural livelihoods?" I'll try to reflect on the CIEE experience in a similar way.
A popular question among students - "what are the challenges in the transition to organic farming?" - is often answered by talking about accumulated debt or unwillingness to use more labor in the fields. But when answered by Paw Bunsong Matkhao (photo above), president of the AAN-Isaan, we got a powerful and complex response. He told the students, "our biggest obstacle in transition is more than just our way of life, and 'challenges in transition' is a big issue. We are fighting capitalism and government policy. Free trade is death for small farmers. This is a people's movement for sustainability, and it is not just about farmers - CIEE students have a role within this movement." Paw Bunsong's words are a example of the kind of teachers that Isaan small-scale farmers (with 6th grade educations) can be - pushing us to think about how issues are interconnected and to challenge our preconceived notions about development or social issues. Farmers' debt comes from the transformation of agricultural production carried out by both local middlemen and transnational corporations, their agency in the destruction of rural livelihoods cannot be overlooked. Yet the opportunity for people around the world to come together and support sustainable alternatives is important and should be pursued.
The current "13 varieties" herb scandal is symbolic of the kind of relationships that the Thai central government has with transnational agribusiness (activists believe that Bayer Cropscience was behind the move to ban the herbs). Students were intrigued by this issue and pursued it at every chance they had. When meeting with local bureaucrats in Yasothon, their questions regarding this issue were answered by the officials in agreement with local farmers - banning the use of these herbs would be seriously detrimental to organic farming in Thailand, let along farmers' food security. Among the herbs considered to have "toxic" properties are lemongrass, chilli, ginger and neem - commonly used by all Thais. Yet local bureaucrats or small farmers' views mean little compared to interests of those powerful few on the Hazardous Substances Committee. While the herbs have ultimately not been listed as hazardous substances, sulfur (commonly used in chemical fertilizers) has been removed from the list of hazardous substances by the Industry Ministry and has a 0% import tariff. Within a context of corporate control over Thai agro-industry, community movements like Paw Bunsong's in Kudchum, Yasothon face significant challenges, often outside the scope of farmers or local politicians.
Learning organic farming techniques and being a member of a community farmers' group is only the beginning of sustainable agriculture in Thailand. Participating in the AAN and fighting for support of local food systems or policy reform is the next step. This is why forming a network is so crucial in this "globalized" context: when a ban on local herbs arises, farmers are ready to mobilize and make their voices heard, whether it's in their local community or through an NGO like Biothai in Bangkok. The AAN enables information to move quickly to local groups, and once farmers are informed, they can think critically and take action. After meeting with the CIEE students, Paw Bunsong headed to Bangkok to meet with other parts of the Assembly of the Poor - together they made their statement regarding the status of sustainable agriculture in northern Thailand. Through their experiences with villagers, NGOs and bureaucrats, the students seemed to be conceptualizing a David vs. Goliath/grassroots vs. capitalist theme by the end of the unit (something student groups often don't come close to).
To bring things together, P' Ubon Yuwa and P' Bamrung Kayotha (above, left and right, Dr. David Streckfuss, center) sat down with the students at P' Bamrung's home in Kalasin for a discussion about the history of the sustainable agriculture movement and the current bigger picture. In a lot of ways, the discussion was disheartening. One of the first things Ubon said, "it's harder to get farmers to switch to organic farming than getting someone in the past to pick up a gun and fight the government," got right to the power dynamics behind the Isaan farmers' struggle for sustainable livelihoods. Given the Green Revolution's "tools of convenience," farmers are trapped in a system of surplus production for export and increasing debt. Fertilizer imports to Thailand are now equal in value to the amount of rice exported. 80% of corn seeds are owned by the CP-Monsanto cartel. Contract farming (corporate ownership of the entire production-distribution process) is being written into province economic plans. 10% of Thais own more than 100 rai of land. These are all disturbing statistics - they make the future of Thai agriculture look pretty bleak.
The AAN's continuing struggle for sustainable agriculture gives us hope. Refusing to cave-in for the past 30 years, the AAN will continue to build localized alternatives and stand up to transnational agribusiness. Again, exchanging information about production and consumption can only benefit alternatives. Following the exchange, P' Ubon said to the group, "I feel there are some activists in this group." Food is a political tool. Information-based consumerism, including both support for Green Markets and boycotting products from corporations like CP (7-Eleven stores included) will empower producers, and take profit away from those who sell transformed commodities. Farmer-run markets are needed to solve local economic crises. We can help producers feel "higher than high society" through their self-reliance and ability to provide safe, healthy food for society. Fairness, quality, environmental stewardship and artisanship can all be recognized through responsible consumerism. Rebuilding relationships with producers and understanding where our food comes from or how it is produced means reaffirming rural livelihoods and the importance of their role in society.
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