Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Bleeyen Dootha Ang (Be the Change)

As my time in Thailand is quickly approaching an end (at least for this trip) I am sad to leave, but at the same time I am ready to take what I have learned during my time abroad and apply it to my life back in the States. My semester abroad in Thailand really helped to clarify many of the questions that I struggle(d) with about what it means to be a global citizen, how to live a sustainable and balanced lifestyle, and what I am passionate about pursuing after graduation.

None of these experiences, however, would have been possible without the financial support of the Ohio University Cutler Scholars Program, the Gilman International Scholarship Program (federal scholarship), the Ohio University Daniel K.C. Shao Study Abroad Scholarship and the Ohio University Honors Tutorial College Dean's Discretionary Grants.

For students interested in studying abroad I strongly encourage you to apply for a Gilman International Scholarship. The Gilman Scholarship Program offers grants of up to US$5000 to undergraduate students who are receiving Federal Pell Grant Funding for a study abroad program of your choice. For more information on the Gilman Scholarship go to:

For information about other Study Abroad scholarships offered by Ohio University, Nationally Competitive International Scholarships, Civic Organizations, Foundations and other Institutions (so scholarships offered to OU students as well as students from other universities) go to:

If you found my blog posts on agriculture and food systems interesting below is a list of resources and reading materials to help you make safe, local and environmentally-sound food choices.

Search by zip code, city, or state for farmers’ markets and CSAs in your area

USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service,

Includes a list of farmers’ markets across the U.S., searchable by name of the market, state, city, county, and/or zip code, provided by our very own Department of Agriculture.

Join the student movement working to bring local/community-based, fair, ecologically sound, and humane food into campus dining halls. Up to start the challenge at your school?

An online directory of sustainably-raised meat, poultry, dairy, and eggs

“Slow Food USA envisions a world in which all people can eat food that is good for them, good for the people who grow it and good for the planet.” Good, Clean, Fair.

Recommended Readings and Movies:

The Omnivore’s Dilemma

Michael Pollan

Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life

Barbara Kingsolver

In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto

Michael Pollan

Food Politics: How the Food Industry Influences Nutrition and Health

Marian Nestle

The Violence of the Green Revolution

Vandana Shiva

Confessions of an Economic Hitman

John Perkins

Food Inc.
View the movie trailor at

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Greening the Yasothon Green Market

During our first unit we travelled to Yasothon to learn about agricultural production in Thailand, and the Yasothon Green Market. The Green Market was initiated by a network of local organic farmers and NGOs. All of the producers are IFOAM organic certified and live in rural communities within 50 kilometers of Yasothon city. The goal of the market is to create a space for producers and consumers to exchange and to provide safe, healthy food to urban consumers.

The Green Market is held every Saturday from 5 a.m. until the vendors sell out, which is usually around 9 a.m. Because all of the vendors live in rural areas outside of the city they have to leave around 2 a.m. to get into the city and set up. Right now there are 27 vendors, but they are always looking to recruit more, or help other farmers switch to growing their food organically. So why is it important to grow food organically? Well if you ask Green Market vendors many of them say that they switched to growing organically for health reasons and because it is better for the environment. Aw, a Green Market vendor, told us, "In my heart I wanted to switch to growing organically. I didn’t want to use any chemicals, those poisons. My produce and rice is safe for me to eat.” Aw is proud that she grows her food organically, and that she is able to provide her customers with safe healthy food. "I feel good, because they (consumers) get to eat the same safe food I do. They get to eat what I eat,” she says.

Many of the Green Market farmers switched to growing organically because they personally experienced health problems from using and consuming chemicals on their crops. Others switched because they knew people who developed lung or other cancers from chemical use. In addition, chemicals leave the soil hard and unproductive and are expensive, leaving farmers with a lot of debt. So why use them? Well there are a variety of reasons. (1) It is easier, organic farming is hard work. (2) Chemically produced crops look better (shinier, bigger, etc.). (3) The government subsidizes chemicals to encourage farmers to use them because they have close ties with national and international chemical companies (conflict of interest? Ya think!). (4) There is a transition period when switching from chemical farming to organic farming where the soil is less productive and the yields are lower because the soil nutrients have been depleted from heavy chemical use. And, finally, (5) you can obtain higher yields of one crop.

BUT, organic farming pays off in many more ways! Farmers that grow organically use integrated agriculture, where they grow many different crops in one area. For example, vegetables can be grown in between the rows of rice. So, although they may have lower rice yields because they do not use chemicals they are able to grow a variety of goods (rice, peppers, lettuce, tomatoes, green onions, cilantro, dill, cucumbers, tomatoes, kale, morning glory, bananas, passion fruit, coconuts and sooo much more!). The argument that chemically produced crops yield a greater output per rai is, therefore, flawed because it fails to consider the variety of goods produced on one rai of land.

Additionally, organic food is better for not only consumers, but also the environment. Different crops can naturally enrich the soil, and are therefore used in place of chemicals to replenish soil nutrients after each cropping season. For example, after harvesting his rice P'Ubon will plant beans in his rice paddies because they are nitrogen infusing and naturally enrich the soil. Finally, practicing organic integrated agriculture provides farmers with greater food security because if one crop fails they have many others to fall back on. It also gives them more independence because they do not need to rely on outside sources for any of their food.

Intrigued by the organic movement of the Yasothon farmers, Maina and I returned to Yasothon in early November to establish more personal relationships with the villagers and lay the ground work for a final project with the Green Market. Through discussions with P’Ubon and the Green Market Committee we decided that in order to move the Market forward they needed to cultivate deeper relationships between rural producers and urban consumers. The main challenges of the Green Market are convincing consumers that their products are all organic, educating consumers about why it is important to produce food organically and eat locally, and spreading awareness about the Green Market (which opened in May 2008).

Based on those challenges a group of four of us students, Bennett (a past CIEE student, our translator and an AAN intern that works with the Green Market), the Green Market committee and P'Ubon planned a Green Market awareness campaign and weekend. The purpose of the event was to give the Market more exposure by campaigning in the city, and to educate consumers on the benefits of eating organic and buying locally. The event was this Saturday and it was a big success! Our job as students was to help get the word out and to help give the Market a more unified look.

To get the word out we set up a table at the conventional market around 5 a.m. one morning and gave samples of the indigenous red rice that is sold at the market and passed out information about the market. It was pretty funny to see our Farang (Foreigner) table intermixed with all of the Thai vendors. I remember standing there and glancing to my left where fresh fish and rats were being sold (yuck to the rats)!

To help give the market a more unified look we bought green table cloths to place on all of the vendor tables and we made pamphlets, T-shirts and stickers with the Green Market logo that the four of us students designed. The pamphlets and T-shirts were a huge hit and are something that the Market can use for a long time, which is exciting! In addition to unveiling the T-shirts, pamphlets and logo this weekend the vendors prepared indigenous rice to be sampled, an herbal drink, an herbal salad and brought a hand mill so that customers could try milling the rice by hand. The herbal salad was particularly tasty and I know I had my fair share of samples! The salad is just one of the many local foods that villagers prepare to keep the body healthy. P’ Grieng, the herbal medicine man of the village, told me how each ingredient is good for the body in one way or another, and after eating it I really did feel better.

Looking back, the event this weekend went really well, and I am really happy to of had the opportunity to work with the Green Market and P’Ubon. I was sad when we left Yasothon yesterday because I knew it was the last time I would be back there for a while. The villagers treated me like family and taught me about farming and their way-of-life. They are by far the most good-hearted, wise and honest people that I have ever met and I am truly humbled by them. Living and working with them is an experience that I will never forget and I feel that I am only beginning to understand…

Monday, November 23, 2009

What's in an Education?

As our fourth and final unit came to an end, I reflected on the reoccurring themes that stuck out to me over the course of the semester. Education; Self-determination; Sustainability; Globalization as a form of imperialism; and how we as students fit into the bigger picture. After thinking about each of these themes, and discussing them with other students, I found that education was not only an individual, reoccurring theme throughout the units, but related to each of the other themes I identified in one way or another.

For example, I realized that my understanding of sustainable development and globalization, prior to coming to Thailand, was shaped by my western-style education which was based on textbooks, facts and scientific proof. While I recognize that scientific-based knowledge has its strengths, I am disappointed in the public K-12 education system in the U.S., which I feel fails to develop students into adults that are capable of thinking critically. I will always remember the “AH HA” moment I had my freshman year of college when I finally realized that the teachings in textbooks are not indisputable facts, but information gathered by human beings that inevitably reflects current and historical opinions and perspectives. The thoughts and perspectives that students develop are therefore largely reflective of the thoughts and perspectives of their culture, and the values and norms that their education system promulgates.

Prior, to coming to Thailand I struggled with my opinion of globalization. Is it a good thing, is it a bad thing, or are there both positive and negative aspects to globalization? As a student studying business and economics I was mainly exposed to the benefits of globalization, as seen from a Western perspective, and taught through lectures, case studies, readings and projects in the United States. My education in Thailand, which has been based on experiential learning and observations, therefore, provides me with a great opportunity to compare what I have learned about globalization from books and college courses, to what I have learned through observations and experiences living and working with rural communities in Thailand.

Reflecting on the two different types of learning, I feel that my Western education provided me with a background on some of the arguments for and against globalization; however, only through experiential learning was I able to form my own opinion on globalization as I experienced firsthand the affects it can have on people, culture, and the environment. It is amazing to me how my ideas have progressed and developed so rapidly over the past three months, while engaging in experiential learning. I have never felt so mentally stimulated, inspired or connected to the issues that I am studying, and the potential I see in experiential education is exciting.

One of the concerns, however, recently expressed by our Thailand student group is how we share what we learned here in Thailand with our friends, family, teachers and peers back home, so that they are not only more socially aware, but are passionate about supporting social justice causes in some way. I am the first to admit that this is something I have struggled with every time I have returned home from a study abroad experience in a developing country, and I found it very hard to live around people, who I felt, were completely unaware of how unjust the world is. I now realize that without personal experiences to connect to difficult issues, such as poverty, human rights violations and environmental degradation, it is hard to know what to make of, or how to relate to, issues discussed in books, newspapers, classrooms and newscasts.

What then, would it mean for our education system to focus more on experiential learning? What if more high school students had the opportunity to live, work and learn in a poor region of the United States or a lesser developed country? Would we be a more socially aware society? Would it be harder to go back to the out-of-sight, out-of-mind mentality that I know I fall into when living in the United States? Would our eyes be more open to the social injustices in our own backyards?

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Chan Ben Chow Na

During unit 4 we spent one week living with villagers in Na Nong Bong and learning about their way-of-life. Na Nong Bong is a community struggling to have their basic human rights respected, as their health and traditional livelihoods have been dramatically affected by a gold mine that was constructed near their village in 2006. While in Na Nong Bong we had exchanges with local NGOs, the villagers, the Provincial Health Office and the Provincial Ministry of Industry to learn more about the challenges facing the villagers, but the unit was not all business. We also had the opportunity to spend a lot of time with our host families.

I stayed with Kate and Hilary, and our host family farms corn, rubber and soybeans. They have two large farms, and with harvesting season upon us, they were more than happy to put us to work. On the morning of our first day in Na Nong Bong we piled into the back of our Paws pick-up truck and headed for their soybean farm. Along the way we made a few stops to pick up some essentials for the day. Three new hats to shield Hilary, Kate and I from the sun, papaya for lunch, and at the final stop, about 15 more villagers who would be helping in the fields. After cramming everyone into the back of the pick-up truck we were on our way.

Once at the farm the villagers put on their hats and gloves, grabbed their sickles and went to work. This was the first time I had seen a soybean plant, which ranges in height from half a foot, to two feet tall, and grows in rows beneath the rubber trees. To harvest them you either pull them out of the ground from their base, or cut them at the base with the sickle. You then place them in piles throughout the rows, which are gathered at a later point.

After observing the villagers’ technique my Paw handed me a pair of gloves and a sickle. Settling in among the other workers, I quickly developed a rhythm, moving swiftly through the rows, careful not to leave any soybean plants behind! I was so in the zone that I failed to notice how humorous the spectacle of three Farangs farming soybeans was to the villagers.

Look how sweaty the Farangs are! Look how tall they are, and how they struggle to stay in a squatted position! Aren’t you getting tired? Do you want to take a break? They joked and laughed at us, and with us, as we struggled to find comfortable positions to squat down or bend over. I was constantly standing up to stretch out my back and legs, which are not used to that type of manual labor. I knew I would be feeling pretty soar in the morning, but it was so gratifying when at the end of the day I looked around and saw how much work we accomplished. “Chan ben chow na (I am a farmer)!” I told them. They just laughed and told me I could come back and work anytime.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

In pursuit of something more sustainable...

In unit 3 we studied water issues in Thailand, specifically looking at the affects of dams on local communities. For the unit we lived and exchanged with two communities that have been dramatically impacted by a dam: Rasi Salai and Pak Mun. Upon arriving in Rasi Salai we were split into pairs and matched up with a family that we stayed with for four days. Jenny and I paired up and were met at the vans by Meena, our 15 year-old "younger sister."

Meena was so excited to meet us and was very patient with our limited Thai language abilities. She led us back to the house, and overwhelmed with the excitement of having visitors she clumsily scrambled to serve us dinner. At first, Jenny and I were a little bit confused about where the rest of the Meena’s family was. Meena's Yie (grandmother) was perched on the front porch, but her meh (mom) and paw (dad) were nowhere to be found. When Meena brought the food out and sat down with us I began to ask her questions about her family.

Me: "Cropcrewa con coon me cry bang ka (Who is in your family)?"

Meena: "Meh, Paw, Yie gop Chan (My mom, dad, grandma and I)"

Me: "Pawmeh con Coon yu tee nie ka (Where are your mom and dad)?"

Meena: "Pawmeh con Chane tom nyoung tee Bangkok" (My mom and dad work in Bangkok)"

Interested to learn more about Meena's living situation, but limited by our thai language abilities, the following day we sat down with Meena, her Yie and a translator to get to know her better. During our exchange we discovered that the land that Meena's family had farmed on for generations flooded when the Rasi Salai Dam was built in 1993. As a result, Meena's parents left when Meena was 3 months old to find work in Bangkok, and to be close to a hospital because Meena's mother has diabetes.

Meena's Yie raised her, but now that she is older, Meena is responsible for taking care of the house and cooking. Meena's daily routine consists of waking up around 5 a.m., cleaning the house, cooking breakfast, going to school, cooking dinner and doing homework. Although Meena has a lot of responsibility as a 15-year-old girl, she is still young, enthusiastic and loves to have a good time. She enjoys going to school, studying Thai literature and reading. She also expressed that she hopes to study at a university when she graduates from high school, but that ultimately she would like to return and live in Rasi Salai.

I really enjoyed hanging out with Meena and helping with her English homework, but my experiences living with her and Pak Mun villagers opened my eyes to the impacts that dams can have on local communities. Taking a step back to look at the big picture I have come to question the sustainability of my lifestyle, and of the society that I live in. In general dams are built to either provide irrigation for farming or to generate power for electricity. But, the average lifespan of an electricity generating dam is only about 50 years. In addition a large number of dams are constructed without environmental impact assessments (EIA), social impact assessments (SIA), or the participation and consent of the local people that are negatively affected by the dam’s construction. After working closely with communities affected by dams I cannot help but think that the costs associated with building dams greatly outweigh the benefits.

When I first visited the Pak Mun Dam, a project that has received international attention as being one of the World Bank’s greatest investment failures, I was struck by how out-of-place it looked. A giant concrete eye soar obstructing the flow of the Mun River and drawing attention away from the otherwise natural landscape. The Pak Mun dam was constructed between 1990 and 1994 to generate power for the region; however, in 2000 the 136-megawatt dam was barely generating 40 megawatts of electricity. The story is not much different today, as the dam, which cost US$233 million to build (almost twice as much as originally projected), still has not recovered its investment costs.

The failures of Pak Mun, sadly, are not an isolated case. The Rasi Salai dam was constructed in 1993 to provide local farmers with irrigation; however, an environmental impact assessment (EIA) was never conducted, and the villagers were not included in the planning process. In fact, the villagers were originally told by the government that a rubber weir was going to be built to help with flooding, only to find out later that a large concrete dam was being constructed. Sixteen years later the dam does not provide any irrigation to local farmers. Why? The reservoir that the dam was built on sits above a large salt deposit, resulting in over-salinated water that is not suitable for agricultural use. Had an EIA been conducted this would have been discovered and the disastrous project may have been avoided.

Villagers in both Pak Mun and Rasi Salai have been deprived of their land, livelihoods and way of life. Some villagers have been partially compensated, yet many more have not. The fight for justice continues, 16 years after the construction of both dams.

So is it worth it? Is there a more sustainable way to go about development? Are we willing to make the changes? It’s easy to overlook the consequences of development projects when we are far removed from their impacts, but my experiences during our unit on dams makes me want to make some changes.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Kham Bon Noi Landfill

At 6 a.m. we awoke, excited, yet a bit nervous, ready to try our hand at scavenging for recyclables. After donning our long pants, plastic boots and gloves Kate and I followed our meh (mom) up to the dump.

As we walk toward the dump entrance, which is about 150 meters from our house, the road is lined with huts where the scavengers take their recyclables to sort. Our meh's hut was right by the entrance, and wasting no time, we grabbed our pitch forks and basket and headed into the dump to wait for the first garbage truck of the day.

The smell was overbearing, but the excitement of trying to find recyclables, and impress our meh with our good scavenging eyes, distracted us. The first load was dumped and 8 to 10 of us went to work on it. We watched our meh, and others from the community, and tried to pull out similar recyclables, but we quickly learned that there was a science to it. This black bag could be recycled, but not that one? The white and clear plastic bottles are good, but the green and semi-white ones are not? Not exactly sure what was, and was not, recyclable, we would hold up our findings and ask "Di my (yes)?" We would get a head nod either way, and slowly we began to catch on...a little. With one large basket full of plastic bags, cans, glass and plastic bottles we made our way out of the dump, feeling accomplished and ready to eat some breakfast. For breakfast we had egg and some stir fried vegetables; however, our stomachs were a little upset from the smell so we did not eat very much.

After breakfast meh quickly geared back up and was ready to head back out. We were slightly reluctant, but knew that we could not give up on our scavenging career at 8:30 a.m.! So out we went! By this time the other 12 CIEE students were out working with their families and we all attacked a freshly dumped pile of trash together, making a competition out of who could get to a glass bottle or plastic bag first.

This enthusiasm, however, quickly faded as the novelty of our new profession wore off. Reality began to set in as the sun began to heat up, flies swarmed all around me and maggots squirmed at my feet. The smell started to get to me, despite the fact that I had a bandanna tied around my nose and mouth. My stomach churned and I began to gag a couple of times, but managed to keep down what little breakfast I ate.

A somber mood set in as I recognized that garbage scavenging is no game. It is THEIR reality. Every single day. Night and Day. As I half heartedly pulled out bags of rotted food, dirty diapers, dead animals and soiled clothing with my pitch fork, my spirit sank. This was not by any stretch of the imagination enjoyable, but it was an example of what people with no skills and education resort to to survive.

There are currently 60 households that live next to, and work in, the dump. People migrated from city slums and rural areas because they could not find any other work. In the past, the community conditions and dynamics were much better. They were organized and active in petitioning the government for improved working and living conditions. However, since the economic downturn their is no time for community organizing. In the past, they would make, on average, Bt30,000 (U$882) a month. Now they make around Bt5,000 - Bt6,000 (U$147 - U$176) a month.

The drop in income has forced them to work 15+ hour days. The family I stayed with had a mom, a dad, a son and a daughter. My meh would work during the morning and afternoon, and then my paw would go out at night. My meh, meh B, is 30 years old. She has lived and worked in the slum since she was 10. As we sat down for meals or to rest together, I could not help but think of how different our lives are. By my age she had been working in the dump for 12 years, and had a 3 year old son. She did not have a formal education.

This experience did not make me feel guilty for having what I have, but it did make me wonder, why me? Why was I born in the United States to a middle class family? Why was she born into poverty? What does it really mean to be an United States citizen, with all the rights, liberties and opportunities bestowed upon us? Food for thought, I guess.

I realize that I paint a very grim picture of these people's lives, and it is a harsh reality, but I think it is also important to note that they are warm, caring, happy people. They laugh and joke. They play bingo and buy their children ice cream. They do not complain about their work. In fact, they have been evicted from the landfill multiple times, only to break back in to continue their work. They do not want to leave, because scavenging is the only way of life they know, but they do want something better for their children.

I do not think that anyone should have to do the type of work that they do, and the fact that they are there reflects a lack of opportunity that the state is failing to provide. The conditions are dangerous. People get cut by glass and needles. They have been hit by dump trucks or buried under trash. The air and water quality is deadly, as they breathe in methane and drink acid rain water.

They have petitioned the city numerous times to provide better working boots, gloves and masks and to test the drinking water to see if it is safe, but their requests go unmet. At best the city makes a half-assed attempt to provide them with some basic services, but the aid they receive is surface level they told us. "The city does things sometimes just to say they have done it. They do not really care about improving our lives, so no one really believes they can rely on the government (Paw Kum)." This is despite the fact that the landfill scavengers save the city millions of dollars a year in recycled goods and have significantly prolonged the life of the landfill by recycling a substantial portion of waste.

The community of Kham Bon Noi, at the landfill, faces many challenges. As a student I am trying to understand their situation, and help in any way, but the outlook is not good and there is not much we can tangibly do. This experience has, however, made me recognize the importance of education, and the realities that people who are marginalized from society face. It has also made me very grateful for the opportunities I have always had in my life.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

I'll be DAMed!

Recently, I had the opportunity to visit the Rasi Salai Dam protest village with a small group of students. Rasi Salai Dam was built by the Thai government in 1992 to provide agricultural irrigation for the surrounding area. However, the government did not take into account the traditional farming practices of the local people and did not conduct an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) or a Social Impact Assessment (SIA) before constructing the dam.

The results were devastating. The dam distrupted the natural flooding patterns of the river, flooded the wetlands that people depended on for their livlihoods and resulted in an over-salinated water supply. It is estimated that 17,000 Rasi Salai villagers have been negatively impacted by the dam. As mentioned before, the dam was supposed to provide irrigation, but the reservoir water was too salty to be used for agriculture, and the surrounding villages did not want to relocate in order for an irrigation canal to be built. The irrigation cannal was therefore never finished. Furthermore, the dam is not used to generate power, so it did not benefit the villagers in any way. Had an EIA been conducted prior to the construction of the dam, researchers could have predicted that the water supply would be too salty for agricultural production.

Instead of conducting an EIA or SIA, the government forged ahead with the project, spending six times as much as projected to construct the dam. When the gates of the dam are closed fish resources in the river are depleted and the wetlands are flooded. It is estimated that 15 species of fish, 30,000 rai of wetlands and 10 traditional varieties of rice have been lost from flooding. These are resources that the local people depend on for their daily survival. The negative effects of the dam motivated villagers to protest the government and spread awareness about their situation to prevent the same thing from happening in other regions.
Currently, 2,700 villagers are living outside the gates of the dam in a temporary protest village. They have been there for 3 months and 28 days, and will not leave until they recieve compensation for their land and lost livlihood. In addition they are demanding that an environmental recovery plan be carried out and that they are able to have representatives on the committee that determines when the dam is open and when it is closed.

We visited the community to see what we may be able to help them with. They asked us for two things. (1) To spread awareness nationally and internationally about their struggle and (2) to raise funds to support their specific cause, and a larger network of dam victims.

Prior to visiting the community I did not have a pressing interest in the effects that dams have on local communities, so I was surprised when I immediately felt drawn in to their situation and wanted to help in any way possible. I felt needed, but it would be really hard to not feel that way. As our van navigated the winding road towards the dam there was water on either side of the road. Water, which we were told should not be there, but is because of the construction of the dam. As we approached the end of the road the protest camp came into sight. Row after row of shanty-like tarps were pitched as make-shift tents. It resembled the closest thing I have ever seen to a refugee camp (although it is important to note that these people do have homes, they came to live in the camp to protest because much of their land has been flooded).

As we trudged through the rain and mud to a meeting area I could not help but think how greatly the dam must have impacted these peoples' way of life to motivate them to protest under such conditions, for so long. It was stormy, windy and muddy and they had nothing more than a tarp over their heads, and sometimes, a raised platform to sit and sleep on. They fish off the side of the dam, scavenge in the wetlands and rely on remittances from family members. Before the dam was built they were able to grow and collect everything they needed to eat and sell from the wetlands. Now, many of their family members had to move to Bangkok to make a living. The rest of them are left back in the villages to grow and collect what little they can.

Inspired to help the Rasi Salai villagers reclaim their way of life we came up with project ideas to spread awareness and obtain funding to support their cause. Right now we are working on a photo essay to tell their story, which I will be sure to post on the blog when its finished. I'll also post updates on other projects we start related to their protest.

Monday, September 28, 2009

P' Bamrung

The flame of the lighter illuminated his face as we settled onto the mats. Overlooking a pond surrounded by plants, smoke rising from the tip of his cigarette, P’Bamrung humbly began to tell the story of his life. “I am not an NGO. I am a farmer,” he told us. But to his community he is undeniably a leader, and an inspiration to other villages that strive to preserve local culture and guarantee basic human rights.

P’Bamrung was born in Kut Ta Klai Village. The son of an elementary school teacher and a farmer he went through the traditional Thai primary and secondary education system and later graduated from a technical college in Kohn Kaen. After graduation he moved to Bangkok to work in a factory that manufactured parts of machines used to produce concrete. It was during the eight years that he worked in the factory that he first became involved in movements for social change.

At that time, the early 1970s, Thais began demanding democracy. In 1974, following the expulsion of three dictators, a new constitution was drafted and the first democratically elected government was instated after a long period of military dictatorship. During this time P’Bamrung joined the communist party to push for better working conditions for factory workers, but, more importantly, basic human rights.

He saw that workers were oppressed by large companies, such as the Siam Cement Group, and that inequality and corruption was increasing as the system was set up to fatten the pockets of those at the top of the corporate and government ladders. Inspired to act against these injustices, P’Bamrung worked with POP, People Organizing for Power, an organization that strived to put the power in the hands of the people.

At the same time, however, opposition towards the democratic administration was growing as rightists instigated an anti-communist panic. The situation turned violent in 1976 when Thai military and police units killed 46 peaceful protestors at Thammasat University. Following the Massacre students, labor groups and other activists fled to areas in the jungle inhabited by the Communist Party of Thailand. P’Bamrung thought about fleeing to the jungle, but he had a responsibility to take care of his younger siblings that came to work in the factory with him.

He continued working in the factory for another year, taking a three month leave at one point to become ordained as a monk, when a professor at Thamnasat University encouraged him to help with a research project commissioned by the United Nations Research Institute for Social Development. The UNRISD was interested in studying the obstacles associated with mobilizing villagers to come together to discuss community problems. To conduct the research P’Bamrung returned to Kut Ta Klai, where he started a farm and settle back into village life. In collaboration with six universities and multiple subdistricts he produced a report for the UN.

After the project P’Bamrung decided to remain in the village as a farmer. Despite the fact that he was far removed from city life, the existence of corruption and the pressure to live a life dictated by national and multinational corporations persisted. P’Bamrung recognized the threat that greed and globalization posed to Thai culture. In an attempt to preserve Thais’ traditional way of life and defend the basic human rights of the Thai people he joined Via Campesina, an “international movement of peasants, producers, landless, rural women, indigenous people, rural youth and agricultural workers that defends the basic interests and values of its members.”[1]

The organization worked to decentralize power and engage villagers in the development of their communities; however, P’Bamrung noticed that, despite their efforts, the power and money was staying within the local government, rather than being distributed to the people. This realization moved him to run for the head of the Tambon Administrative Organization of Songkorn (TAO), a subdistrict government organization.

With the campaign slogan, “Stop Corruption,” P’Bamrung was elected to a four-year term. In his four year term he was highly successful at eliminating corruption and building a self-sufficient community that was praised by the national government as being a model community. When asked about the reason for his success, P’Bamrung answered, “I made myself an example and encouraged the people to participate and check the work of TAO.”

When previous TAO administrators pocketed 10 cents per box of milk provided to schools, P’Bamrung put that money back into the community. When he was budgeted 1.4 million baht to buy a tractor for the community, he found one for 800,000 baht and invested the rest into a community fund. Additionally, he started the first community council to increase transparency and encourage checks and balances between local government and the villagers. His success speaks for itself as he was recently reelected for a second term as head of TAO, but after mentioning this he cautioned: “It is not about getting people to vote, but getting people involved.”

P’Bamrung believes in the power of rural politics, and for the past 30 years has been fighting for it, but his goal has yet to be achieved. He never thought he would be the head of the TAO, but he says it was something he had to do. His mission is to create a governing structure that empowers local people, and that is not a slave to the Western ideals of free trade and consumerism.

Free trade, the heart of the World Trade Organization, he explains, only benefits the bigger producer. It is driven by price and disregards quality and local production customs in the name of “efficiency” and “comparative advantage.” The only relationship between producers and consumers is, therefore, price, which sets the stage for exploitation. He envisions a trading system where both producers and consumers care about each other, and choose to partake in market transactions that benefit both parties.

“It may be cheaper to buy beef from Argentina, but why should we buy it from other countries when we can produce the same products? We need to create a system of fair trade, not free trade, and take care of the needs and wants of our people,” P’Bamrung explains. “Asking Thais to participate in free trade is like having a Thai boxer fight Mike Tyson.” It is inevitable that the bigger economic power will win.

P’Bamrung does not think that fair trade will be accomplished any time soon, but he has witnessed youth standing up to national and multinational companies, which makes him hopeful for the future. For now, he will continue to lead by example, as change, he explains, “starts with the people, and has to start small.”

[1] (Campesina 2009)

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

You are what you eat.

Where to begin?! It has been a long time since I last blogged, and a lot has been happening. Before I dive into some of the interesting issues that we have been studying this semester I think it will be helpful if I explain the program structure.

CIEE Thailand uses an alternative approach to educating students where the majority of learning is experiential and the relationship between teachers and students is a two way street. Teaching and learning is done by everyone. The first month of the semester is orientation, during which we learned about each other and how to work with each other in large and small groups. We took courses on Thai language, culture and politics; we began living with a Thai roommate; and we completed a mock unit on HIV/AIDS in Thailand to prepare us for our first unit.

Once orientation was completed we began our first unit on rural food production and health. There are four units in total. The other three will cover urban development issues, water and mining. For each unit we receive two packets of background readings and conduct briefings (which are ran by the students) to start generating questions and ideas regarding the issues studied. Following the briefing we go out in live with Thai people working with or affected by the issue being studied for 5 or 6 days. We eat, work and sleep with these people with the hopes of gaining a better understanding of the daily challenges they face. We also conduct a series of exchanges with different interest groups and NGOs working for social change on the issue being studied. An exchange usually consists of us 27 students sitting in a large circle, joined by whoever we are speaking with and Ajaan John, our must needed interpreter.

We just recently returned from our first unit home stay where we were living with organic Thai farmers. Northeast Thailand, also known as Issan, is primarily made up of small farmers. Their traditional way of life, however, is being threatened by the push for large scale farming and monocropping. For generations, the people of Issan prided themselves on self sustainability, or the ability to produce all that they need to survive. Globalization, however, threatens to destroy this way of life as corporations are concerned with yield per hectare and not the quality of the food being produced.

In the 1960s the Green Revolution took the world by storm. The Green Revolution was the development of genetically modified (GMO) seeds that are designed to better withstand less favorable growing conditions. The Green Revolution was heralded as the solution to world hunger, as it dramatically increased crop yields, but 40 years later we still have starving people in this world and greater environmental degradation due to the massive amounts of pesticides and chemical fertilizers used with GMOs.

Reflecting on what I learned this past week; experiences, exchanges and discussions with other students; I am convinced that world hunger is not the result of a lack of food, but a food distribution problem. We have enough food to feed everyone in the world, even before the Green Revolution we had enough food to feed everyone, but our current food distribution system, based on capitalist principles, does not recognize the right to food as a basic human right. How can safe, chemical free food, be distributed to ensure that no one goes hungry? Should food be considered a basic human right? These are some of the questions we came up with during this unit.

If I were to address these questions in a traditional classroom setting in the United States, from an economic perspective, my answer would be free trade is the only way to go. When countries specialize in producing the product in which they hold a comparative advantage, in a free market, economies operate efficiently and living standards increase. My experiences in Thailand however make me seriously question some of the basic economic concepts I learned. I come out of each exchange and home-stay with a completely new outlook on what globalization means for people that do not live in the “Western World.”

I spent the past 6 days living with organic farmers in Thailand. They are farmers that once used chemicals to grow their crops but have since switched back to organic farming because of the negative health effects that using chemicals has on their crops, the environmental degradation caused by the chemicals, the endless cycle of debt that chemical use perpetuates and their quest for self-reliance and self-sustainability.

The switch was not easy because at first there is a decline in crop yields, as it takes time to replenish the soil with natural fertilizers. The organic farmers, however, are now able to do integrated agriculture, where they grow many different things (such as beans, leafy greens, root vegetables, etc.) whose growth complements each other naturally. This allows them to grow enough rice, as well as other things, to feed their families and sell at the market. Many of them also raise pigs, buffalo, chicken, frogs and cows organically.

These farmers are also pushing for other farmers to adopt organic and integrated farming techniques. They have established the Alternative Agriculture Network (AAN) and the Yasothon Green Market to help promote their cause. We had exchanges with both organizations to learn more about what they do and the challenges they face. The AAN teaches and supports farmers that want to make the transition to organic farming, and the Yasothon Green Market is a project that both the AAN and past CIEE students helped develop.

The Green Market was started in May 2008 and is held on weekends in the city of Yasothon for farmers that farm organically to come and sell their goods. We woke up bright and early (4 a.m.) to help set up the market last Saturday and sell goods with the families we were staying with. It was a really cool experience, however, the market location is not very good and many people in the city have not heard of it yet. During our exchange with Green Market producers we discussed ideas that we had for them on how they could improve the market.

My involvement this past week working with organic farmers forced me to think about my eating habits and purchasing habits as a consumer. Every time I buy something produced by a large corporation it is almost guaranteed to have been grown with chemical pesticides and fertilizers and stuffed with more chemicals to keep it fresh. Is this what I want to be eating? The answer is obviously no, but what choice do I have given that it is very difficult to avoid purchasing food at supermarkets? I do not have the means or the knowledge to grow everything I eat, nor do I really want to. I do go to the Athens Farmers Market most Saturdays, but I cannot get enough food there, year round, to feed me. I could buy all organic products, but even then my efforts will be thwarted by companies that are deceptive and cheat the system by attaining “organic” or “fair trade” labels under ridiculous qualifications.

For example, in order for coffee to be fair trade certified by Transfair only 2 percent of a company’s total coffee purchase has to be fair trade. It used to be 5 percent of the total purchase but Starbucks was instrumental in lobbying to push it down to 2 percent. I was thinking it should be more like 100 percent!

So it seems as if the cards are stacked against us, even if we want to be conscious consumers. What do we as consumers do? Well first, it is important to recognize that we, as consumers are the only ones that can change the system, through small steps and small demands. Do you care enough to change your habits, even if they are inconvenient? Do you care how mass production affects the lives and cultures of others? It is easy to shield ourselves from the reality of our actions and consumer choices when we live in the United States, or the Western World for that matter, but I cannot deny the negative impact that globalization and mass production has on other cultures after living and learning with the local communities here in Thailand.

The other day I interviewed a very influential community leader in Issan, P’Bamrung, and I asked him how he went about eliminating corruption in his community that has been praised by the national government as a model community, and he told me “I lead by example.” It is a very simple response, but he really did not need to say more. Often times we wait for others to take the reins on global problems that seem too large to tackle, but the only way change can be made is through individuals making conscious choices every day to act on their values and beliefs. I am not saying that we should all become farmers, or that we should feel guilty about our daily purchases, but just to remember that we can make little choices on a daily basis that work towards achieving chemical free food and food as a human right for all.

After all, where did the food you ate today come from?

Monday, September 7, 2009

Nong Chai

If I had to use one word to describe the past two weeks it would be busy. Our days are packed with Thai language classes, interviews, travelling, group building exercises, eating, laughing, reading, and so much more. At first it is a bit overwhelming, but after talking about it we all agreed that we came on this program because it isn't your typical study abroad program. We aren't just living in Thailand taking classes in English about Thailand, but we are really trying to live with the Thai people, learn about them, and from them.

This past week I spent five days, four nights, with my host family in Nong Chai. I had a mom, a dad, and two younger sisters (9 and 12 years old). The family I stayed with was middle class, and lived relatively comfortably by Thai standards. It was a dramatic contrast from the family I lived with in Nong Jahn, who didn't have indoor plumbing or a closed housing structure. My Nong Chai family had an indoor bathroom, a fenced in home, an upstairs and a refrigerator (I was prettyyyy spoiled).

Despite the differences in living quality, both families were hospitable, generous and kind above and beyond anything I have ever experienced in the United States. They insist on me, their guest, sleeping on the most comfortable bed, always having a full tummy, always having the fan in my room so that I am comfortable when I sleep, and the list goes on. It's heartwarming and humbling to be treated with such generosity as a guest in some one's home; however, I can't help but feel a little guilty. The first night when my family in Nong Chai showed me to my room I saw that I had a fairly comfy mattress to sleep on while my 9 year old sister (Wan) was on the floor next to me. The next night I motioned to Wan to join me on the bed, as it was big enough to easily fit both of us. She was a little reluctant at first but eventually hopped in.

Wan acted as my guide around Nong Chai. At first, it was kind of funny being led around by a 9-year old, but the maturity level of Thai children is impressive. They are like any other kid in the sense that they love to have fun, but they are also incredibly responsible and capable. They can cook, clean, and drive mopeds (which may or may not be a good thing). But they also love to play tag, sing songs and laugh. I truly enjoyed my time with Wan, as I formed the closest bond with her and was sad when I had to leave.

It might be hard to understand how close bonds can be formed by people who do not speak the same language; however, language is truly not a barrier to forming meaningful relationships. I still have no idea what my mom in Nong Chai did for a living, as I could not figure out what she was saying when I asked, but I do know what her routine around the house is, how she interacts with her daughters and husband, and how kind she is to a complete stranger. Living with that family was an experience I will never forget, like so many I have already had here in Thailand, and so many that are sure to come.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

The Land of Smiles

Week 1 = Amazing. I love this country and am seriously contemplating moving here (sorry mom). The trip over was exhausting, about 30 hours in total, but definitely worth it. Once in Bangkok I met all the other students on the trip, 27 including me, and we began our orientation and touring Bangkok. This is the first study abroad I have done that is very organized and legit, and it definitely makes a difference. Usually I go through a faze where I am a bit scared at first, but I didn't experience that this time. I think it's because there were so many people, so much to do and it's a relatively safe.

But any who, a bit about the program. We spend about half of our time living in communities with Thai families. We will be living with families in villages that face eviction because their land was recently made a national park, garbage communities, urban slums, communities battling HIV/AIDS and others. We will be learning about their way of life, the challenges they face, the food they eat, the bugs they live with :( and so much more. The other half of the time we will be spending at Khon Kaen University (KKU) where we live with a Thai roommate and take classes on the issues that the local communities face.

After leaving Bangkok we went to a resort in the mountains to get "oriented," so we don't do or say stupid things (haha). We had 4 hours of Thai a day, which is very intense but sooooo interesting. Sometimes I feel like my head is about to explode, and I get the urge to just start speaking spanish (because it's a foreign language??) but I am learning a lot more then I thought I would. Prior to the program I knew we would be taking Thai, but I figured it wasn't a big part of the program, or that I just wouldn't catch on to it, but after being here I would really like to learn as much of the language as I can.

After the mountain orientation we headed to our first home stay at the village of Nong Jang. We were welcomed by the community and met our families. I had a mom, a dad, two sisters and a brother that was not there because he was studying to be a monk at the temple. Nong Jang is a community that lives with the constant threat of eviction from their land, which was deemed a national park by the Thai government, despite the fact that the villagers had lived there for generations. Twice, the villagers were forced to leave their homes, but with little work for them elsewhere they decided to return. They are now fighting to get a community land title for the right to own their land.

The villagers have very little, but they would give you the shirt off their back if you asked for it. They were rice and banana farmers, and they collected all of their food from the land and forest around them. The homes were made of wood and consisted of one or two rooms separated by sheets. Most bathrooms were outside and had a squatting toilet and then a wash bin for showers, which they tell you to take about 5 times a day. Coon Ap Nam (Go take a shower)! I think it's because they think we are not used to the heat (which we aren't).

I have never experienced such kindness and hospitality. It was truly humbling. There way of life is so very different from mine, and I learned so much in the little time I spent with them. Their sense of community and generosity was inspiring. We played with the kids, helped them cook (although they laughed at our pathetic attempts to peel pumpkins) and learned about their daily lives. They insisted that we sleep in a bed, which is a very hard mattress, while they slept on the much harder floor. In the morning we gave alms to the monks as they passed through town, which was a really cool experience. Every morning around 6:30 the monks come down from the mountain with their rice bins and walk through the town and collect rice from the people. I kneeled on the side of the road and would put a handful of sticky rice in each of their bins, careful not to touch them as they cannot be touched by a woman.

After leaving Nong Jang we headed to KKU to settle in to our dorms. I have not met my Thai roommate yet because she was away for the weekend, but I look forward to that. Tomorrow we are leaving for another community stay (5 days 4 nights) so I am really excited for that. I have only been here a week but have had some of the most memorable experiences of my life, and can only look forward to what lies ahead. The food is DELICIOUS and SPICY! The bugs are GIANT and SCARY! And I will try to fit another blog in next sunday.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

The Thai Economy

In the three decades leading up to the Southeast Asian financial crisis, which began in 1997, the economies of Southeast Asia, including Thailand, were growing at impressive rates. In Malaysia, Indonesia, and Thailand, average income more than quadrupled between 1965 and 1995, and in Korea, income rose seven-fold. Furthermore, incomes in these four countries climbed from 10 percent of the US average in 1965 to around 27 percent today.

One argument attributes the success of the East Asian countries from 1965 to 1995 to their outward oriented industrialization strategy. Specifically, “countries in South East Asia attracted export oriented foreign investment by integrating national production with international production, not merely through export orientation, but through specific institutions such as technology licensing, original equipment manufacturing, and export processing.” This strategy facilitated the development of complex production processes and greater integration with world markets, but it also necessitated financial reform to meet the demand for a greater range of sophisticated and well-regulated financial services.

In part, the root causes of the financial crisis can be traced back to Southeast Asian countries attempting to liberate financial markets to support more capital intensive production methods and attract foreign investment. For example, in an attempt to compete with Singapore and Hong Kong as a regional financial center, Thailand introduced the Bangkok International Banking Facility (BIBF) in 1992. The BIBF facilitated rapid growth in the number of financial institutions that could borrow and lend in foreign currencies, both on and offshore. This resulted in growing short-term foreign debt, rapidly expanding bank credit, and inadequate regulation and supervision of financial institutions, leaving the Thai economy vulnerable to a rapid reversal of capital flows.

After 1994 the ratio of short-term debt to foreign exchange reserves exceeded one, and by 1996 banking claims on the private sector reached 140 percent of GDP. Due to the significant influx of capital into the Thai economy in the early and mid 1990s, exchange rates began to appreciate in real terms as capital inflows put upward pressure on nontradeable prices. In late 1996 the fragile state of Thailand’s financial institutions was highlighted as investors began to speculate about the value of the baht. In spite of government attempts to inject confidence into the market, by late June, Thailand had sharply reduced its liquid foreign exchange reserves, and the baht was allowed to float on July 2, 1997.

As a result, foreign creditors withdrew their capital and the value of the Baht fell by more than 20 percent. The deteriorating state of financial institutions and creditor withdrawals in Thailand set off a chain reaction in other Southeast Asian countries as speculation with regards to the region as a whole heightened. From 1998-2001, however, the five countries impacted the worst by the crisis (Thailand, the Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia, and South Korea) achieved an account surplus.

From 2002-2004 Thailand’s economy averaged more than 6 percent real GDP growth; however it has since slowed, averaging 4.9 percent from 2005-2007 and 3.6 percent in 2008. The slowdown was attributed to uncertainty stemming from political conflict; however, the 2008 global financial crisis has worsened the economic downturn.

A Long History of Political Uncertainty

Established as a unified kingdom in the 14th century, Thailand is the only country in Southeast Asia never to have been colonized by a European power. In 1932, a bloodless coup resulted in the establishment of a constitutional monarchy. Since then, Thailand has had over seventeen charters and constitutions, the most recent being drafted in 1997 and 2007. All of Thailand’s charters and constitutions have permitted a constitutional monarchy, with the prime minister as the head of government, a hereditary monarch as the head of state and a judicial branch independent of both the executive and legislative branches. The powers assigned to each branch under different charters and constitutions have, however, varied significantly.

King Bhumibol (pictured above) has been the ruling monarch since 1946, and although he has little direct power under the constitution, he is a symbol of national identity and commands a considerable amount of popular respect. He is also seen as the commander on moral authority as he often steps in to mediate political crises that threaten national stability.

The Thai constitution drafted in 1997, called the “People’s Constitution,” is the first permanent constitution. It is considered a landmark in terms of the degree of public participation involved in its drafting as well as the democratic nature of its articles. The first prime minister to rule under the “People’s Constitution” was Chavalit Youngchaiyudh, who was elected in 1996. The public, however, quickly lost confidence in him and his party with the onset of the 1997 financial crisis.

Thaksin Shinawatra, and his party Thai Rak Thai (TRT), won the January 2001 elections, running on a populist platform of economic growth and development. His populist policies generated sizable support from rural Thailand, as he introduced programs that included debt relief for farmers and a more affordable health care plan. Rural support helped him win reelection in 2005, but soon after, allegations of tax fraud and high-level corruption within his party spurred political protests from the People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD). Public protests led by PAD called for the resignation and impeachment of Thaksin.

With increasing public uncertainty Thaksin was ousted by a bloodless military coup in September 2006. The military appointed an interim prime minister, and by the end of 2007 it drafted a new constitution and held general elections. Samak Sundaravej, of the People Power Party (PPP) was elected as the new prime minister, but protests continued as the new government was seen as a proxy for Thaksin’s Thai Rak Thai party that was barred from politics for five years. Like Thaksin, Samak had overwhelming support from rural voters which helped elect him to office. This enraged members of PAD who are a loose coalition of royalists, businessmen and the urban middle class.

Throughout 2008 PAD conducted sit-ins and protests that shut down Thailand’s two main airports, crippling the tourism industry. Protests led to the court decision to ban the ruling party, PPP, in November. Following the court ruling, Abhisit Vejjajiva defeated an ally of exiled former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra in a parliamentary vote to become Thailand's fifth head of government in a little over two years. Abhisit Vejjajiva is a member of the Democratic Party, and he draws the majority of his support from the middle class, similar to PAD. He lacks the support of the rural and working Thai.

The ongoing clash between political parties is referred to as a struggle of Red-shirts vs. Yellow-shirts. Red-shirt protesters and supporters generally identify themselves with Thaksin and PPP. Yellow-shirt protestors are members of PAD, who oppose Thaksin and his allies. With Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva in power the yellow-shirts have called off their protests as they have accomplished the goal of ousting both Thaksin and PPP from office. Tensions, however, still exist between the two parties and the yellow-shirts are paying careful attention to discontent that may arise from red-shirt supporters.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Why blog about development and the environment in Thailand?

I have focused the majority of my undergraduate research on development issues, with a concentration in microfinance, nonprofit management, and fundraising. I was attracted to CIEE’s Khon Kaen Development and Globalization (DG) Program because I feel that it provides me with the perfect opportunity to observe and apply concepts that I have researched and learned in class, while working to improve the living standards of Thailand’s rural poor. While in Thailand I hope to expand my understanding of the complexities concerning development and globalization, and share my observations through this blog.

The Khon Kaen DG Program is unique, as it focuses on extensive field experience, but the fact that the program is based in Thailand also provides me with the opportunity to study in a country that has experienced considerable economic growth, but which has a severe unequal distribution of income. The poorest 20 percent of the population in Thailand hold only 6.3 percent of the country’s wealth, whereas the richest 20 percent hold 49 percent of the wealth (2007/2008 Human Development Indicators).

Taking these statistics and the recent growth of the country into consideration, the poorest 20 percent of the population are likely to be significantly more exposed to environmental hazards, a topic I hope to address in later blogs. I am scheduled to leave for Thailand on August 20th, however, I suspect that my first blogs chronicling my observations on Thai development, the environment and globalization will not come for a couple of weeks. In the meantime I will try to provide some background information on Thailand.

Thailand is a middle-income country in Southeast Asia, with a 2008 GDP per capita (PPP) of $8,700. Its economy experienced considerable growth from the 1960s to the mid 1990s; however, it suffered a severe financial crisis in 1997-1998. Since, it has recovered, posting average growth rates between 5 and 6 percent from 2000-2006.

Recently, Thailand’s growth rates have slowed, in part because the global economy has slowed, but also because political turmoil has induced uncertainty into the market.

With regards to social movements over the last three decades, the Thai government has been successful at reducing poverty and extending access to social services. By 2006 the number of poor people in Thailand had dropped to 6.1 million from 18.4 million in 1990. This achievement, however, has come at the expense of increasing income inequality.

In addition to growing income inequality, economic development in Thailand has spawned environmental concerns that must be addressed. In order to better understand the context of economic, social and environmental issues in Thailand the following three blogs will review the economic status of Thailand over the past 15 years, the current political state, and challenges facing the country going forward.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

The Gilman International Scholarship

I am a Beth Stocker Cutler Scholar at Ohio University, which is a merit based scholarship awarded on the basis of academic excellence, leadership potential, and a commitment to civil responsibilities. One of the many perks of being a Cutler Scholar is that you receive funding each year to pursue an enrichment experience. The four experiences are broadly defined as outward bound, volunteer, internship and study abroad.

I am currently going into my senior year, which is usually when you complete your study abroad experience. After searching extensively for a program that fit my interests I settled on the Khon Kaen, Thailand Development and Globalization program offered by The Council on International Educational Exchange (CIEE). The program description sounded as if it had been written for me! That is until I scrolled down and saw how much it would cost for one semester of study. The cost was more than double the funding I would receive from my academic scholarship, and not wanting to take out any loans, I began to look at other ways to help finance my study abroad experience. That is when I learned about the Benjamin A. Gilman International Scholarship Program.

The Program offers grants for "U.S. citizen undergraduate students of limited financial means to pursue academic studies abroad. Such international study is intended to better prepare U.S. students to assume significant roles in an increasingly global economy and interdependent world." The application process does take a considerable amount of time; however, it is certainly worth the effort for anyone that wishes to study abroad but is worried about the cost.

Gilman Scholarship recipients may receive up to $5,000 in funding and are selected on the basis of applicant diversity, a statement of purpose essay, a follow-on project proposal essay, academic progress and performance, fields of study, country of destination, length of study, and lack of previous undergraduate study abroad experience. Furthermore, students at community colleges are strongly encouraged to apply. All applicants, however, must qualify for a federal Pell grant.

If chosen as a Gilman Scholarship recipient, you are required to complete a follow-on service project to promote education abroad and the Gilman International Scholarship program. Hence, the creation of this Blog! My follow-on project proposal was to keep a blog on my observations on development and environmental issues in Thailand. My goal is to inform interested readers about critical development issues that impact the Thai people and the environment, but also to spark a curiosity in other students about the cultures, customs , and challenges of other nations. I hope that this new found curiosity will motivate others to pursue a study abroad experience of their own in the future.

Below is a link if you are interested in more information on the Gilman International Scholarship:

I anticipate most of my blog postings to be observations from my travel, cultural, and fieldwork experiences; however, I will also try to include historical background information about Thailand to help put my observations into context. Additionally, I plan to post pictures of experiences that I blog about.

Comments are encouraged, as I would love to hear the thoughts of any readers on the topics that I chronicle. Stay tuned...