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.