Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Unit 1: Agricultural Trends

We just returned yesterday from our first Unit. We spent a week visiting with and exchanging with organic farmers, NGO's, and community members in the Yasothon, Roy Et, and Kalasin provinces.

The majority of our time was spent in Yasothon where we spent 4 nights. My friend and classmate Dan and I had the priviledge to stay with a very good-natured family of organic farmers in the small town of Talah. This was a very inspiring unit, I learned alot and my perspective on food has certainly grown. Before this unit I considered myself pretty aware of the current problems with food politics, having read "The Omnivores Dillema", and other similar publications. I try to buy fair trade when I can and love farmers markets when they are in season. But this week has really opened my eyes to food systems and how closely related they are to many worldwide problems besides hunger, such as global warming, globalization, the loss of culture, and poverty. I will be unable to look at food the same way and I hope I can keep these lessons in the front of my mind.

The Green Revolution sweeped the world in the late 50's and early 60's. Praised as "the solution to world hunger" it implemented massive machinery and the introduction of genetically modified crops, chemical fertilizers, herbicides, and pesticides, all designed to increase yields so that more food could be produced and more people fed. 50 years later hunger is still and problem, this is because narrowly focusing on increasing production cannot alleviate hunger because it fails to alter the tightly concentrated distribution of economic power, especially access to land and purchasing power. In a nutshell - if the poor don't have the money to buy food, increased production is not going to help them.

The chemicals we have poured into the earth to produce more food are destroying the environment as well as our food, eating fresh produce grown on large single crop farms are now nearly as harmful to your body as highly processed foods. And these methods are not ecologically sustainable, it depletes the land of its ability to produce food, as a result more and more chemicals are needed to produce food, this wil continue until the land is literally rendered useless as has already happened to 6% of India's farmland. Food is no longer a part of our culture the way it used to be. Many of these problems are encouraged by current financial systems that seperate the producer from the consumer. Organizations that have attempted to cut out the influence of middlemen have been degraded. I was shocked to learn that Trans Fair a fair trade labeling organization was pushed by Starbucks to lower their standards. It used to be that 5% of total coffee purchased had to be fairly traded, this has been lowered to 2%. These models keep small farmers all over the world perpetually in debt and in a state of poverty, they are controlled by corporations and more and more are being pressured to switch to chemical agriculture to increase yields.

There is so much more to this issue than I can elaborate here, I stongly encourage everyone to read "The Omnivores Dillemma" as this helps to illuminate some of the issues.

The first day I got to work on my host family's farm. My father Jong and his wife have been practicing integrated agriculture on their farm for 13 years and sell their organic produce every saturday at the Green Market in Yasothon. Before starting this unit our Thai Ajaans equipped us with a small arsenal of Thai vocabulary useful to the unit. We learned the Thai words for mono cropping, integrated agriculture, chemical free agriculture, compost, chemical fertilizer, duck, buffalo, sugar cane, and a variety other farm related words and phrases. I had learned from previous experience and through my own extracurricular pursuits that the word for "shit" in Thai is "key". I combined this knowledge with my new mastery of the word for buffalo "kwai", what resulted was a phenomenal example of my prowess as a linguist and an inherent need to be crass in as many languages as possible. This is how "key kwai" was happened upon; literally "buffalo shit".

It is true that I did not invent these words per se, but I discovered how to put them together for myself. Never has an invention been so celebrated, the closest comparison could only be cro-magnon man and fire. After countless hours spent hunched over, furiously rubbing two sticks together an ember is produced that he nurtures into a roaring flame; he stands triumphantly above his glowing creation howling wildly at the night sky and beating his chest in dramatic celebration; an epic achievement and testament to the human spirit. Such was my discovery of keykwai. I used this word with unmatched enthusiasm, used it when I could and even managed to discover new applications for it. My inclination to use the word was only encouraged by my Thai family who seemed to find the word just as hilarious as I.

"Dan yu ti nai?" they would ask -- where's dan?
"key kwai" I would reply cheekly (I didn't know where Dan was either, but I did know how to make these people laugh). They loved this and so did I.

This mutual joke was launched to a new level of hilarity the day I proudly announced "Pom chuh-len key kwai", "my nickname is buffalo shit". My parents froze with disbelief, their eyes lit up and they stared at me with raised eyebrows and gaping smiles for a long moment before errupting into a bout of uncontrollable laughter. Could it be that a simple farang had cracked the code of Thai humor? Yes, I was the apple of their eye. Modesty is not always my fortay and my success went straight to my head. I began to wonder if I shouldn't go national with my routine, such an act would surely make me a Thai sensation. This is still a work in progress, I have plenty of time to sort this out.

After laboring in my family's farm all day we gathered vegetables and fruit for the Green Market the next day. My paw woke at 3 am the next morning and went to the Green Market to set up his stand. We privledged few, Dan and I, had the luxury of sleeping in until 5am and then caught a ride to join our paw. It is still unclear to me why, but all of Thailand seems to enjoy buying their vegetables at the absolute ass crack of dawn. We sat with our paw all morning and Im sure we helped him sell all his produce, he received extra attention because of the 2 farang seated next to him. I did this pro bono, I didn't even ask for a commission although I probably deserved half the profit.

I should really tell you about the exchanges we had with the Green Market members, the Alternative Agricultural Network (an NGO), the community of Tahlah, a small group of sugar cane farmers struggling to become organic, and P'Bamrung and P'Ubon - two extremely influential members of this green movement. Each exchange lasted 3 plus hours and we discussed in depth current issues and regarding organic farming, government corruption and disfunctional systems of production and distribution. These exchanges were taxing and we would sometimes have 2 per day. But they were the meat of this Unit and we have many more ahead of us. I learned alot experiencing but everything I learned this past week was a result of these exchanges. It would be very difficult to condense these exchanges into a paragraph or two. I hope to go sort through my notes soon, but I haven't the time now. As of yet everything is still fresh in my mind, marinating. I would like to revisit this topic at a later date as Im sure it will be a recuring theme in this semester and my life. Id also like to revisit my host family in Yasothon, they politely invited me back in mid-November to help with the harvest season. However,Im not sure if Keykwai will have the free time.

Also Id like to note that upon returning to KKU I have informed my Thai teachers and my friend Yay- the woman who operates the convenience store I frequent, of my new nickname. They all find this hilarious, I am a Thai John Belushi.

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