Mr La Ong Dao

This morning we went back to re-interview Mr La Ong Dao, village leader at Bo Luk Lang village and key player in the model project for Sa Kaew Province. We had filmed him on the fly on Monday, but were so impressed with him that we wanted more time. Mr La Ong Dao is quite unique in that unlike many village people who are University educated he chose to return to his village rather than go to a comfortable city job. He is doing a fantastic job in leading by example. Through his efforts they have a community information system and a community bank. Now he is leading by example to develop more sustainable land use and address the very real effects of land degradation and climate change that they are experiencing. He has a bet with Ajarn Yak that he will achieve higher yields than Ajarn Yak is predicting, and he is very confident of winning the bet. He says that he is a winner!! I am going to do my very best to come back in the next couple of years to witness the transformation.

Mr La Ong Dao, “I am a winner!”
Mr La Ong Dao, “I am a winner!”

Footnote: When back in Thailand briefly in March 2010 I asked about how Mr La Ong Dao had gone.  I was told that he has not yet won his bet with Ajarn Yak and has become a NATO (No Action Talk Only) person.

Sa Kaew Province

Ajarn Yak has been working in Sa Kaew Province, a drought prone area of Thailand, to get buy-in from people there with the goal of encouraging the whole Province to adopt the self sufficient economy model.

In the morning we attended a large gathering, in an open air school auditorium, of farmers and their children. The approach was to present people with the basic principles of the self sufficiency economy and then invite them to further training. I was asked to talk for 10 minutes, and Lena also spoke. People commented afterwards, to our hosts, that they had felt they were alone in experiencing drought, problems with lack of water, and more erratic weather patterns. It opened their eyes to hear that other people were experiencing the same things in other parts of the world.

Lena talking to a gathering of farmers and school children, accompanied by Khun Wipa who was translating
Lena talking to a gathering of farmers and school children, accompanied by Khun Wipa who was translating
Ajarn Yak with a captive audience
Ajarn Yak with a captive audience

After a lunch break we went to the countryside and filmed some farm workers planting tapioca cuttings in the intense heat and humidity of the afternoon.  Tapioca is pretty much an end of the line crop in degraded soils. We spoke with the leaseholder who talked about the degraded soil and drought situation.  He said that he was waiting for the government to create rain and commented and if the rain didn’t come he said “I’m dead”. He added that deforestation is a problem and that there was a need to plant more trees.

Planting tapioca in badly degraded soils, during a drought, where once there was forest
Planting tapioca in badly degraded soils, during a drought, where once there was forest

We then went to the Provincial government buildings where I gave a powerpoint presentation to senior provincial officials.  Later we met with the Governor. The outcome of this meeting was that the Sa Kaew Governor has committed to support a model project in the province.

Ajarn Yak

We were up early to film an interview with Ajarn Yak, who had to leave ahead of us for a meeting in Sa Kaew Province. Ajarn Yak originally worked for the office of the King of Thailand. His work was focused on the King’s thinking for the development of a Sufficiency Economy in Thailand. Frustrated by farmers who didn’t believe the ideas that he presented to them based on this thinking, Ajarn Yak resigned his job to develop a working model. He chose a piece of land owned by his sister-in-law’s family near Chonburi, an area that is heavily industrialized and where water is very short. He began with soil that was as hard as rock from years of misuse. From this beginning he created the Agri-Nature Foundation and a learning centre that has now evolved to a network of organisations and learning centres around Thailand.  These centres have collectively hosted about 300,000 people from all walks of life.

The foundation of the Sufficiency Economy is established by working with the land to ensure:

  • Food to eat
  • Materials for simple housing (e.g. bamboo and timber trees)
  • Plants for household uses such as natural medicines, cleaning and toiletry products
  • Enhancement and protection of the local ecology

From this foundation the “Our Loss is Our Gain” philosophy is implemented. Any surplus above and beyond the basic needs above is gifted to those in need (as offerings to monks, teachers and others), and preserved for future use.  If there is still a surplus it is sold.  Meeting basic needs and gifting to others are put ahead of economic gain.

The Agri-nature Foundation, Maab Ueng, Chonburi
The Agri-nature Foundation, Maab Ueng, Chonburi

Ajarn Yak is deeply dedicated to transforming Thailand, and addressing the effects of very heavy chemical use, erosion of genetic diversity, rapid deforestation, pollution of water, and other related issues that have arisen with rapid development over the last 50 years. This work is very mindful of global changes such as climate change, in terms of creating resilient local systems that have lower carbon emissions and can buffer against the effects of changing climate conditions.  It implicitly involves people working together for a greater good rather than individual greed.

The day was hectic, on the move following Ajarn Yak’s trail and eventually catching up with him near Sa Kaew, in an area of degraded land with a thunderstorm overhead.

To the Agri-Nature Foundation

After a day and a half of resting and catching up we were on the road again, this time to Chonburi and then on to Sa Kaew Province in the east. Our good friend, and extraordinary organiser, Kris had arranged for me to be interviewed by Channel 3 from Thai TV. We had barely arrived at the home of the Agri-Nature Foundation in Chonburi when I was straight into being interviewed, and then filmed with our host Wiwat Salyakumtorn (known as Ajarn Yak (which means ‘Giant Teacher’)). Then another interview by a documentary crew. No time to do our own filming! Our accommodation for the night was in an open air Thai-style hut. Lots of tree frogs, crickets and other creatures to sing us to sleep and wake us up in the morning!!

Gavin, about to be interviewed by Channel 3 from Thai TV
Gavin, about to be interviewed by Channel 3 from Thai TV
Ajarn Yak (Giant Teacher), a man on a mission to develop the self-sufficient economy approach in Thailand and more widely in the world
Ajarn Yak (Giant Teacher), a man on a mission to develop the self-sufficient economy approach in Thailand and more widely in the world

Reflections from the banks of the Mekong

There are many things I’ve been reflecting on over the last week, in between our visits to different places and the intensity of filming, often on the fly. We’ve met so many good people and often would have liked to have stopped longer in some places. The contrasts are great, from the rapid developments that are evident everywhere to the wisdom of people who are living close to nature.  For me the contrast was amplified when we arrived at Chiang Saen in the Golden Triangle.

I stayed there 24 years ago when I was back-packing through Asia. It is unrecognisable now. There was nothing there that bore any relation to my memories of a quiet, peaceful town on the banks of the Mekong river. Change has come very rapidly to Thailand, some good, some not so good. The people we are meeting are providing living examples of a more balanced approach to development. We can’t forget nature. People are acting to plant or protect forest. They are experiencing higher temperatures and less reliable rainfall. Water is everything. Forest cover is essential to help regulate water flows, particularly with so much pressure on water resources.

There are voices that we need to stop and listen to for a while. The voices of people who are working in their local environments, who see what is happening locally and more widely, who have clear vision about what we need to be doing for the future.

Pra Parinya

We spent the morning with Pra Parinya at Wat Pacumcon. Pra Parinya was formerly an agricultural extension officer, based in Bangkok. He became a monk 19 years ago. At the invitation of local villagers he moved to Saraburi Province 16 years ago. He bought waste land from the villagers, previously used to grow corn but no longer fertile. Since this time he has planted thousands of trees, using local species, to create a small forest and local microclimate. Pra Parinya is dedicated to a high spiritual life, but also sees the need to help the local villagers. He is leading by example, planting forest to provide cooler local temperatures (within the forest canopy) and to help protect water. He is concerned that there won’t be enough water in the future. His focus is conscious change, demonstrating by example what can be done locally.

Pra Parinya
Pra Parinya

After this visit we returned to Bangkok, for a well earned rest at Phranakorn-Nornlen Hotel.

Community forests, Mekong catchment

Our last day by the Mekong river. We drove from Tamila Guest House to visit two community forestry projects. Both projects are along the Mae Ing river, a tributary of the Mekong, and are initiatives of local villagers. The first visit, hosted by Mr Somkid Chantima and others from the village committee, was completely on the fly. We were almost running to keep up with them to get footage as they walked and talked about their forest.

Filming on the fly in a community forest by the Mae Ing river
Filming on the fly in a community forest by the Mae Ing river

The next visit was at a more manageable pace. This was further up the Mae Ing river to Ngam Muang village. We were hosted by Uncle Tanom Outtama, president of the people’s network for the Mae Ing river and Mr Somkiat Khuenchiangsa, coordinator of the Mekong-Lanna Natural Resource and Culture Conservation network. They began their river protection work 10 years ago and now have 15 villages who are members of the river protection network. There is less water now, they said, so they have to protect the environment more. They have had great success in this regard.

Gavin preparing to film an informal interview with Mr Somkiat Khuenchiangsa, coordinator of the Mekong-Lanna Natural Resource and Culture Conservation network
Gavin preparing to film an informal interview with Mr Somkiat Khuenchiangsa, coordinator of the Mekong-Lanna Natural Resource and Culture Conservation network

From Ngam Muang village we drove back to Chiang Rai for an early dinner and then to catch a flight back to Bangkok. We arrived in Bangkok just after 8pm. Our principal host in Thailand, Khun Tuenjai, met us there and we drove north to a small monastery, Wat Pacumcon.