Reflections from Thailand

This morning we were up early to go to the temple with Khun Yai, and then back to Bangkok. We’ll be up early tomorrow morning to catch our flight to Hanoi. As I’ve already said before, we have met some wonderful people here in Thailand. The issues we are facing are global. Local people are observing and experiencing changes in climate. However, we don’t need to feel helpless or depressed. The only true solutions in my view will come about from positive local actions, and that view has been strongly reinforced by the people we have met in Thailand. There is real potential for Thailand to provide us all with leadership for the future, towards a more balanced approach to working with our environment. The self sufficiency economy is founded on long-held wisdom that the true foundation of a sustainable economy is a well-balanced ecology. Working with nature, not withdrawal from nature or against nature, is the key.

Naku village farmers

Pacharee, friend of Khun Yai, looked after us for the morning along with Mr Santi Jeeyapan. Santi works as a facilitator to support villagers doing farm based research. We drove out to Naku Village, near Ayutthaya, where we met with three local farmers: Pattapee Poungsuwan, Somnuk Sanksem, and Yaowaluck Sukseeleang. We interviewed all three together in quite a challenging setting, a small roadside cafe. All three farmers have decided to move towards organic production because of concerns with degradation of the land and the high cost of inputs. The climate has definitely changed with more erratic weather patterns than in the past. Last September there was widespread flooding in Thailand and Ayutthaya Province was one of the worst affected, because it is low lying. They were all clear that the cause of the problem is people and that there is a need for a more balanced approach working with nature.

Farmers from Naku village - Somnuk Sanksem, Yaowaluck Sukseeleang, and Pattapee Poungsuwan
Farmers from Naku village - Somnuk Sanksem, Yaowaluck Sukseeleang, and Pattapee Poungsuwan

Yaowaluck Sukseeleang and Pattapee Poungsuwan both had their farms right next to the cafe,  so we went into the field to talk to them some more.

Yaowaluck is an amazing woman. She learnt rice growing from her parents, beginning when she was 10 years old and has now been a rice farmer for 29 years. Yaowaluck farmers 56 rai (about 20 acres, or 8 hectares) on her own. At times in the past she has felt depressed and tried other work. People think farming is a dirty job, but she is clearly very passionate about her work and life as a farmer. Yaowaluck is a true leader for the future.

Yaowaluck Sukseeleang (on left), organic rice farmer, Naku Village
Yaowaluck Sukseeleang (on left), organic rice farmer, Naku Village

We then walked down the road to Pattapee’s farm. He stopped growing rice and shifted to organic vegetable production for the Bangkok market. This was a more financially viable option for him, as well as good for the environment.

Pattapee Poungsuwan, organic vegetable grower, Naku Village
Pattapee Poungsuwan, organic vegetable grower, Naku Village

Ayutthaya

Fortunately today has been a bit quieter, a short trip (1 hour) by taxi to the old city of Ayutthaya and visiting some of the old Wat (temple) ruins (in incredible heat and humidity). We actually ordered the taxi to take us to the train station, but then the taxi driver said he would take us all the way for 700 baht (less than NZ$30).

Tomorrow we’re going out to a local village, our last bit on the ground in Thailand.

We spent part of the afternoon visiting some of the ruins of Ayutthaya with our new host, Khun Yai. In the evening we went to a night market for dinner by the river and then drove around to enjoy the ruins lit up at night time.

View from the ruins of Wat Ratcha Burana, Ayutthaya
View from the ruins of Wat Ratcha Burana, Ayutthaya
Night scene at Ayutthaya
Night scene at Ayutthaya

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