Back from Thailand: reflections on the need for transformational change

I’m back from Thailand and currently dealing with a chest infection. Travelling takes it toll, both on my health and on that of the planet. I live with these inconsistencies. From my arrival late on 19 October through to the morning of 23 October I was based in Bangkok, staying in one of my favourite hotels. By very good fortune it was 10 minutes walk from the United Nations Conference Centre, where the Asia Pacific Climate Change Adaptation Forum was held.

The forum was an interesting experience, particularly in terms of feedback from my Agri-Nature Foundation friends who were also in attendance. I’ll come to this in a while. The theme of this forum was ‘mainstreaming’ adaptation to climate change. The mainstreaming of adaptation into national policy frameworks, particularly in least developed countries, has gained significant momentum in the last few years. This momentum is a result of the significant, and increasing, amounts of funding for adaptation that are coming available. It is recognition that climate change is happening and there will be inevitable negative impacts on environments and people around the world. I see this increased attention to adaptation as a mixed blessing. On the one hand it reflects the need for positive action to address the effects of climate change, which if done properly could also provide benefits in terms of reduced emissions. But the speed at which things are happening, and the lack of genuine expertise, is a big concern. Funds are coming available almost faster than various agencies can keep up with. And suddenly there are a whole lot of ‘climate change experts’. The one big contradiction that I see is that a lot of people are talking about the need for action, and agreeing that they need to have more meetings to talk about action, but where is the action and who is doing it? And exactly what sort of action are we talking about? Are we talking about incremental changes to what we are currently doing? Or are we talking about transformational changes?

My posters on display in Bangkok - lessons from practical people who are involved in transformational change
My posters on display in Bangkok - lessons from practical people who are involved in transformational change

I view incremental changes as adjustments we make to partially offset the negative consequences, and potential vulnerabilities, of our on-going economic development focus. In many countries, including New Zealand, this includes continuing with activities such as high input agricultural systems (particularly our dairy industry) but doing things like improving irrigation efficiency or dealing with the consequences of nitrate pollution. We’re not questioning the future vulnerability and costs of sustaining such systems. Evidence from past civilizations gives us some clear lessons. In the words of Brian Fagan, author of ‘The Long Summer: How Climate Changed Civilization’ (It’s also worth reading this Guardian review):

“In our efforts to cushion ourselves against smaller, more frequent climate stresses, we have consistently made ourselves more vulnerable to rarer but larger catastrophes. The whole course of civilization … may be seen as a process of trading up on the scale of vulnerability.”

Whether we see it or not, our present actions are accelerating us towards a collision course. The economic rationalists tell us that we have no alternatives. I guess this makes sense if you understand the causes of tunnel vision. I liken our addiction to fossil fuels and the growth economy to the effects of alcohol and some drugs on vision. We’re in a world of rapid change and we humans are increasingly in need of transformational change. My view is that we either act willingly now, or be forced into change at much greater cost sometime in the future.

Transformational change means we step outside of the square. We shed our strong dependence on fossil fuels and start opening our minds to the world of possibilities that lies beyond what can only be described as addictive, and ultimately destructive, behaviour. The sooner we make this change the better. Yes, it might involve some short-term pain, changes in lifestyle and consumer behaviour. Long-term, the sooner we act the better placed we will be to benefit from a genuinely harmonious and productive relationship with the earth.

It’s taken me a while, but this is where I come to the Agri-Nature Foundation in Thailand. Through the practical application of the Sufficiency Economy philosophy they are actively engaged in transformational change. My friends, Ajarn Yak and Khun Wipa, were very frustrated with the adaptation forum. All of this talk about the need for action, and they are acting. Mainstreaming adaptation is a redundant concept for them. Their work isn’t driven by a climate change funding agenda. It was originally driven by a challenge from farmers to show that the King of Thailand’s ideas on the Sufficiency Economy had some practical merit. Their funding has come from people freely offering financial support because of the results they are getting. The Sufficiency Economy is a response to the forces of globalisation and the many environmental and other problems now unfolding in the world. This includes climate change. Practical application of the Sufficiency Economy involves planting a diversity of tree species, protecting precious water resources, living within the limits of your local environment, providing for your basic needs and sharing surplus. It follows fundamental ecological concepts. The foundation is a sustainable and resilient ecology. Through a conscious design process we develop greater stability, and buffering capacity, through well-planned functional diversity. Within this we develop a healthy social environment and then a sustainable economy. I know various people talking about these concepts. I know very few examples of practical application. In this regard the work of the Agri-Nature Foundation needs wider recognition and I’m dedicated to supporting that as well as I can.

Back to Thailand

Earlier this year I had a phone call out of the blue from a friend in Thailand, Khun Wipa. I hadn’t spoken to her since 2007 when we were travelling and filming grassroots perspectives on climate change. She was phoning me on behalf of Ajarn Yak who wanted me to come back to Thailand to contribute to a grassroots gathering of the Agri-Nature Foundation. I was subsequently in Thailand for just over a week, from 16 to 24 March. I haven’t yet written about this trip, but it’s on my list of things to do!

The point of this is that I am heading back to Thailand next week. My initial motivation for returning was to attend the Asia-Pacific Climate Change Adaptation Forum. I will be showcasing some of the work that I’ve done over the last decade as well as helping profile the work of the Agri-Nature Foundation. I’ve already given them some assistance in the translation of some of their information. Here are the two posters that I will be putting on display:

Poster 1: Lessons from farmers in eastern New Zealand (2.33 MB)

Poster 2: Lessons from people in different countries (2.04 MB)

I’ve also been invited to act as provocateur for a session on climate uncertainty. In preparing for this last week I recalled that uncertainty was the topic of my first ever talk on climate change in 1991. I’ve certainly learnt a few things since then.

Following the adaptation forum I will again be hosted by my friends at the Agri-Nature Foundation. We’ll most likely be going to the Agri-Nature centre at Maab Uaeng in Chonburi province.

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