Here is a new AAN Member Profile from Madeleine Dick-Godfrey, a student in the Fall 2010 CIEE Khon Kaen program:
Leaders Building Community
You are in the middle of baking a cake. You realize you are missing a key ingredient, sugar. Do you: a.) Borrow sugar from your neighbors? Or b.) Drive all the way to the supermarket just to pick some up?
Communities around the world are declining drastically. People have taken off their front porches and put on back decks. However, Suwit Thankakoon, a farmer in Yasathon Province, sees the importance in keeping the front porch. He believes that in order for an area to succeed, a sense of community must exist.
Communities are valuable throughout all spheres of the world, but especially in rural areas. Traditionally, farming communities’ work together, eat together, share together, struggle together, and fight together. However, due to many factors, such as the rural to urban migration of younger generations, farming communities throughout the world, especially in Thailand, are disintegrating. While barriers to forming strong communities do exist, there are farmers who are fighting against them. Suwit Thankakoon is a leader in Yasathon who fights against this struggle.
Thankakoon descends from a family that has been farming the land in Yasathon Province for generations. His farm covers over twenty acres of land, and includes his humble home, organic rice paddies divided by papaya, passion fruit and mango trees, and a simple herb garden. Twenty years ago, Thankakoon took the initiative to return to organic farming. In turn, he has made his farm and his way of life a model for his community, the people of Thailand, and the rest of the world.
Thankakoon is passionate about farming, but his most ambitious efforts are in community leadership. “I realize how important it is to consider the impact we have on the environment,” he reflects. “We must be concerned about the things that are happening all over the world. That’s why it is important to be a leader in the movement to go organic.” The shift from chemical to organic agriculture made by many villagers, has undoubtedly strengthened the Yasathon community. Since making the switch, Pa has seen the relationship between him and his wife, and between members of his community strengthen. “How can you be far from one another when you work so close twelve hours a day, seven days a week.”
Suwit Thankakoon is a community leader on many different scales. He is on the committee of the Alternative Agriculture Network of Thailand. As a committee member, he works on creating awareness of organic farming, while offering training sessions and support to farmers who make the change. The AAN network is a medium through which farmers can share farming practices, create friendships, and educate others about the benefits of organic farming. As a committee member Pa Sweet personally teaches farmers in his village about seed saving, and spreads encouraging advice about the switch to organic farming to his hesitant neighbors.
Not only is Thankakoon an activist in strengthening community in Yasathon Province, but he is also dedicated to teaching urban dwellers what he teaches his fellow farmers. “I value a direct connection with the people that eat my food. I don’t think its right to grow food that isn’t safe for consumers to eat,” he said. Every weekend, Thankakoon and his wife proudly sell their organic rice, papaya, and herbs at the Green Market in Yasathon City. The Green Market is supported by the Alternative Agriculture Network of Thailand and includes about thirty stalls of solely organic produce. His primary objective is not to make a profit, however to create a relationship between the rural producers and the urban consumers. According to Thankakoon, in order to foster community self-reliance, urban people must be aware of the situations of rural people and rural people must want to connect with urban people. So, whether its members of one community, or people from two different communities, the AAN and the Green Market deepen the connection of people, and leaders such as Thankakoon make that connection happen.
In addition, Thankakoon is a leader by example. After switching back to organic farming, he saw his previous debt from chemical agriculture decrease and witnessed his land come back to life. “I love watching the bugs land on the rice plant and the fish swimming between its roots,” he said. “I never saw that while using chemical agriculture.” His neighbors watched this too, and were inspired to make the shift to go organic. Thankakoon was never elected into his leadership position. He has no legal powers, and does not get paid. He leads because he is passionate about improving the well-being of his community, and he hopes other community members will follow in his path.
Organic farmers in Yasathon work together as a family, helping each other on their farms, sharing meals, and bagging rice to sell at the Green Market, all which is done with love and respect for the land and one another. Suwit Thankakoon is a sustainability pioneer. He is an example, an activist, and an educator. He is passionate about opening up the minds of community members to new ideas, new perspectives, and a broader view of life that will ultimately benefit society. “Communities have to work together, struggle together, fight together, and love one another in order to make a difference,” reflected Thankakoon. Community leaders give other members of the community inspiration to think out of the box. The world needs brave leaders like Thankakoon to step up to the plate and to be an example for the community of the world.