Thanks to the students of the Fall 2010 CIEE Khon Kaen program for their support. Here are two Op-Eds that really focus in on important current issues in Thailand’s interdependent rural-urban society:
Rethink the Rural and Urban
Globally the number of farmers is on the decline and urban slum populations are on the rapid rise. Countless people flood to urban centers each year with the hope of prospering only to find that there is little but destitution waiting to welcome them. Farmers are finding themselves in a similar state of poverty as the urban poor as large corporations snatch up the small farms and replace them with chemical intensive mono cropping. Who is winning here? The big businesses, the politicians and the government have much to gain as the divide between the rich and the poor is exponentially increasing. As Monsanto cuts backroom deals with policy makers innocent farmers are falling into bankruptcy because of the unethical business practices of seed patenting. As developing countries are pressured to move to agriculture that relies heavily on chemical inputs and disregards local knowledge of seeds and climate they lose their source of nutrients that they were once able to get from their own fields. As people are pushed off the fields into the hidden slum by the railroad tracks the wealthy are making disgusting amounts of profits from the process.
What is the solution? We need to re-think and re-imagine what the urban and rural look like and what it means to be a member of each community. People ought to have the right to a livelihood with dignity. This means having the opportunity to provide for your family and care for your community. This is key; community is a value that needs to be re-instilled into the conscience of the globe. Countries are falling into this trap that the more developed they become the less important a community becomes and this is where social, economic, political and environmental accountability and values are coming unraveled.
Being environmentally responsible in the way we feed people with organic small-scale farming needs to be given the credit that it deserves in terms of food output. Sure the argument of higher yields with chemical agriculture is there, but what is left out here is that overall food output is much higher with a small scale organic farm that takes advantage of the natural assets plants have for each other, crop rotation, and planting a variety of foods that also helps to enrich soil. Rural communities in Thailand, and all around the world are folding under the pressures and promises of governments, and the chemical and seed industries.
In Thailand as more and more farmers have transitioned to chemical agriculture they are having an increasingly difficult time providing food for their families. Fish and other water dwellers that can be found in the rice field use to be an important source of protein for Thai farmers, but the fish cannot survive with the use of chemicals, as a result farmers are now forced to buy more of their food, which is often processed, imported and expensive, increasing the debt that farmers accumulate. Mother nature has been working on this for quite a while and it is quite arrogant for humankind to think we can do it better than she can. Traditionally farming and technology do not have to fight against each other; there is a way for them to work together to create an outcome that values the earth, employees, and the farmer.
In Yasothon, a province in Northeast Thailand, there is a community that has realized that chemical agriculture is not an effective way to use their land and have transitioned back to the traditional agriculture their ancestors used. The problem is they have to struggle against the government. Using organic agriculture is seen as backward and not developing. The community members have to fight to keep their local variety of rice that is well suited to their exact region and climate. They have to fight for market space and compete with the unfairly priced products of the chemical agriculture industry that is promoted by the government. Farmers all around the world are experiencing a similar struggle between organic agriculture and the government promoted chemical intensive agriculture.
As for the urban, we need to rethink what an urban landscape looks like. There are many creative ways to grow your own food in an urban setting. Urban centers do not have to be breeding pools for crime, poor education, inadequate food access, and drugs. In the United States there are 23.5 million people who live in a food desert, meaning they do not have access to affordable nutritious food. In food deserts the only source of food is a convenience store and fast food. Food deserts are most common in rural communities and inner urban centers. Much of this is hidden from a city dweller and you may be thinking that this does not happen where I live.
In Khon Kaen, Thailand a slum community is being pushed off of the land they live on so a new train station can be built along the tracks. The children of this community make up over half of the neighborhood school, yet the teachers are completely uninterested in the issue. There is a distinct disconnect between the needs of the individual and the needs of the community that is seemingly required in order to be considered ‘developed’. I challenge to look just beyond your neighborhood and find out who lives there, what kind of food they have access to, and the quality of their schools. There is a divide in our world and it is sharp and carefully constructed to remain hidden. What we are doing is currently not working for everyone; in fact it is not even working for the majority of the world population, it is time to try something new and see what we can do to work on taking care of our fellow people.
Envision a city that is green, in which people can take pride in growing a portion of their own food and having access to locally grown food; here the education is comprehensive and teaches people how to learn instead of only how to work. A rural community that is not plagued with poverty, but is flourishing with farms and communities that are able to care for the planet and one another. Imagine a planet where people have an environment they are able to thrive in life in every sense rather than life be a struggle for so many mainly because of the actions of global development and big enterprise. Imagine a world where people, not profits are the priority of our business, governments, and fellow people.
What is the Meaning of Education? Re-Thinking of Thailand’s School System
“The purpose of education is…” How should one complete this statement? If one asks five different people, it is likely that five different sentences will be constructed. Some will place the focus on knowledge, some on the teacher, and others on the student. There is no definition of education that is accepted by all. However, scholar, William Beattie describes education in a way that should be agreed upon worldwide. However, unfortunately, it is not. “The aim of education should be to teach us rather to think, than what to think- rather to improve our minds, so as to enable us to think for ourselves, than to load the memory of thoughts from other men.” Education takes us into the future, and if human beings do not radically rethink their view on education massive problems will emerge.
The hierarchy of education is the same around the world. Mathematics and science are at the top, followed by humanities, and lastly the arts. Children everywhere are innovative and creative. However the school system, is killing that creativity. As the negative effects of the education system are clear around the globe, its effects are especially notable in Thailand. Today, in Thailand, things that use to be valued, such as farming and culture, are stigmatized. Thai children are becoming disembodied from their culture and their ancestors. We must not go on this way. Thailand needs an education revolution.
A fourth year student from Khon Kaen University said, “At home, I love to cook and to farm. I live to watch the sunrise and the sunset everyday. But, I had to leave home to study in the city. I needed an education. I want money!” she says honestly with a smile. Although many young people take leaving home for a western education lightly, many are not aware that the movement leads to massive problems throughout the country. Due to westernized education, Thai people have become more and more obsessed with going to college. It is embedded into young people’s minds that one must go to college in order to become a professional.
Due to the introduction and the pressure of westernized education, young people in Thailand are encouraged to grow up, to move out, and to find work in cities. However, the classroom is not the reality of village life in Thailand. Young people must understand “local wisdom.” Properly farming the land, building a house out of wood, or curing the sick with herbal medicines are among some of the most important Thai cultural traditions. There are very few educational institutions in Thailand where children are taught how to farm or how to fish, like how they are taught to add, subtract, and multiply. Due to a lack of local knowledge, often times, rural to urban migrants are unfamiliar with the land, and are therefore unable to participate in community activities upon their return home.
As people move to urban centers they change their habits and belief systems in order to assimilate with the members of their new, urban community. Changes in religion, clothing, dietary habits, language, traditional ceremonies, and gender roles are among the most common transformations (Fuller). An individual’s cultural identity is lost as he or she moves into the city. As a result the culture and traditions of entire communities are lost. The emphasis put on moving to cities in modern education, destabilizes the social structure in Thailand. If an education revolution does not occur, happiness, tradition, and culture of Thai rural communities will be destroyed.
As westernized education pushes young people out of the rural areas and into the city to study and to find jobs, overcrowding, lack of adequate resources, and urban pollution become concerns. Additionally, many people are forced to live in slums or work in low paying jobs, such as scavengers in landfills of Khon Kaen or prostitutes on the streets of Bangkok.
As Sulak Sivaraksa said, “In Thailand we teach people to be clever, not good. It is a huge problem that is evident in Thai society.” The people of Thailand must radically rethink their views on education and their definitions of intelligence. As of now, the Thai education system is educating its youth out of their creative capacities. When a Khon Kaen University student was asked if she enjoyed what she studied, she replied, “Sometimes I enjoy it, and other times I endure it. Honestly, I wait for the weekends!” People must educate themselves in order to resonate their spirits, and in turn develop themselves into mindful human beings with the capacity to positively contribute to society.