Pakphum Inpaen featured in Green America

In Our Network on 14/11/2009 at 9:28 pm

From the Green America Thanksgiving e-newsletter

Thanks to Andrew Korfhage for visiting Rice Fund Surin and writing this story:

True confession:  Before I started working at Green America almost seven years ago, I had never heard of the Fair Trade movement.  In my interview with our Green Business Network director Denise Hamler, in fact, I got confused and accidentally called it “free trade.”

“You mean Fair Trade, right?” she asked me.   “Oh, yes,” I said, “What did I say?”

But like many conscious consumers who aren’t yet connected to the Fair Trade movement per se, I was already deeply interested in the concept of making sure that the products I buy are traded fairly – that producers at the beginning of the supply chain make a decent wage, that the products that pass through my hands on a daily basis aren’t tainted with the suffering of others.  It’s part of why I wanted to work for Green America in the first place, because the definition of “green” should always be about the health of both people and the planet.

Over the course of my time with Green America, I’ve learned a lot more, naturally, about the Fair Trade movement, whether working to promote Fair Trade events like last month’s reverse trick-or-treating, meeting Fair Trade leaders who come to speak at our Green Festivals, or writing articles for our newsletter whenever new Fair Trade products receive certification.

It was in 2007, when I began work on an updated version of our Fair Trade Guide, that I made a connection that would eventually lead me to the rice farms outside of Surin, in rural northeastern Thailand.  In that guide, we published an interview with Kyra Busch, then the global action director for ENGAGE, an educational network that organizes consumers to increase demand for Fair Trade rice.  As I asked Kyra questions about the effect of the Fair Trade system on rural rice-farming cooperatives, she encouraged me to visit Thailand to learn for myself.

At the time, the idea of following the Fair Trade rice supply chain to its source seemed distant, remote, or impossible.  But in early 2009, when a friend of mine moved to Chiang Mai in the mountainous northwest of Thailand, I decided this would be my chance to travel to the rice cooperative in the northeast as well.  I decided to follow up with Kyra.  I e-mailed ENGAGE, and although Kyra was no longer working there, it required a total of only two e-mails to connect with Bennett Haynes, the man who would eventually meet up with me in Thailand, accompany me to the rice cooperative, and translate for me because I don’t speak Thai.

I want to emphasize the ease of that connection.  With just a handful of e-mails I was able to board a plane, then catch an overnight train, and then climb into the pick-up truck that would take me straight to the beginning of the Fair Trade supply chain. The system is that short and direct.

Imagine any conventional consumer product you buy.  How many steps do you think it would it take for you to come face to face with the person who made it?  Would all the middlemen involved even allow it, knowing you’d be able to see for yourself the conditions at the beginning of the chain, and talk to the people who are there?  What do you think you would see, and would you want to?

For me, when I got out of the truck in Denleng Tai, the rice-farming village where I would be staying, about 25 kilometers from the Cambodian border, this is what I saw:  I saw a simple wooden house with an outdoor staircase, on stilts, with a kitchen underneath and a bathroom out back.  I saw an older woman sitting outside, weaving silk, shaded by a verdant canopy of tropical trees bearing coconuts, avocados, and limes.  Beside her, I saw her silkworms, spinning in their baskets beneath a bug net.  And I saw a coffee plant that I later learned had been acquired from a Fair Trade coffee cooperative in Laos, a trade for some organic, Fair Trade rice.

The weaver I met was Coo-eye, the lady of the house, the mother of Samrieng and Pakphum, her two adult children in their forties.  I would be working with Pakphum for the rest of the week, so Bennett and I sat down to wait for Pakphum to return.

When Pakphum arrived, we greeted one another through Bennett, and Pakphum cheerfully chopped down some coconuts and cracked open their tops, for us to each sip a refreshing drink while we got to know one another.  Pakphum had been at the elementary school that morning, he told us, catching up on some paperwork for the class he’s teaching on organic farming, hoping to instill an appreciation for natural, pesticide-free production in the younger generation.

While not every farmer in his village farms organically, organic farming predominates in Pakphum’s cooperative, and Pakphum farms exclusively organically.  After being sickened by the pesticides he was using around ten years ago, he made a promise to himself to stop using toxic chemicals in his work, and that promise has paid off in a big way.  Not only did his health improve, he told me, but the switch to organics helped him climb out of debt, as he and stopped spending his hard-earned money on chemical fertilizers from giant agriculture companies, and began to rely on the organic material already on his land for his fertilizer.

Mmmmm....   fresh coconut!

During my work with Pakphum later that week, I would learn more about how this cycle works.  I would see, for instance, Pakphum spotting small snails in his fields at ten paces (tiny things I never would have noticed) before picking them up and pocketing them.  When I asked about this later, I learned they’d be crushed and fermented in a special compost bin, because snail compost is so effective at correcting for certain ill conditions in the fields.  Bennett and Pakphum showed me the separate containers by the shed in the fields; the jackfruit compost is perfect for one condition, while the mixed compost is perfect for a different condition, and the water buffalo manure is just healthy overall, and so on.  This is genius, I thought.

As we sipped our coconuts on the first day, Pakphum explained how what we’d be doing that week would be intimately related to his decision to farm organically.  Pakphum had some damaged fields, he told me, and we’d be repairing them.   “When people find out I’m an organic farmer, sometimes they ask me ‘What do you do about weeds?’” Pakphum said smiling.  “’I pull them out,’ I tell them.  It’s not that hard to figure out.”

So, starting before the dawn the next morning, we traveled out to the fields to begin the work – transplanting healthy rice plants from a weed-damaged field into the spaces cleared in an adjacent field by the damage from the fresh-water crabs.  We collected the crabs in a bucket that we handed off to Samrieng (she’d be cooking them later, I believe, though the family was kind enough to cook vegetarian for me while I was there), and we carried the rice plants by hand from the weed-damaged field, using a hoe to re-plant them in the soft, rich earth beneath the standing water in the paddy. When the transplanting was complete, we’d be plowing under the weed-damaged field, preparing it for new planting.

The work was hard and the hours were long. The sun felt scorching and when the rains came on the second day, they were fierce, but we worked from dawn to dusk no matter the weather conditions.  We would break around 8AM (after having left the house at 5) for breakfast, and between noon and 1 for lunch – eating deliciously fresh rice dishes (topped with fresh veggies, fresh peanut sauce, fresh chili sauce) and supplemented by fruits from the orchard behind Pakphum’s shed (pomegranates, bananas, and pomelos – the grapefruit’s larger cousin).

We’d toss the rinds and the seeds into the compost bins, knowing they’d be recycled into the rice fields. In fact, the entire time I was there, I never saw so much as a single bottle or jar or can opened for a meal.  Everything was local in the truest sense of the word – it was the most delightfully waste-free week in my life to date.

When the sun was almost down, Pakphum and I would walk back to his shed, and wash our clothes and our bodies in the pond next to the orchard.  We would swim and stretch our sore muscles in the cool water, and relax from the long day.  Then we’d head back to the village and socialize with the other farmers before dinner.  My first day, I rested and didn’t socialize.  My second day, I socialized, but minimally, because I didn’t have my translator with me.  But the third day, Bennett was there, and we got to talking with the other men about their lives.

My favorite relaxation spa of all time...

One man, named Yam, asked me how I felt not being able to speak Thai, in a room full of Thai speakers.  We talked about that for awhile, and I noted that I had learned some phrases, and that it wasn’t the first time I’d been in a position of being unable to speak the language in the room.  We chatted some more, and eventually I asked him if he’d ever been in a situation of being unable to speak the language the others are speaking.

“Yes,” Yam said.  “When I lived in Taiwan…”   And then he went on to tell me how he had left the farming village as a young man.  Unable to make ends meet there, he needed to seek his fortunes elsewhere, to make enough money to come back to Denleng Tai and marry and settle down.  He told me that he ended up in Taiwan, accepting a job at an electronics factory, where he was housed with all the other men in a dormitory that also housed huge drums of fuel for the factory.  When he arrived, he was the only Thai.  The factory bosses all spoke Mandarin Chinese, and the other workers all spoke their native languages.

One night, not long after his arrival, Taiwan experienced an earthquake.  He’d never felt an earthquake before, and was confused as he leapt from his bed, and heard all the other men screaming “earthquake” in their own languages.  Afraid that the drums of fuel might explode, the men all ran outside in the night, and that night he realized he’d need to learn some of the other languages to get by.  He was away for a decade, Yam told me, and it was tough, returning to Denleng Tai only three times during that time.  He told me how happy he was to be back, and to be farming rice again as part of the cooperative.

The night before I left, Pakphum and I shared our longest conversation translated through Bennett.  We talked about the importance of rice in Thai culture, and the nutritional value of the kinds of rice produced by his cooperative vs. the standard white rice often found on supermarket shelves.  We talked about the yearly cycle of the work on the farm, and how the long-long days we had put in that week are balanced by the five months of the year when the growing season is at a standstill and there is more time for leisure pursuits.

We talked about growing older and Pakphum’s plans for the future, such as whether to go back into debt by purchasing a sit-down plow (a tool that might help him farm longer into his later years).  Pakphum said he was turning against the new-plow idea at present, focusing instead on maybe leasing some of his paddies to townspeople in Surin City who might want to get back to the land.  He could teach them about organic farming, he told me, and they could keep the rice they produce, and he could still earn a living from his land.

Finally, we talked about the Fair Trade system, and how it’s important for small-scale producers to be paid a decent wage for their labor, how it’s easy for the conventional supply chain (with its many, many layers) to squeeze the producers at the beginning, and how Pakphum is skeptical of the aims of the mega-corporations that are switching tiny portions of their lines of Fair Trade products like coffee.  Pakphum objected to a mega-corporation knowing how to get involved in a better supply chain, but not choosing to commit to a better system 100-percent.  Those companies’ scale, he said, could give them power to dilute standards, or could pull market share away from the smaller, purer Fair Trade product lines.

Nothing wasted.  This is food for the next generation of rice.

Fortunately, at present, there is no mega-corporation threatening to compete with Alter-Eco, the company that brings Pakphum’s rice to market in the United States (and a member of our Green Business Network).  Early in my visit – the day I met Bennett at the train station and took the pick-up ride to the village – Bennett and I first stopped at the headquarters of Pakphum’s cooperative, where its US-bound rice is packaged.

It was here where I saw the scales where Pakphum would drive his rice harvest in to be weighed and paid for.  It was here where I saw the giant machines that strip off the inedible portions of the rice husk, which are saved to be turned into compost for the farmers.  And it was here that I peered through a window at workers who were packaging the finished rice in boxes and bags bound for various destinations:  the cooperative store in Surin City, as well as distributors in Europe and the United States.  If you purchase a box of Alter-Eco Fair Trade and organic rice in the United States, that box was filled in this room, by workers who personally know the farmers who just dropped it off.

After my tour of the facilities, I sat down with Sompoi Chansaeng, the leader of the cooperative to ask her some questions.  She was very busy that day, and we talked for maybe 30 minutes, about the history of the cooperative, about her thoughts on the Fair Trade system (she has the same misgivings a Pakphum about mega-corporations), and finally about what one factor could be the most successful at helping expand the use of organic farming and Fair Trade practices in the Surin area.  I suggested greater government support, NGO support, farmer education, and consumer demand as possibilities.

Without hesitation, Sompoi stopped me in the middle of my list and replied: “It’s consumer demand.”

The last day of my visit, I saw the effects of consumer demand in full force.

I rose even earlier on Saturday (at 4AM!) to catch a ride with some of Pakphum’s neighbors who would be driving their products to Surin City to participate in the Saturday morning “Green Marketplace” there.  Pakphum would not be joining them this week, but he rose with me to say good-bye, and waited with me until the truck jostled along to pick me up.  I climbed in the back with the sacks of fruits and coconuts, and a couple of other farmers, and we were off for a pre-dawn ride into the city.

When we got there, I helped Pakphum’s neighbors, and the other farmers who were arriving, to unload their supplies.  It was barely beginning to be light outside, and already the excited shoppers in Surin City were milling about, ready to start purchasing the delicious organic produce and meat from the surrounding farming villages.  Surin City is a town of only about 40,000 people (about the size of the attendance at one of our Green Festivals), and yet the marketplace was packed – a visual demonstration of consumer demand.

It’s been about three months now since I said good-bye to Bennett at the Green Marketplace, and walked to the bus station munching on an organic pomello – so I’ve had some time to reflect.  Here are some conclusions that I’ve come to:

See if you can spot the snout of an organically raised pig.  (Pork is big at this marketplace.)

First of all, while I’ve met some motivated advocates for the Fair Trade system here in the US via my work with Green America, I have never encountered such passion for Fair Trade as I did with Sompoi Chansaeng and Pakphum Inpaen.  It’s working for them, and they see the benefits in their community.  Second, whenever I need to purchase a new electronic device, I will think of Yam, who was treated as much like an expendable resource as a drum of fuel, and I wonder when the day will arrive when dependable Fair Trade certification will be available for things like electronics products – going even beyond the commodities currently Fair Trade certified (tea, chocolate, bananas, sugar, etc.

Finally, whenever I need to purchase rice, I will think of Pakphum, and the hard labor it requires to produce his rice, and how he’s working hard to make sure that he doesn’t poison others in his village the way he once poisoned himself with pesticides – how he’s teaching others, young and old, to go organic.

True confession:   I had a big bag of conventional jasmine rice sitting three-quarters full on my kitchen shelf when I got home, leftover from before my trip. The sight of it made me reflect on my values.  I also had conventional coffee in my cupboard, dissonant with the Fair Trade chocolates from Divine in the bowl in my dining room, or the Fair Trade sneakers on my feet.  I just now finished up that conventional bag of rice last week, and later walked down the street to purchase a box of red jasmine Alter-Eco rice from my local organic market.

There on the box (right next to the Fair Trade Certified™ label) was a picture of the vista that I saw every morning on my way out to the fields – bright green rice plants waving in the breeze, with the view broken only by the occasional shade tree or water buffalo.  And next to that picture, a story about what you’re supporting when you buy this rice – fair prices paid to farmers, a Fair Trade premium for community development, support for organic practices to keep communities safe and healthy.

Here’s a link to to the photo slideshow


Find Alter-Eco Fair Trade rice near you by entering your ZIP code into the interactive map on their Web site, or order directly from Alter-Eco.

Keep up with the latest from Pakphum’s cooperative, by reading their blog, the Surin Farmers Collective.

Learn more from the Alternative Agriculture Network, Bennett’s employer and another organization of which Pakphum is a member. AAN focuses on a range of issues from sustainable agriculture systems to trade policy.

Download Green America’s Guide to Fair Trade.


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