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AAN Regional Collaboration: SAEDA Workshop in Xiang Khouang, Lao PDR

In In Solidarity, Network Events, Research on 16/03/2010 at 11:11 am

Sustainable agriculture is growing throughout Southeast Asia, and in some countries, government support and coordination with non-governmental organizations (NGOs) is producing positive results.  The work currently being carried out by the Sustainable Agriculture and Environment Development Association (SAEDA), a Lao organization committed to sustainable agriculture and community development, is an example of this movement.

SAEDA (Co-Director, Thongdam Phongphichith, above, demonstrating spray mask coverage) and the Xiang Khouang Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry have been working together on a provincial-level organic agriculture project for more than a year.  On March 2, 2010, SAEDA invited a team of Thai agriculture researchers to join in a workshop focusing on the impacts of agro-chemical use and solutions for farmers, including indigenous rice seed preservation, sustainable agriculture practices and alternative markets.  This kind of collaboration between neighboring countries is an important part of a growing Southeast Asian regional movement for a better food and agriculture system.  Both Thai and Lao participants benefited greatly from the workshop and exchange that followed.

Decha Siripat, Director of the Kao Kwan Foundation, gave an engaging presentation about his work in Suphanburi, touching on a range of issues that have affected Thai farmers for a long time, but are only beginning to have an impact in Laos.  Working with rice farmers in Central Thailand, Decha’s work focuses on developing alternatives to chemical-intensive rice production.  Chemical fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides and High Yielding Varieties (HYV) are Suphanburi’s rice farmers’ biggest problems, as they form the starting point for a cycle of indebtedness, health problems and environmental destruction.  In his conclusion, Decha was quick to point out that these rice varieties are not really “high yielding” at all, but merely “high responding,” as they will grow effectively only when treated with a full suite of agro-chemicals.

Montawadee Krutmechai former Director of RRAFA (photo below, with garlic, is currently researching with Thailand’s Asoke movement for her Master’s Degree) fittingly started her presentation by presenting a depth of information about the risks and impacts of pesticides.  A long-time campaigner on this issue, Montawadee linked their use to the growing trend towards the use of hybrid rice seeds.  Since their development in China almost 40 years ago, Charoen Pokaphan (CP) has promoted their use throughout their Indonesian and Chinese markets.  There are currently 15 varieties of hybrid rice being promoted and their use is only in the test phases in Thailand’s central and northern regions.  Thailand’s Green Revolution has been over for many years – now the “Gene Revolution” is just getting started.  It’s hard to see how this transformation will benefit farmers.  As hybrid seeds and chemical-intensive production has not yet reached areas like Xiang Khouang, presentations like Montawadee’s are important for sharing information about the risks involved in this kind of intensive production system.

Though Thailand’s Esan region is a low-yielding, rain-fed rice producing area, it is known for its production of Jasmine 105 rice.  In the decades following Jasmine’s introduction, Esan’s landscape and ecology was transformed to better suit the fragrant grain.  Jasmine has meant a career for millions of farmers in Esan, but their indigenous rice varieties have largely disappeared from the paddies.  Farmers may earn a large sum of cash at the end of each season, but they are often left with debt and weakened community food security.  We cannot assume that high exports are a good thing for Esan’s small farmers.

Daoreung Puhtpon, a farmer-researcher from the Alternative Agriculture Network – Yasothon (AAN) continued the workshop with a presentation focusing on the Kamet Sub-district Research Volunteer Group’s research and campaign process over the past year.  The group has focused on local rice seed preservation (about 33 unique varieties) and promoting their expansion in farmers’ fields.  As these seeds are better suited to the local ecology and have traditionally been eaten by villagers as whole-grain rice, the research group works to promote the seeds from both an environmental and cultural basis.  Over the past season, a large number of farmers took interest in the project and over the coming season will be planting local varieties for household consumption.

The rest of the workshop featured presentations from Lao NGOs, researchers and farmers’ organizations.  Tongsawan of the FAO discussed his research findings on pesticide and herbicide use in Sayaburi and Xiang Khuoang provinces.  Sayaburi is now becoming known for its corn production, which is sent to Thailand to be processed into animal feed.  Tongsawan’s research team found that paraquat, glyphosphate and atrazine were used among every villager interviewed in Sayaburi.  Many of these chemicals are also entering Laos through informal trade, as Sayaburi is just across the Mekong River from Thailand.  Further, an average of 50 thousand litres (diluted with water) was used per 15 hectares of cropland.  Below, a photo from Tongawan’s presentation – paraquat and other chemcials imported from Thailanad and sold at a Sayaburi market.

As the director of the FAO Integrated Pest Management (IPM) program, Tongsawan has developed training processes for proper use of chemicals as well as promoted ways for farmers to stop using dangerous pesticides and herbicides.  In a discussion following the workshop, he shared that once farmers in Sayaburi learn about the procedures necessary to properly use agro-chemicals, they take more interest in finding ways to stop using them.  Information can be a powerful catalyst for change.  But given the little resources that the FAO has to work with and the demand for feed corn in Thailand’s livestock industry, changing agricultural practices will be an uphill battle.

Thongdam Phongphichith of SAEDA also presented his own research findings on pesticide use from Saeng Thong, Vientiane.  Interviewing 164 farmers from 5 villages, it was found that 150 use chemical pesticides and herbicides, at an average of 26.17 kg of herbicides used per family.  53% of farmers used paraquat, while 44% used glyphosate.  Between 2007 and 2008, there was a 161% increase in use of molluscides and a 71% increase in the use of chemical fertilizers.  Though 91.5% of farmers still grew rice using local varieties, 57.9% were growing using hybrid corn varieties.

Here, too, farmers lacked information about proper protection to used while spraying, and much of the information and resources (chemicals, fertilizers) that they did access came from family or contractors across the river in Nongkhai.  112 of the families interviewed are also now in debt, and many farmers complained of skin problems, eye irritation, throat swelling, salivation, muscle pain and stomach problems (above, a photo of skin irritations on farmers’ hands from SAEDA’s research).  When Thongdam’s team interviewed one farmer with a persistent bloody nose, they asked him if he wanted to stop using chemicals.  The farmer responded simply, “no, I can’t stop using them.”  These farmers are now involved in contract farming operations, where companies sell farmers their seeds, technology and purchase their corn to produce into finished products.  Yet the risks are all placed with the producers, amounting to new debt, health and environmental problems.

Three more presentations featured the alternatives now developing for small-scale farmers in Laos.  A representative from Promotion of Organic Farming and Marketing in Lao PDR (PROFIL) spoke about their organization’s work to promote organic vegetable production (including rainy season vegetables grown until roof structures.  PROFIL’s produce is recognized as Laos Organic Certified.

Innakhone Vorachak, Co-Director of SAEDA, presented SAEDA’S Sustainable Agriculture & Market Access Development Project (SAMADP) project in Xiang Khuoang’s Pek district.  Here she xplained their local Green Market’s process of development.  After 10 months, they have held 47 markets with 942 individual consumers purchasing goods.  A total of 17,852 kg of produce has been sold, with 39 different varieties available at the market.

Lastly, PEIG presented their work to register a local rice variety called “Gai Noi” or “Little Chicken.”  This variety is unique to Xiang Khuoang and as farmers have lost many local varieties to producers in Vietnam, the farmers’ organization feels it is important to preserve and protect their own rice variety.  The group is pursuing  Geographic Indication to protect market recognition and support for farmers’ rights.  The workshop concluded with a discussion among all organizations involved to plan for next steps in Xiang Khuoang – the main question to be addressed was how should the province further develop sustainable agriculture?

For the AAN Yasothon members who attended the workshop, it was significant to see the way that the local Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry  supported NGO work for sustainable agriculture (in the photo above, Mr. Lurt, the Ministry officer working with the Xiang Khouang Green Market, guided us through the market’s produce).  Upon returning to our home community, Daoreung Phutpon and Wanna Thongnoi – who represented our network at the workshop, helped me to conclude their experiences:

The state, in the case of Xiang Khuoang, is without knowledge or skills and has sought out partners to support their on-going community-based work.  It was clear that the local ministry was open to working with SAEDA and the other organizations involved in the workshop.  State representatives were genuinely involved as partners to develop their own skills as agriculture development workers.  This is clearly a long-term process and with such a diversity of local natural resources accessible, the AAN supports a livelihood that preserves these resources and develops high-value products at the same time.  Farmers need to see the real value of natural resources in order to keep preserving them.

Development can be coupled with resource conversation, perhaps in the same way that NGO work can be coupled with the state – SAEDA continue to promote organic agriculture, the Agriculture and Forestry Ministry develops sustainable agroforestry practices and the FAO continues work on pesticide education and regulation as well as IPM promotion.  When all parties can work together for a common goal with common energy, fewer problems will occur.  The FAO research directly benefited the Xiang Khuoang government – when pesticide use is forbidden, use actually stops with education.  It seemed that the organizations involved communicated much more easily than in Esan – representatives listened to each other while exchanging information during the workshop – this hopefully will translate into more work being done in local communities.  Public campaigns and advertising will also be effective ways to spread awareness and generate public interest in the coming years

Here in Thailand, a “long-term brainwashing” has convinced government officers that NPK is the best option, but as Decha Siripat reminds us, “we typically chose what size shoes we like, but change here has meant cutting our own feet to fit one size shoe.”  Farmers in Esan and Lao have many things in common, but they should not have to bear foot pain any more – since the Green Revolution, chemicals have created serious problems for Thailand’s farmers and it seems that this process is only beginning in Laos.  The work of organizations like SAEDA will become more and more important during this transition – and our network here in Thailand is ready to continue supporting them.

Let’s support food, not more bombs!

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