6 Stories

In Our Network on 23/03/2010 at 4:16 pm

Here are some stories from CIEE students who learned with AAN-Esan in February – to see more about their experiences, please visit their blog

The Illusion of Choices

In American society, we value a multitude of choices because choices mean freedom. When we’re faced with two choices, any normal Joe would choose the one that makes them happier. Yes, there is a certain anxiety we feel when we’re presented with too many decisions like where to eat, what career to take, what song to listen to and all the other choices we make on a daily basis. But choices are often indicators of development. For example, if you have more choices to a career, your economy is healthy. If you can choose to buy a tropical fruit in the still of Vermont’s winter, trade is active and the power of your dollar goes far. Being able to choose between 40 varieties of cereals gives us the power to design our diets. However, in a capitalist society, have we come to appreciate the quantity of choices more than the quality? I especially want to explore this question in terms of our everyday consumer related decisions.

The ironic side behind the millions of consumer choices we make is that they all trickle down from a few producers. In a time of a growing organic movement and an increasing amount of organic products, we think that our money is finally going to companies outside of General Mills, Johnson & Johnson and Pepsi but they are also slowly shifting into the hands of these giants.

Large scale corporations are catching onto the organic craze. In her exposure of these corporations, Andrea Whitfill observes, “Organic farming began as a grassroots movement to produce food that was healthier and better for the land. But it is now a huge, $20 billion industry, increasingly dominated by large agribusiness companies.” Tom’s of Maine belongs to Colgate. Kashi is now owned by Kellogg’s. Pepsi bought Naked Juice in 2006 for $450 million. Burt’s Bees was bought by Clorox; the formula has remained the same yet the profits still go to Clorox. Horizon Organic milk was bought out by Dean Foods Co., the largest dairy company in the U.S. Coca Cola owns Glaceau. Glaceau in turn, is the maker of Vitamin Water, Fruit Water, Smart Water and Vitamin Energy. Kraft Foods bought the natural cereal maker Back to Nature. Kraft, by the way is a subsidiary of Altria, which also owns Philip Morris USA, one of the world’s largest producers of cigarettes. What do cigarettes and cereal have in common?

On the labels of these packages, it is rare that a consumer can find the names of these companies. It is because they don’t want their organic consumers knowing that their favorite brands are being handed over to the very companies they don’t want to buy from. Once these small organic and natural companies fall into the hands of huge businesses, it is hard for them to remain sustainable. David Korten, in his book, When Corporations Rule the World, explained how sustainable business “should be human scale — not necessarily tiny firms, but preferably not more than 500 people — always with a bias to smaller is better.” These corporations will market and sell to organic buyers the most they can. Mass production, however does not give much room for sustainability. Big companies are not only taking over the organic movement, which was fueled by people and morals who were against them, but they also play a tremendous role in government lobbying.

In Thailand, there are similar giants. The company CP is the Thai equivalent of Purdue, using Tyson style production techniques. What is scarier about CP is that they also run a seed modifying company and have businesses in cable television, internet service and convenience store super chain, 7-Eleven. The organic movement hasn’t hit Thailand yet, but CP is similar to these companies in that they can make a moral or a value into a commodity. CP has managed to make Thai food culture into a commodity, turning agriculture into a huge agribusiness and marginalizing farmers.

In a meeting on protecting the livelihoods of Thai farmers, P’Thoy explains, “Capitalism is complex because huge companies have hidden themselves under many layers and names.” We believe we have many choices because companies just want us to buy more. There is a constant feedback loop between producers and consumers, where producers respond to the needs and wants of consumers and consumers show their (dis)approval by pulling out their wallets. But producers have brainwashed consumers with methods such as marketing, lobbying, skewed research and grandiose claims. These methods have created a loophole in the feedback loop; producers are beginning to make our choices for us. We are spoon-fed choices and don’t think much of them. Instead, we just exchange our dollars, thinking that we deserve this after a hard day’s work. Beyond diet or not, chocolate or vanilla, total care or whitening, consumers need to understand further what they are choosing. Through a raised consciousness, we can reclaim our right to quality choices and our values. That is a better version of freedom.

Amy Saekow
Middlebury College

Will we meet again?

The moment I stepped back into my KKU dorm room, I was overwhelmed. I didn’t want to check my computer’s overflowing inbox, I didn’t want to see whom I could potentially catch up with on Skype, and I cringed at the thought of Facebook. I wasn’t ready to come back into the technological world yet. I looked at my bed not longingly, but rather with a yearning for the mosquito-net enclosed mat that I had finally come to find comfortable. I felt claustrophobic in my small dorm; the clutter of books, clothes, beds, desks etc. contrasted immensely with the spacious yet peaceful, near empty rooms of my host family’s home. I finally picked up my phone to call my parents, reassuring them I was home safe. I knew they would ask how my homestay went. “It was good,” was the only response I could come up with, though ‘good’ is quite possibly the worst adjective I could have used to describe my recent experience with the Yasothon farming community. My mind, however, was too busy to process any greater description.

After hanging up, I decided to sort out my feelings by expressing them through a much more detailed email to my family. I sat on my stiff-backed desk chair, missing my much-practiced cross-legged position atop the handmade sitting mats, and reintroduced myself to fast-paced technology, which I had had a reprieve from in the past week. Hungry for dinner, but too overwhelmed to search for unprocessed and organic food, I began to type while trying to push out the cravings for my Mae’s farm fresh sticky rice and stir-fried vegetables.

I had just finished my first unit of the semester on food and agriculture and my brain was clogged with new theories, practiced realities, and reaffirmed beliefs. I had come into this unit with a relatively solid academic and theoretical background on food systems and organic farming practices in the U.S., but within this unit, I was challenged with the reality of chemical and organic farming practices in the Thai context which opened up my mind to a whole new web of questions and possibilities for agriculture worldwide.

I had spent only three days in Yasothon with the Nieulai family, and I was ready to settle in with them in their humble home. My Pa was one of three wise-men of the village. After switching back to organic farming ten years ago, he saw his previous debt from chemical farming decrease and witnessed his land, now in synch with nature, come back to life. He proudly sells his rice, yard long beans, and tomatoes at the two-year old organic Green Market supported by the Alternative Agriculture Network of Thailand. The organization is currently working on creating awareness of organic farming, offering training sessions and support to farmers who make the change. The market itself has become a medium through which farmers can share farming practices, create friendships, and educate consumers and other farmers on the benefits of organic farming.

One thing that continues to baffle me about the agricultural and social systems of Thailand is the fact that farmers are not considered part of the formal labor sector. I can’t fathom how the government and society do not give the credit, support, or respect to the people who provide life’s basic necessity. Policy and ignorance have perpetuated the cycle of exploitation and repression for farmers, but those in the organic movement are fighting back. In a small exchange with my Pa and the two other wise-men, he noted how proud he was of his farm and of his community. He lives simply, but is very happy with his life and the self-sufficiency of his family and neighbors. The community works together as a family, helping each other on their farms, sharing meals, and bagging rice to sell at the market, all done with overarching love and respect for the land and one another.

The villagers in this farm community admire the vitality of their self-sustainability. Everyday, they use the skills of farming, cooking, sewing, and building, skills long forgotten in the convenience store/megamall-laden cities that crave technology and fast-food. The Yasothon farmers maintain a sense of reverence for the earth and for one another that the massive agricultural corporations have chosen to ignore. It is my hope that with the rising organic movement, small scale farming communities can reclaim their land, their livelihood, and their dignity and can be fully recognized as the vital labor sector that they are.

As I sat back into my chair, sorting through all these thoughts, I realized I missed the love and sense of community I had felt even with only a meager three days in the village. I thought back to my Pa, his face always on the verge of relinquishing a smile, but never giving away too much. “If the world is round, we will meet again,” my Pa had said with a knowing grin. It was this send off that made me sure I would come back, and once again feel the connectedness of a community working hard to nourish themselves and one another while maintaining peace with the earth.

Caitlin Gross
Occidental College

Small Changes

During my homestay with Mae Pathom Tanakhoon in Yasothon Province I began to develop an appreciation and some jealousy of Mae’s self-sufficient life. During the first couple days I noticed that she did not go to the market to get eggs or meat, rather she would go into her garden each morning and pick fresh vegetables to eat at each meal. I was in disbelief. I have never known anyone who does not buy food regularly and began wondering if this was a way of life I could accomplish. If I am not a farmer can I still live self-sufficiently? How can I be the best consumer possible? What are my practices at home and what knowledge can I bring home to change these practices? These, among many other questions were bouncing around my head all week and I began to feel hopeless. I would go from convincing myself that not all was lost, to thinking, “how could it be possible to live a self-sufficient life if I do not grow all my own food?”

Mae expressed her love of self-sufficiency to me on day two of my homestay saying, “If someone has land, why not grow their own food?” At the time this question seemed hard to answer and being a trained American consumer I immediately began thinking of justifications; some people do not have enough time, planting a garden requires too much work/maintenance, not everyone knows how to grow etc. These were all valid reasons for a mere five seconds and then they were just lazy excuses. But to Mae this was a rhetorical question. In her mind there was no reason why open land should not be dedicated to growing fruits, herbs and vegetables.

Finally, after ten days of feeling guilty about my current lifestyle and passionate about changing my tendencies, I came to both a realization and a solution. I realized that when talking about self-sufficiency and changing consumer patterns nationally or worldwide one has to be realistic. As ideal as it would be, not everyone is going to grow everything they eat and not everyone prefers vegetables or has access to organic food. However, educating people about where their food comes from and what they can do is the primary step we can take.

The solution is not to force oneself to be a farmer, but to find a balance. I arrived at the balance of growing some of my own vegetables and fruit, buy local/organic when available and eating processed food in moderation. Living in Rhode Island, an area that has hot summers and harsh winters, would still allow me to grow vegetables and fruit for at least half the year (with help from Mum and Dad). Fortunately, there are plenty of small-scale organic farms within twenty-five miles of my house with affordable prices that grow the vegetables I cannot grow at home. Finally, in regards to eating processed food, it is not going to kill me…yet. One of my favorite summer meals is a cheeseburger hot off the grill and as much as I do not agree with killing animals for human consumption I do not foresee myself giving up a cheeseburger anytime soon. In a way, just feeling guilty every time I take a bite of that burger is awareness and change in itself.

The answer is not for everyone to drastically change their eating habits or consuming patterns, but to make small daily changes that have long-term affects. According to Environmental Defense, if every American skipped one meal of chicken per week and substituted vegetarian foods instead, the carbon dioxide savings would be the same as taking more than half a million cars off of U.S. roads. See how easy it is to make a difference?

Claire Coddington
Occidental College

Fish, Rum and a Side of Oppression

“It is calmest in the eye of the storm. There, you will not see the vast and ever growing chaos of the storm but rather the tranquility of being at its center.” – P’Ubon

The smell of fish and rum fermented in the blistering heat. It was nearly 11am and the last bucket of fish was being pulled from the river to be weighed, transferred to a tank and driven to the market. Having started at 8pm the night before, the community of fish farmers were stumbling around on their last wisps of sanity. Their veins pumping with a mix of rum, rice wine and Red Bull to maintain their energy and make the all night process of harvesting the fish bearable. Drunken laughter and cheering filed the air as the farang attempted to help the fish farmers who were using a pulley to lift the last bucket of fish out of the water and up the steep hill to the scales and truck waiting at the top. When asked how much profit they were going to make from their harvest, the fish farmers just laughed. “We will find out at the market,” explained one farmer. “Most of the money we make from fishing is needed to pay off our loans. Becoming a CP fish farmer is very expensive. We will make enough to get by.” The largest meat production company in Asia, CP owns the means of production in this community as the fish farmers must pay CP for the fish food, bio-engineered fish, chemicals, nets, and incubation containers. What appears to be a day of traditional fish harvesting in a rural Thai community is actually the end of a multi-million dollar mechanized system that works to control the means of production, worker and final goods created in the fish farming process. With every fish slung into the truck bed, the reality of fish farming in Thailand came into focus. I was witnessing the harsh chaos of the storm.

I was fortunate to have been able to see this process unfold. Day to day, the river is lined with fishing nets and littered with fishermen in what appears to be a Thai community using traditional methods to farm fish. Far from the truth, large transnational corporations control much of the fish farming in Thailand as well as the agricultural production. Nearly 80% of the seeds used in Thailand today have been purchased from CP and Monsanto. For many Thai communities the control that CP and Monsanto have over the food production in the country is not apparent as they use contract farming to force farmers to buy seeds from them every season and take loans out to pay for inputs needed in industrial farming like pesticides or equipment. This has caused many farmers to go into debt as their livelihood is no longer in their own hands but those of transnational corporations. Before coming to these farming communities in northeast Thailand, I, like many Americans, was unaware of the control American companies like Monsanto and transnational companies like CP had on farmers in Thailand. But upon talking with these Thai farmers, I discovered that many Thai communities are also unaware of this reality. Together, both American and Thai consumers were blindly supporting these transnational corporations and furthering the exploitation of these Thai farmers with every purchase we made. It would appear that CP and Monsanto have been able to manipulate who is in the eye of storm. Shifting the burden of consumerism to those that are limited in their capacity to fight back, these corporations are able to continue to disillusion populations in both Thailand and in the United States.

Kayla Nolan
Occidental College

The Buffalo

Last week, I spent three days living in Yasothon Province living on a farm with a family and another CIEE student. My family consisted of my host Meh (Mother), Pa (Father), a very yippy dog, and a buffalo.

On the first morning of the homestay, I awoke at six to find that my host parents were already up and about. My Meh had already been out working in the garden and had started making breakfast; it had rained the night before, so my Pa had started out early to plow the fields with the buffalo. Having never seen an actual buffalo before, I was quite surprised to start my morning with one. The buffalo, however, seemed quite unfazed by my presence. In fact, the buffalo seemed quite unfazed by everything going on around him; we walked through the fields, and didn’t seem to mind much when he was stopped to turn, or encouraged to keep going.

After watching the buffalo a bit, we headed out to spend the rest of the day viewing the farms. We encountered some more CIEE students living nearby, and after spending the hot morning walking around in the sun, we all thought it would be great to find a place to go swimming. After multiple attempts asking our hosts where we could swim, the six of us were lead away by my host Meh towards a swimming spot. We headed back towards the house, and my Meh indicated that the small pond behind our house would be a good place to swim. We all got ourselves ready to swim, and returned to find the buffalo looking up at us, up to his neck in water, in our pond. Based on the communication with my Meh, we understood that the buffalo was swimming in that pond, and we could find another pond if we wanted to swim.

After our swim, we all returned to our respective homes. I spent the afternoon lounging around in the shade, reading and napping in the pleasant afternoon heat. The buffalo did the same. He sat next to his tree all afternoon, and occasionally wandered around to find some grass to nibble on. For the rest of the homestay, the buffalo stayed by that tree. He was there in the morning as we were preparing breakfast, and he was there in the evening as we hunted for the bathroom in the dark. Though he never acknowledged my presence, I felt comforted knowing he was there.

Upon returning to Khon Kaen, I was puzzled that this buffalo was still on my mind. The buffalo was cool, and I didn’t feel like I really needed to dwell on him. Upon thinking it through, I realized that this buffalo was much more than he appeared. The buffalo plowed the fields with the family, he lived with the family, he swam with the family, the family used his manure in their compost. There was no separation between the buffalo’s domain and the domain of the family. They lived together. This together-ness was something I had never seen; as an animal I had never had any previous experience with, I couldn’t imagine a buffalo playing an integral part in the household.

My host family lived with the land; they grew all the food they ate, they made their own compost, they barely used electricity or gas, and they lived with this buffalo. The buffalo, to me, came to represent the reciprocal relationship between my host family and the environment around them, a relationship I deeply respect and hope to one day emulate.

Maggie Pearson
Macalester College


We tend to picture a farmer as nothing more than somebody sporting a set of overalls who is surrounded by a group of fat, muddy, pigs. Farmers may wear overalls, and some do raise pigs, but their role in society is far more important than we have been led to believe. Farmers are like doctors- it is up to them to ensure the health of the ground we walk on. They must produce all the nutrients that enters our mouths, pass through our digestive systems, and sustain existence on this planet. This is a profession that requires the life-long collection of knowledge. BUT, like Rodney Dangerfield says, these days farmers “Get no respect!” In both Mexico and Thailand farmers are being evicted from their land, finding themselves in a strange new ecosystem- the city or someplace abroad.

Because farmers cannot compete with the dirt cheap prices of industrial agro-businesses and because they go into debt buying the chemical inputs necessary to produce the cash crops that our society demands, our former caretakers must surrender their soil. The soil, which was the nesting bed for the corn, which was the tortilla, the blood, the identity of Mexico, has been commandeered by an army of genetically modified seeds belonging to chemical producer turned agricultural giant, Monsanto. Where have the farmers gone? According to the documentary, Food Inc., over one million Mexican farmers now work in America, some on industrial farms or slaughterhouses under inhumane conditions and under the constant fear of deportation. In Thailand, mangos, bananas, and indigenous rice are being replaced by sugar cane, para rubber, and jasmine 105.

It is not just the knowledge of how to grow real food that is disappearing, but also another ability necessary for living. In an informal meeting with three gentlemen from an organization called “The Wisemen,” I learned about how to walk the middle way. The aging farmers said that they were content, and their effortless smiles reflected this disposition. In all seriousness, being happy where you’re at is an ability that seems to be increasingly rare. They had reached this state by seeking a balance between family and work and between the extreme ends of desire (ascetic and consumer)- simple but requires practice. Calling themselves “local capitalists,” their assets came in the form of community support, health, and reasonable profit. As Wisemen, they were responsible for disseminating local knowledge to maintain the environment, fortify the community, and incorporate fellow farmers from other villages into their network. The first pupils to receive this wisdom were their children.

As urban migration becomes the norm, both out of necessity and desire, the youth are leaving rural areas, creating family separation and weaker communities. The picture is not black and white, as some continue to cultivate land while pursuing urban labor. But, this trend begs the question: how many of us want to stay in our small towns? Well, what if there is something sweet going on their like a land reclamation project? I wonder, why might such a project be more enticing to an American studying globalization abroad, then to the average young Thai. Perhaps there is an important lesson to be learned about globalization being a means to explore the world, fulfill young rushes, and of course improve one’s condition in society. At the same time, globalization is simply a force indoctrinating young minds with these dreams which are usually more glorious as dreams, and I wonder if wise parents have the right to indoctrinate their children as well. Maybe village/ campesino1 leaders could open their own schools and educate the next generation about the value of the farmer- in a way equally enticing to the allure of the city and cheap, processed food. Thus far, parents have not been able to evolve to the point of reaching common ground with us- has there ever been a family without teenage rebellion? Even if parents do not learn, the youth, like the farmers may want to come back home… we always do.

1. One who lives in the campos of Mexico, areas heavily dependent on native corn and similar in some ways to rural villages in Thailand.

Abe Levine
Macalester College

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