เครือข่ายเกษตรกรรมทางเลือกภาคอีสาน

ชมรมคนสร้างฝัน AAN Camp

In Youth Activities on 06/04/2010 at 4:19 pm

It’s summer vacation here in northeastern Thailand.  March and April, the two hottest months of the year, bring students home to, as they often say, “eat, play and sleep.”  But for student-activist groups, this is the time of the year to learn outside of the classroom, from villagers engaged with social and environmental movements.  Students often spend a week with villagers helping to build community halls, libraries or other needed structures, learning about the villagers’ struggles with dams, mines or environmental injustice, and reflecting on their student group’s learning process and planning out next steps for the group’s activities.

The middle of March brought students to Ban Non Yang, Kudchum district, Yasothon province to learn from our Local Wiseman’s Center about sustainable agriculture and community development.  The student club, called ชมรมคนสร้างฝัน or “Dreambuilders,” came from Mahasarakam University and learned about the AAN through Udee or Ittipol Seekhao, who is the club’s mentor and currently one of the AAN staff working on youth and agriculture.  Udee has worked hard to generate an interest in food and agriculture among the club members, many of whom come from farming families, but have very little experience farming (most Esan youth are discouraged by their parents to work in the fields).

The students came to learn about a number of interesting topics, but their focus was to learn more about the food system and build skills to think more critically about where their food comes from as well as to be able to grow more of their own food.  The students spent 5 days in the community – the first two days were focused on learning about the food system, and the second two days were focused on learning more about sustainable agriculture and developing new skills.  The last day held a fun sports competition for youth in the village.  Other highlights included an impromptu aerobics class led by Bong, a recent Public Health graduate, nightly sing-a-longs and lots of games to get everyone energized.  The singing and games are pretty standard for student camps like this – the students also prepared a book of chords and lyrics for their club’s songs and write each other notes on the books throughout the camp.

An early Saturday morning was spent at the Yasothon Green Market – students gathered information about the quality, price and “Food Way” (location planted, distance traveled) regarding items in the market.  They also bought fruits, vegetables and a local bird to make meals for the rest of the day.  The highlight of the market, however, had to be the concert performed by the students in front of the market.  Some consumers joined in and danced along while others were confused by all the noise at such an early hour.

We returned back to Ban Non Yang to conclude their experiences from that morning at the Yasothon Green Market:

–       They were glad to be able to exchange with the market vendors, who are also the producers themselves – they are able to explain their techniques and this helps raise consumers’ confidence

–       Market standards also helped boost confidence, as shown by information about IFOAM annual inspections

–       Students also felt that the market space was not entirely suitable to the market, nor very accessible or very clean

–       The concept of seasonal vegetables was made very clear – as shown by the diversity of indigenous plants for sale, that are easy to grow in the fields or forest.  Seasonal vegetables also made clear the market’s focus on quality over quantity, as seasonal, indigenous foods are high in nutrients and are the freshest plants available

–       A range of seeds on sale at the market also showed how farmers were self-reliant in terms of essential inputs

On Sunday the students went to the Kudchum district market to gather the same information as at the Yasothon Green Market.  Their experience was almost entirely different – vendors would answer their questions by saying “are you actually going to buy something?” and when they did answer questions, they were unclear and vague.  None of the vendors were the producers themselves, so they could only accurately tell the students from what market the vegetables or meats came from or the general area they were planted.  The students left Kudchum feeling frustrated and unsure about food safety at the district market, and when we returned to Ban Non Yang we reviewed the experience:

–       The students found the organic vegetables to look equally as attractive as conventional ones, especially the Chinese cabbage that was for sale by one of our members (yet they were still skeptical that she could be able to grow the cabbage, because it is known to be difficult to grow without pesticides – but we’ve followed up with her and seen her organic techniques, which takes a lot of time and effort).

–       Vendors who knew some information about the vegetables’ “Food Ways” explained to students that chemical pesticides and chemical fertilizers were used

–       Much of the Green Market’s produce was cheaper or equal in price to the conventional market and in many cases, vegetables were in larger quantities at lower prices – without middlemen there is no reason for increases in the price, so Green Market vendors simply set their prices at what they deem fair to the consumer.

Paw Anon Neulai also sat down with the students to talk more about the meaning of the Green Market and the importance for consumers to eat seasonally and directly support small producers.  Before the students came to the village, they had bought 10 kg bags of cauliflower, Chinese cabbage and yard-long beans from the district, all of which are sprayed with chemical pesticides and are fed chemical fertilizers.  But now that they had accessed more information about their production, they were scared to eat them.  We passed examples around the group and tried to talk about these foods.  Why do we enjoy eating them?  The cabbage is crisp; the cauliflower is fragrant and sweet.  Can they be safely grown here during the dry season?  Yes, but in integrated systems and lots of organic biojuice.  Most Chinese cabbage comes from northern Thailand or Laos, where excessive chemical use is becoming standard.  Do we need to have MSG in our food?  Yes, if we don’t, it won’t taste delicious.  Can we change our eating preferences?  Yes, but we feel like we don’t have an alternative on our campus or in the city.

In reality, people in Esan still do have an alternative and it doesn’t have to be only at the Green Market.  It just takes persistence and a willingness to change the way we eat.  When we go to the market, we need to ask the vendors for information and support those vendors who answer questions honestly and fairly.  We need to seek out fresh markets and do some of our own cooking instead of buying everything in plastic bags or at “fast food” one plate-style rice shops.  We need to pay attention to the seasons, know what things taste good at different times of the year and learn from the older generations how to cook them.  These things can be easily done, and it’s simply up to us to decide.

Later that day, Mae Bunmee and Mae Sawn, committee members from the Bia Kudchum community currency group, came to speak with the students.  Beginning in the year 2000, members of the Love Nature Club sought to find a way to support more food production in the local community by using an alternative currency, a medium of exchange.  From March 29 to April 19, 2000, villagers used the Bia (Thai for a seedling or sprout) at community level markets when buying locally produced and grown goods.  For example, if a bunch of bananas cost 10 baht, villagers could pay for them with 5 baht and 5 Bia, after which the 5 baht could be saved and the Bia exchanged forward for other goods.  The project was well received by community members, but it lasted only a few weeks, after news misreported that the Bia was being used in 5 districts of Yasothon province (in reality, only 5 villages inside of Kudchum district).  The government forced the project to a halt, and villagers responded by taking a human rights case to the National Human Rights Commission, which still left the situation in dispute.

In 2002-2003, the currency resurfaced as part of a research project supported by Dr. Apichai in Chiang Mai.  The community changed their language, instead of referring to the place they stored the Bia as a bank, it was called a “Community Development for Self-Reliance Group” and changed the name to “Bun” (Thai for merit) and covered up the word “Bia” on the bills.  After one year of use, things improved in the communities using the Bun, with villagers growing more of their own food and using the currency to exchange for rice germ and husks at the community mill.  Today, the currency has a limited circulation, but it continues to remind people about the importance of self-reliance.

In the students’ own pursuit of self-reliance, they spent Monday and Tuesday learning with Ban Non Yang’s Local Wiseman’s Center, learning about how to make organic compost, preserve indigenous rice seeds, grow integrated fruits and vegetables, raise frogs and grow mushrooms.  The students really enjoyed getting their hands dirty and learning new techniques to be used on the piece of land they plan to develop into an “alternative school” for university students to learn about life skills or other things that interest them.  The 2-rai piece of land is only a few kilometers from campus, and while the surrounding paddies are quickly being developed into college dorms and “resorts,” the students hope to preserve their little “utopia” and learn together with local villagers and farmers.

By the end of March, the “Dreambuilders” club was out on their piece of land, building an earthen bathroom, small farmhouse and growing mushrooms with students from the CIEE Khon Kaen study abroad program.  Together, after a day of hard work on the earthern bathroom, the students harvested and caught their own food from the nearby ponds and forest.  The food was even prepared without MSG!

Together, this student club, along with CIEE Khon Kaen, groups in Roi Et, Ubon Ratchatani, Khon Kaen, Loei and Bangkok will join together next mo nth for a workshop focusing on developing students’ skills as human rights supporters and protectors.  More media and public awareness is needed about the problems facing communities throughout Esan and these students and young NGOs have realized that they need to be the ones out in the field and behind the lens to broadcast information.

In a rapidly changing society with a lot of pressure on students to get high paying jobs and move away from their rural roots, student groups like this one are going against the tide.  It’s a small, but important step in changing their local communities for the better, or at least getting their classmates to re-evaluate their consumption and general way of life.  Why should we ignore what the older generation has to teach us?  Why should we rush to make money and sit in an office?  A small group of young people in Esan are re-evaluating this kind of career path, taking interest in rural communities struggling for a better society and making real changes in their own lives.  The AAN stands in support of this student movement and will continue to support it as it grows.



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