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AAN Yasothon Profile: Anon Nieulai

Anon Nieulai, Ban Non Yang, Kudchum district, Yasothon Province

Anon

Maina Handimaker – Bowdoin College (mhandmak@bowdoin.edu)

Anon Nieulai was introduced to me as a wise man of his village.  Under a sky of stars that made it feel much later than 7:30, he walked me to his house.  Bundles of garlic knotted by their tops of dried grass hung along the walls, and P’Anon’s wife Boon Le pounded the smell of spices into the room with a mortar and pestle.  A helpless flopping sound came from a bucket of freshly caught fish in the corner.  Under one fluorescent light and its accompanying swarm of bugs, we ate roasted peanuts and sticky rice, eggs from P’Anon’s chickens, purple cabbage, thick carrots, and peppers picked from in front of the house.

P’Anon started farming organically eight years ago, and he is proud to share what he grows and eats.  He has grown to understand connections: between people and the land, between our health and the environment’s, between farmers and consumers, and between the villagers in his community – the ones before him, his neighbors, and the ones that will live there after him.  A wise man, to him, is someone who has “learned from their ancestors and continues learning,” and knows that those teachings are meant to be passed on to new people.

When the fish in his ponds and the frogs in his rice paddies were dying, people in his village were getting sick, and each year the crop demanded more chemicals than the year before, P’Anon realized something was wrong with the way his community was growing food.  “Our ancestors didn’t have any chemicals, and the soil was good and they had rice to eat,” P’Anon said, casually explaining the epiphany that changed the way he farms.

P’Anon grows 130 varieties of rice, vegetables, fruits, herbs, and trees. Still, while his rice is growing, he hasn’t had any surplus to sell. He is working now on a new piece of land, terracing it and preparing the soil to grow vegetables so he will once again have enough produce to sell at the green market. As a market organizer, he knows he needs to set the example he is trying to teach farmers to follow.  To be able to set that example, though, he needs help bringing water to his new land.  He learned about an Oxfam-supported GreenNet project for climate change adaptation initiatives that is partly working to develop local water systems for farmers like him.  He has applied to bring electricity to his village’s farms, so he can dig small-scale wells for water during drought and not have to run the pump with diesel.  To get one of GreenNet’s pumps, he has started working for Thailand’s Land Reform Project.  The program gives previously owned land to farmers on the condition that they begin to farm it organically, and P’Anon is helping them by teaching farmers how to make that switch.

On the night that I met him, P’Anon had spent the day teaching farmers in the program about saving their seeds, which he believes is some of the most important knowledge he can pass on to recent organic-converts.  Ownership of your seeds protects your crop’s genetic integrity, preserves generations of careful breeding, and saves money that would otherwise be spent on genetically-modified seeds and their necessary chemical inputs.

In P’Anon’s mind, farmers should also take ownership of their responsibility to the people they feed.  “It isn’t right to grow food that isn’t safe for consumers to eat,” he says.  And it isn’t right to farm in a way that jeopardizes future generations from reaping anything from the land.  “When it comes to the future, the next generation, we really want them to eat safe food.”  If he can show farmers what it means to grow and sell safe food now, he is planting those values for the farmers that will come after him, which also means replenishing the soil and keeping the land healthy.  Through the rice cooperative that ensures he gets a fair price for his rice and the green market where he can meet his customers, P’Anon is developing direct connections with consumers that can hold him and his fellow farmers accountable to their promise to grow food that is safe to eat.

Whether they’re consumers in Bangkok or at Yasothorn’s green market, P’Anon considers growing food for them a matter of respect.  “I want to teach that it’s about self-reliance,” he says about using his role as wise man.  To him, organic farming must embody this idea of respect, because by self-reliance, he means village security – he wants to ensure food sovereignty for his whole community.

In his small village in Isaan, Anon Nieulai farms not only to eat, but to teach.  With respect for the land, for the wisdom of his ancestors, for his fellow growers and eaters, and for those that will come after him, he is farming organically to set the example he wants others to follow.

Kate Voss – Georgetown University (katalynvoss@gmail.com)

Anon Nieulai is the community wiseman of a self-sustaining, organic farming community in the Yasothon province of Northeast Thailand.  His mind holds the wisdom of his ancestors.  Knowledge of sustainable agriculture, traditional farming methods, environmental signals and creative solutions has been lost in the past decade.  Following the Green Revolution, the switch to chemical farming resulted in a transition of farming practices in Northeast Thailand.  Fertilizers, pesticides and genetically modified seeds spread into the farming communities.  Historical methods of farming, which had been successful for thousands of years, and the knowledge of how to cultivate such farms, disappeared.

Anon Nieulai is one of the few who remembers the past.  The transition to chemical farming resulted in many negative effects on the community that were not previously observed.  Fish in the rice paddies died.  Frog populations, an indicator species for the environmental health of the region, declined as well.  Water could not be used because it was contaminated from pesticides.  People in the village faced new health problems such as cancer, ulcers and diabetes.  Anon realized that his “ancestors didn’t have pesticides or chemicals, but the rice was good, the land was good”.  It was the introduction of chemicals and pesticides that marked the dramatic shift in the wellbeing of the community and the environment.

So why not return to the traditional way of farming?  Back to the time when the fields were healthy, the land was stable, the food was safe, and the people were content?  With the knowledge of his ancestors, Anon was able to act as a catalyst for the switch back to organic farming.  In 2001, he began his transition.  Rather than fertilizer, Anon uses compost made from cow, buffalo, and chicken manure, rice husks, and rice bran.  Beans work as a nitrogen fixing agent and replenish the soil.  By rejecting the high-yield and monocrop tenets of the Green Revolution, a sustainable and diverse production system was developed.  Since the switch back to organic farming, Anon has worked to return his farm to its original condition and to reintroduce indigenous plant species.  He now has over 130 different varieties of trees, vegetables, fruits and other plants on his farm- a feat that triumphs any chemical-based, monoculture farm.

Despite the personal success on his farm, Anon’s attempts to convince the rest of the community to switch to organic were, and still are, a challenge.  There is a psychology implicit in the minds of farmers that must be defeated.  As Anon explains, “with organic farming, there is a lower yield, especially in the first few years, but, the production costs are lower because you don’t have to pay for chemicals, so you come out even”.  It is the lower yield, the prize for quantity rather than quality that is so difficult to overcome.  Unless all farmers switch to chemical-free methods, Anon Nieulai’s farm will be affected by the practices of surrounding farms.  For example, Furadan, a powerful and readily available chemical, has had a severe impact on the water quality of the area.  Water is an interconnected system.  It is difficult to contain, and contaminants can easily spread.  Anon’s community has strived to raise awareness about the negative effects of chemical farming to neighbors.  Education and knowledge, they believe, is essential. As a wiseman, Anon has the potential and the power to act as a the spark for positive change.

Anon Nieulai is a visionary.  Besides working to resolve the negative impacts from the last major shift in Thai agriculture, the Green Revolution, he is looking to the future in an attempt to avert the next major disaster: climate change.  He has already seen some of the predicted consequences.  Variability of rain patterns has increased, and severe weather events are becoming more unpredictable.  These changes alone have the potential to harm the livelihoods of the farming community.  Access to water, especially rainwater, is a controlling factor in the overall success of a harvest.  In the past, farmers have built small ponds to provide water for their farms, but this strategy is difficult as well as time, labor and cost intensive.  It is not the best solution.  In an effort to develop a stable and dependable water supply for the future, Anon has tapped into local resources.  A grant with Oxfam, provided through a local NGO, GreenNet, will supply funding for a groundwater pump.  Anon hopes to use a pump to test the feasibility of groundwater as a future water source for the region.  Adaptation, in the opinion of Anon Nieulai, should be the focus for the future because, he explains, “the global society will continue to exploit resources- people aren’t stopping and won’t stop any time soon”.  Communities need to prepare for the worst because climate change, along with all of its negative impacts, is inevitable.

Looking to the future, Anon Nieulai hopes to achieve more than a community-wide transition to sustainable, organic farming and a successful management strategy to handle the impacts of climate change.  His main goal is to spread his wisdom and instill his values into the core processes and beliefs of the community.  Anon aspires to ensure the rights of the farmer, to create self-reliance at the individual, community and national level, and to promote a spirit of a common humanity.  In an attempt to ensure the rights of the farmer, Anon posits that the first step is to save seeds in order to own the genetic diversity of a crop.  In the transition to chemical-based monocultures, many farmers sold or destroyed the genetic variety of their farms.  In effect, these farmers lost a property right as well as the cultural heritage implicit in the preservation of indigenous varieties of plants.  The second precept which Anon supports is that of self-reliance.  The village in which he lives is the perfect example of a community that can sustain itself without becoming dependent on outside sources.  All of the food and water consumed within the village is provided for by the individual farms.  Before a farmer sells his produce, he must first ensure that his family and community have a sufficient livelihood.  This value encourages a sense of community as well as respect for the land, water and overall environment.  Self-reliance can be esteemed not only for a local community, but also as national and international ideals.  Appreciation for the well-being of both people and the environment encourages awareness and support of sustainable practices.  Finally, Anon promotes the ideology of a shared humanity.  He sees all people as being interconnected with each other and with the environment in which they live.  This mindset cultivates compassion.  It is from this emotion that Anon Nieulai believes change can occur.  Chemical farming harms the producer, the consumer and the environment.  By viewing the impacts with a sense of empathy, it becomes clear that a transition to organic, chemical-free farming is the only sustainable and moral choice to truly benefit society.

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