Welcome to JP Melville's review, experience, and statement on foreign aid and the international development industry. A conservative faith in family. A love affair riding the riotous tensions between money, personal freedom, the majestic travesty of our specie's ecological footprint, and economic politics. Selected writing of both prose and poetry, anecdotal travel log to rhetorical essay, dating back from the 1980's to the present. Enjoy!

Friday, 23 November 2012

Nai Onsi - The Climate Change Apocolypse and a Farmer from Khoo Khad Village, Thailand

 After a while the ideas get very confused.  You go to a developing country as an agricultural development worker thinking you are going to help farmers.  So many ideas that you have.
But when you arrive, nothing is the same.  The weather is not the same.  The soil is not the same.  The crops are not the same.  The economy is not the same.  And the culture is not the same.  More than anything, the fact that the culture is different, that the people's way of life is different, this puts your ideas on hold.  Before anything you have to learn to see with a new pair of eyes.
I gained my farming experience on a dairy goat farm near Guelph, Ontario, Canada.  I had been a member of an ecological farmer's association for about four years and a member of a national organic gardening organization.  For a time I hung about with a rural learning group.  I helped a bit with instituting a chapter of an international organic crop improvement association.  All these community oriented, organic, biodynamic, rural and alternative economic ideas floating around in my head were then spurred to furious heights by studying international development at university.
But what would any of this mean to small farmers turning over the dirt and scattered all over the world in countries on the periphery of the global scene?  Probably very little, at least in technological and biological terms.  This should come as no surprise.  In Canada, no farm environment or farm system is really the same.  The context around the world is completely different.  But what of the principles of organic farming?  Perhaps the principles would apply in other countries?  Perhaps they would not?  The following story, sketched as I understood it, is that of a man I met, his family, his neighbours, and the land he had worked his entire life.

Nai Onsi lived in Khoo Khad Village in Northeastern Thailand.  Khoo Khad village had a population of more than two hundred families.  Few people considered the number of individuals in the village as an important figure.  The village was about fifteen minutes off the main highway.  The dusty road to the village was built around 1970.  Nai Onsi felt that the road had been a good thing.  Access to the market in the nearby town made it possible to both sell his crops and buy factory made pails, rope, clothing, tv's, and soap etc.  The road also brought the government, electricity, and the industrial world.  He had built his new house three years earlier.  It had cement posts instead of wooden poles, a tin roof instead of thatch, two separate rooms upstairs, a storage room downstairs, and a cooking area.  This was one of the nicer houses in Khoo Khad.  Not much for privacy.  But then who in Khoo Khad was interested in privacy?
People worked together, ate together, slept together, did everything together.  There was a general rule that men and women's functions were separated - even eating separately - but in practice this did not always hold true; when there was work to be done, especially in the paddy, there was work to be done; women could plow and men could cook.  November and December were allocated for the rice harvest.  Virtually everybody was in the paddies.  Nai Onsi, his brother, his wife, his son, and one of the younger children (school closed for the rice harvest) worked together.  One of his daughters worked with a crew of young people who shift from farm to farm, a sort of community self-help labour redistribution and courting process.
Harvesting was done by hand with one tool, a sickle.  Sheaves of grain were bound together by a thin strip of bamboo.  Separation of the grain from the straw was done by hand also; a sheaf of grain was quickly bound into a rope tied to the ends of two sticks and swung against a board.  Rice for the family and a portion for the village Buddhist monks were stored in a shed by the house.  This rice was a glutinous variety, indigenous and well adapted to the environment - not a high yielder, but stable; it sticks together when cooked and is eaten in the palm of the hand.  Conventional rice was grown for sale and/or used for payment of debts to the local moneylender.  Milling was done at the local mill (made in Japan) and the bran was given to the miller - no one ate whole grain rice.
Nai Onsi had about six hectares of rice paddy and six hectares of upland.  This was usually tilled with any of his three buffalo.  They pulled a single small, six to eight inch ploughshare.  Sometimes he rented a walking tractor.  The buffalo also produced manure, of course, which was very important because the sandy, acid, and saline soil had a low inherent fertility.  The animals also processed the rice stubble and straw.  These somewhat nutrition-free foodstuffs comprised the gross portion of their diet, given that after rice planting and the planting of necessary cash crops on the upland, little land remained for grass or forage production.
Nai Onsi's farm system was, however, even more complex than this.  Small ponds had been dug in some of the paddies.  Fish fingerlings were raised in these and in the rainy season the fish were released to flooded rice paddies.  The fish fed on rice plant pests and fertilized the water at the same time.  Nai Onsi did not use biocides on the rice because they killed the fish, the main protein component of the family diet.  The biocides would also kill the many kinds of edible insects living in and around the paddy.  Synthetic fertilizers were too expensive to buy in adequate supply to profitably invest in the farm system.  Besides, such quantities of fertilizer were also not good for the fish.  Vegetables were grown in small patches close to the hand dug well for easy watering.  The vegetables were fertilized with manure and rice hulls.  Bamboo shoots, some bush and tree leaves, and chillies were eaten.  About thirty chickens scratched around the house cleaning up litter.  During the rice harvest they ranged in the paddy picking up any loose seeds that had fallen from handling.  A sow was raised and bred to have her litter when the rice harvest was underway - bran was cheapest at that time of year and the sow needed the extra feed to raise her piglets.
In essence, Nai Onsi's farm was self-sufficient and natural, though perhaps more by default than by intent.  Nai Onsi would have liked to buy a walking tractor for himself and to increase crop production of his limited land base, perhaps with synthetic inputs, if he could have afforded them.  His decisions, nonetheless, were rational, based on his needs, conditions, and opportunities.

This snapshot of Nai Onsi’s farm by no means implied that his situation static.  Although traditional in many respects, the farm had experienced many changes since he and his ancestors first began farming.  Rice has been exported out of Thailand since the mid-19th century.  Peasant farmers were, in this sense and in living memory, always linked to commercial production.  Since the 1960's, roads built into the Northeast accelerated the rate of export remarkably.  Thailand competes with the United States in terms of rice export.
Increased production in Thailand, however, had been largely due to putting the plough to virgin soils, not through per unit area increases.  Consequently, much less than twenty percent of the original forests remain.  Rice is planted anywhere it is possible to flood the soil.  Non-traditional crops (maize, cassava, kenaf) are planted on the uplands.  More than ninety percent of the farming in the Northeast is dependent entirely on rainfall, which is high in volume (around 1400mm/annum) but restricted to June through October with the majority falling in August.  Precipitation is sporadic and often there is drought.  The sandy soils also erode easily and on the uplands the erosion problem is severe.  To make matters worse, the near elimination of forest cover has increased temperatures by three to four degrees so that daytime temperatures above 40 degrees Celsius are now common.  These high temperatures have degraded organic matter in the soil.
A persistent trend in the weakening of real value in cash crop prices from the mid-1970's had affected Nai Onsi's family and farm.  When the road first came to Khoo Khad village he could buy the manufactured clothes and pails with his then strictly traditional farm output.  With some optimism, he had expanded his rice paddy even into marginal areas and begun to grow cash crops on the upland (first cutting down the forest).  He had done this to earn more cash to support a surprisingly healthy and large family (introduction of modern medicines) and to continue paying for the manufactured goods, on which the family had come to depend.  The natural environment that had once supplied medicines, clothing, protein, building materials, even forage for the buffalo had largely disappeared.  Four of Nai Onsi's children had already gone to Bangkok, the terminus of Thailand's economy, to support the increasing cash needs of the family farm.  And to fend for themselves.  A fifth was planning the same move.
As of 1990, Thailand's export economy experienced a rapid growth rate of ten percent in GNP.  Exports were chiefly of manufactured goods.  Agricultural exports constituted about fifteen percent of total export value.  The export of manufactured goods had its competitive edge based on two critical factors: 1) cheap labour migrating from the countryside and 2) cheap agricultural products.  Cheap labour, because oversized families increasingly dependent on the cash economy have had little alternative but to send their children into the industrial labour force at whatever wages were paid.  Cheap agricultural products, because, in what was still characteristically a subsistent agricultural economy of segregate and independent villages, there was neither the absolute need for better cash returns nor the collective power to change anything.
Today, no more land exists into which food production can be expanded, to feed an increasing population or to increase supplies to the agricultural export sector.  Migration to Bangkok continues and labour shortages occur in rural areas.  The response to labour shortages by farmers appears to be increased mechanization (increased dependence on fossil fuels).  The response to the need for increased agricultural production per unit area is, for the most part, to increase the use of synthetic chemicals, hybrid high yielding seed, and commoditization of all on-farm activities.

Nai Onsi has been farming in the midst of a widespread phenomena of socio-economic change.  The fundamental basis of his subsistence system was translating to a production system.  Because he did not have the capital to buy more land it was probable that he would have to intensify production.  Other farmers have had the capital to buy land from farmers who have had to sell.  Likewise, companies increase their own holdings of land,  buying from farmers who choose to or must sell.  Companies also make arrangements in some areas to supply all the inputs for specific crops to farmers and agreed to buy the crops from the farmers (contract farming).
Of course, there are folks who wish to reverse, stall, or redirect these trends.  Non-government organizations and some government institutions try to re-establish the independence of the small farmer.  Activities range from farmer initiated, cooperative, animal and rice banks, to weaving, to integrated and diversified farming projects, to village industry marketing programs, to appropriate technology.  Some of these activities engage high paid foreign consultants.  Some engage international volunteers.  They have worked with leguminous alley cropping systems that can significantly reduce erosion.  Others research green manures and nitrogen fixing crops.  Some work with integrated farm systems.
Nai Onsi himself felt that he had benefitted from these investments, especially where they introduced leguminous trees and rice-fish culture on his farm.  In many respects, these relationships with previous experts paved the way for my introduction of goats.  Both Nai Onsi and his wife were interested in the idea of diversifying their livestock without any significant changes in how they operated their farm.  Although neither of them had ever seen goats or eaten goat meat or milk, they were willing to experiment.
How would this small livestock project evolve?  Would it be accepted?  Would it benefit Nai Onsi?  I did not know.  What I did know was that my experience was with hundreds of goats, not three.  I came from a farm with a highly mechanized milking parlour where twelve goats were milked at once, not one beneath the house.  I knew how to operate a combine and harvesting in ten minutes the amount of grain which four or five people in Khoo Khad harvested in a day.  I purchased imported sisal in the store for mechanically binding hay bales, whereas with his own hands Nai Onsi made from bamboo which grew on his own land, a thin strip for hand binding sheaves of rice.
No question that Nai Onsi was the expert.  Far more than I, he knew what the machinations of the modern world had done to his farm and family.  Sure, some of this change he felt was good.  Some probably not so good.  And some about which there was little he could do.
What I did know, was that with his calloused feet and hands, his weathered face, and his patience he lived closer to the land than I have ever even dreamed of knowing.
In our apocalyptic world of climate change, is it not Nai Onsi’s relationship with his land of critical importance?  What tractors and accounts and chemistry have turned so many of us so very far away from?
I do not really know.
It is just this feeling that I have.

No comments:

Post a Comment