Thailand's Other Protests: Pro-Sustainable Food

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Jarrett Wrisley


To view a slide show of images from Jarrett's trip to visit the organic farmers of Ubon Ratchathani, click here.

In a remote Thai village, a 24-year-old New Jersey man named Bennett Haynes farms rice and vegetables. But Haynes also plays a more sinister role: in a recent farming folk opera about rice, he's been cast by villagers in the part of sticky rice #6. This type of rice is an "improved" variety—a commodity crop sold by seed companies—that has supplanted local varieties.

In the opera, Haynes's evil character wanders the countryside, stealing the hardy brown and black grains sown for centuries and infecting the paddies with his own seed. Sticky rice #6 is white, and so is Bennett, which makes the audience chuckle.

It is difficult to downplay the significance of this crop in this part of Southeast Asia. Sticky rice is the staple of the Isaan and Lao diet. It is eaten at every single meal, plucked from rattan baskets and rolled into dense balls between fingertips. The rice then becomes utensil—used to soak up simple curries, spicy dips, or sour salads of herbs and chewy meat. But some argue against the industrialized model that produces this staple crop. Many farmers here are in debt. Alcoholism is rampant, as farmers become idle during the dry season. And the region's political discontent has raged all the way down to Bangkok. Upcountry Thai farmers are not faring well.

Which brings us back to the rice opera of Nong Yang. The opera celebrates 39 kinds of rice that a close-knit farming collective is trying to reintroduce. The organic farmers of Nong Yang think their system is broken, and they are diligently trying to fix it by promoting traditional farming methods through education and community outreach.

After visiting the Alternative Agriculture Network's website, I became increasingly curious about the nascent organic movement in Thailand's northeast. That website led me to Haynes, who spoke of a growing community of certified organic farmers he works with. Farmers who set up their own weekly "green markets" in rural towns. Farmers who do their own seed research, raise their own livestock, and release catfish and frogs into flooded rice paddies, where aquaculture flourishes in the absence of pesticides.

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Jarrett Wrisley

So I flew to Ubon Ratchathani, rented a motorcycle, and rode about 100 miles through parchment-colored rice paddies at the end of a bitter dry season. Temperatures hovered around 100, and meaningful rain hadn't fallen in months. I went to see Haynes's operation, so I can secure his organic rice for a restaurant I will open later this year in Bangkok. And it was an eye-opening experience.

Most people purchase organics for health reasons, but there's another compelling reason to go green in this part of the world: it can better the lives of impoverished farmers. In the Isaan region, many farmers have become accustomed to the sedentary lifestyle that mono-crop agriculture affords, and many are deep in debt. That's because rice prices fluctuate violently, and each growing season they must invest in new seeds, new sprays, and new fertilizers—at a cost that can outstrip their skinny margins. At the end of the growing season they sell their rice at the commodity price, and during the growing season many don't produce any other food to feed their families. "It's not a nice thing to say, but industrial farming has made Thai rice farmers lazy," Haynes explained.

The evidence is convincing: on one side of a field I walk though, rice plots lay barren, beige straw hugging parched earth. But just over a high berm—organic farmers are reintroducing large berms between paddies on which to grow other things, and to keep out chemicals—there are mango trees starting to fruit. At another farm, bananas, eggplants, galangal, and chilies spring up on shaggy rises, even in desert conditions. Other farmers grow long beans, which fix nitrogen in the soil, and raise mushrooms in old mango stumps plugged with spores. Weeds are allowed to flourish in fallow ground, as they too improve the soil. And cashew trees will soon bear fruit.

"Farmers in Isaan are encountering a troubling cycle of investment and debt," said Haynes, who lives a spartan life here (he's moving back to the U.S. this month). "What our organization does is to try to teach them to diversify their crops, to work the land, and to think like clever farmers again. And it works: if AAN (Alternative Agriculture Network) can convince them to lose yields for two to three years while their land recovers from chemical shocks, their yields generally exceed what they were growing before. And our rice is fair trade and certified organic, so it's worth more. Farmers can also raise fish and frogs in the paddies ... These farmers have all the food they need, and some to sell on the side."

He's right. I spent a day walking through the fields, nibbling on sweet long beans, chewing on cucumbers that tasted of rosemary and mint, and gobbling sour mangoes. I met a farmer who had returned from his engineering job in Bangkok to farm dragon fruit, and another who does extensive seed research, his teakwood house serving as laboratory. These men have classrooms set up by AAN at the fringe of their fields, and are actively recruiting and teaching more people to return to traditional agriculture.

That last farmer, a professorial farmer named Du Lang, led me through his fields explaining the science of "country genetics" in between talking to insects. "This one hides from me because he's knows he's doing something wrong!" he said, pointing at a large beetle. "You must be careful—if he pees in your eye you'll go blind." On a wooden table he had arranged several hundred cucumbers filed by taste, resistance to insects, color, and size. They will rot, and then he will collect their seeds, dry them, and plant the best ones the following year.

Du Lang also showed me clippings from a staggering 170 varieties of rice he grows—sticky and long grain, short and stout and white and black and red—and explained his mission to reintroduce types of rice that farmers have given up on here. "We need to use what the earth gave us, rather than what big agriculture is selling us," he explained. "The earth knows better than we do."

At the end of a long day, talk turned to politics, as it inevitably does in Thailand. The Red Shirt movement's leaders have finessed discontent in this part of Thailand into political support, and many of their supporters are from villages like this one. "People are failing to recognize the connection between rural and urban Thailand," said Haynes, as we ate a dinner of chewy free-range chicken, green jackfruit salad, and sticky rice. "The Thai countryside and Bangkok are more closely connected than people think. These farmers, they have Internet, they have access to information, and they expect more than before. They have friends and kids there. They understand the divide."

Then another farmer called Paw Bunsong spoke up. Bunsong is a former Communist who rebelled against the Thai government after the Massacre of 1976. As he spoke, we listened intently. "People have grown unhappy with their situation, and they would rather be a part of a political party, they would rather fight against the government and consider how politicians can change their situation rather than doing it on their own. There is a political problem in Thailand, a serious representation problem, but there is another, immediate problem that comes from our misuse of the land."

Then Bunsong took a sip of his beer and walked off into the darkness. He looked tired. Bunsong and the rest of this group of farmers have picked their own fight, and it takes place every morning starting at 4:30 a.m., in the fields surrounding a village called Nong Yang.

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Jarrett Wrisley hails from Allentown, Pennsylvania. For the past seven years, he's been working as a writer in Asia, though he still dreams of greasy cheese steaks. More

Jarrett Wrisley hails from Allentown, Pennsylvania. For the past seven years, he's been working as a writer in Asia, though he still dreams of (and occasionally returns for) greasy cheese steaks. Jarrett's first trip to Asia came as a college student, when he traveled to Beijing to study Mandarin Chinese. He returned to China after graduation, and began writing about Chinese food in Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan Province. After a six-month stint in Chengdu, he moved on to Shanghai, where he worked as a food critic and magazine editor for four years before striking out on his own. After six years in China, he recently moved to Bangkok, where yellow-clad protesters immediately shut down the airport where he had just landed. Luckily for him, he couldn't leave—and now intends to stay. Jarrett is presently working on a series of modern Chinese cookbooks with Hong Kong chef Jereme Leung and writing features that focus on food and culture in Asia. He'll be bouncing around the region as much as possible and writing about things he encounters along the way. His blog trains an eye on food but addresses other cultural phenomena, tidbits of travel, and the oddball politics of East Asia.
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