Report by: Phatchara Kamchamnarn
Photo by: Methavajee Sarakune
Translated by Pantharee Sujitvarong
‘A Strong community’ can be a perfect word to describe the way people live in Ban Yang Daeng, Sanam Chai Khet district in Chachoengsao province. With the sufficient amount of agricultural product not only for internal consumption demand, but also for sale, people in this community can earn enough income to nurture their families. Under the concept of community participation, organic farming of Sanam Chai Khet has continued till now.
Nantawan Harndee is a coordinator of the Organic Farming Network of Sanam
Chai Khet, also an alumna of the Thai Volunteer Service, who has been working with women in the local organic farming group since 1985. We talked with her about the group’s evolvement, and thoughts on the EEC project that would stretch its arms to Sanam Chai Khet as well.
Alternative farming: a way to survive
Nantawan said that Ban Yang Daeng used to be a community with farming products that were insufficient for local consumption, even though the area itself was deemed suitable for agricultural activities. Located in the zone of denuded forest, the economic status of community members three decades ago was not good; they were in debt. The locals did not gather into a group because the community was relatively new, composed of people from different parts of the country who migrated to the area.
Until 1977, Kasem Petchnatee from Rural Capital Partner of Thailand (RPC) started to introduce the process of problem and solution analysis to the locals. According to Nantawan, the governments in the 1980s believed that industry played a vital role to move forward the country’s growth, and the prosperity from it would be distributed to rural areas. However, the stronger the industrial sector has become, the more natural resources have been used up, and the wider the gaps between the riches and poors have expanded.
Kasem saw mistakes from such a development plan; so he urged Sanam Chai Khet residents to identify their problems on their own.The locals found that the most important problem was insufficient food for family consumption. Under the concept of self sustainability, local farmers decided to gather together, and started farming plants that could be used as food, raising cattles and poultry, and quitting cassava farming which was a policy supported by government. Instead, they turned to local plants and started growing them. Kasem called this way of farming ‘alternative agriculture’ or ‘sustainable agriculture’.
Previously, because farmers tended to farm single product, particularly cassava. They applied for loans from state and private sectors to invest in cassava farming. To rid off their debts from farming loans and prevent future debts, the locals founded a credit union and has used the money as a reserved fund for the community.
“Alternative agriculture isn’t a mainstream way the government supports. The government may support farmers to grow sugar cane, cassava, jute, or cotton. But alternative agriculture is to grow anything you can sell after it is left from consumption. It helps the community to be more self-sufficient in the long term,” Nantawan explained.
Who run the community? Women!
In 1985, Nantawan came from Nakhon Pathom to Ban Yang Daeng as a volunteer and was assigned to work with women group in the community. She told that at first, men played an important role in planning the community development and this decreased the role of women in expressing their opinions. Putting the policy from meetings into use was not practical as well since men suggested solutions but women were the ones who carried out.
“For example, the person who went to the meeting discussing about either farming chickens or pigs is a man. But in real life, it’s a woman who actually raises them. So it becomes a problem,” said the coordinator.
So women decided to start creating a community learning center in which everybody can discuss about the problems, analyse them, and find long-term solutions.
“It is all about discussing, exchanging opinions, and supporting each other. We bring new information to discuss about. For example, I tell them about the policy that will affect their community which people have no idea since there has been a gap between the community and policy-makers. The learning center is where we can share information and work together,” Nantawan said.
From there on, this process of work has been run by the women group of Ban Yang Daeng. When it started to get stable, plants have been grown for local consumption and for sale. In 1989, the group has became an ‘alternative agriculture network’ where women in the district played a key role in community development.
Community bank for community’s future
Establishing the ‘credit union’ as a reserved fund source to cure financial problems is also a key to drive community development. Every 10th day of each month, members of the women group have to make a deposit to the union. At the same time, the committee has laid out rules to make sure every step is systematic and transparent. Nantawan believed that this process creates the sense of ownership and power of decision making among group members that leads to transparency of management.
“We see the importance of solving problems from inside-out, starting with ourselves first before asking for others to help. It is under self-improvement concept. The Credit Union opens up a chance to let women in the community to take part, discuss, and have trainings. Here, we give the priority to learning,” Nantawan said.
This saving activity has turned into a community bank. Some members can save up to gain reasonable amount of interest. Young people in the community do not have to take out a loan for education. When saving becomes a habit, people have a reserved fund to meet their future financial obligations.
“It helps decrease informal sector loans and support children’s education. When parents don’t have enough money, they can request a loan from the community bank. If anyone wants to sell their estate, instead of selling it to outsiders, they can sell it to people in the community in a hire-purchase contract so that they will have their own land in the future,” said Nantawan.
This approach of saving was a part of ‘Village Fund’ policy of Thaksin Shinawatra’s government, where the government provided 1 million baht to each village to manage and solve financial problems on their own. However, community members here disagreed with that concept, thinking receiving seed money from the government is not a sustainable way for financial management. So the farmers have agreed to deny state-sponsored funding and also disallowed group members to be a member of any state funds, if they want to get a loan from the community bank.
“Being a member of other external funds is at risk from liabilities. It will end up like a village fund system. If the system failed, the community would too. So we prevent that kind of problems by disallowing it,” Nantawan explained.
The journey to become organic farming
Before widely adopting organic farming methods, farmers of Sanam Chai Khet faced two major problems. The first one was the use of chemical substances which affected both people’s health and the environment. Secondly, the farmers had low bargaining power with distributors since they dealt with external distributor individually, not as a collective group. It was not until 2001 when community members saw a way to improve their life quality and solve problems from chemical farming by getting their farming products universal standard certified. Later, they could export their products to Europe and elevated the group status to the into ‘Sanam Chai Khet Organic Agriculture Group.’
“Back then European markets were interested in Khao Leuang Patew rice which could only be found around this area. So we were contacted to discuss about the possibility to improve the farming process by turning it into the organic farming system which is guaranteed by universal standard and can be exported to European markets,” Nantawan said.
Being guaranteed by a universal standard makes this community a model for non-chemical organic farming. Apart from regaining the full benefits of local natural resources, organic farming also helps the community learn about systematic management. This healthy production has expanded into many areas and now the Sanam Chai Khet Organic Agriculture Group has become the biggest non-chemical farming product manufacturer in Eastern Thailand.
“Food is very important. Food products that are tainted from unsafe process can make you ill and unhealthy. We should support non-chemical farming because it provides healthy food which makes us strong and healthy,” Nantawan insisted.
From healthy farming to civil rights movement
When the Chuan Leekpai government started implementing the Eighth National Economic and Social Development Plan in 1997, organic farming was included in the plan, but no budget for farmers was put into practice. To follow up with this policy that claimed to improve sustainable farming system in 25 million Rai across the country, the organic agriculture group decided to partner with the Assembly of the Poor and over 200 groups affected by the National Economic and Social Development Plan such as the HIV patients, people with disabilities, the elderlies and the labourers who faced unjust treatments, to form a mass demonstration in Bangkok and call for government’s action.
“Joining the Assembly of the Poor was an important step to help us learn about civil rights under the constitution. We learned to take part in the policy-making process and push forward ways that help minor farmers,” Nantawan explained.
The group coordinator added that, during the time the group joined the movement led by the Assembly of the Poor, some farmers were worried because they thought the gathering is illegal and could lead to violence. However, because what they believed in is sustainable agriculture, the Sanam Chai Khet farmers continued their participation and it was a big lesson they learned.
“Assembly is one of basic civil rights. We did it not only for the benefits of minor farmers, but also everybody in the society, since we all need [safe and clean] food. We can be part of the movement for changes in policy, making sustainable farming cover every area and be the base for sustainable development. Farmers can have a happy livelihood, and the country can be stronger,” added Nantawan.
Community participation is the key
In 2017, the Prayuth Chan-ocha military government has pushed forward the EEC project in three eastern provinces: Chacheongsao, Chonburi, and Rayong, aiming to attract foreign investment in order to increase the country’s GDP growth. However, this project has been highly criticized since local people, civil society sector, and academics think it’s not the right answer for long-term economic solution, and the project lacks public participation.
Sanam Chai Khet district will be part of the EEC plan. The coordinator of Sanam Chai Khet organic farming viewed that EEC project overlooks the community participation because the government have an absolute decision-making power. She also saw that EEC is a sequel nightmare of the Eastern Seaboard Development project.
“The Eastern Seaboard Development project has created such detrimental repercussions. It was said to be a clean industry, but as it turns out, it wasn’t ours and needed foreign investment. The development orientation depended on government power, people’s voices cannot be heard,” Nantawan said.
Nantawan also anticipated that EEC project will expand to other provinces in accordance with the economic special zones initiative, to be implemented across the nation. But other regions may not attract investors as much as the EEC, since the eastern region is suitable for industry thanks to existing infrastructure. Moreover, the EEC can be a pilot that paves way for more industrial projects in other parts of the country, with the government invoking Section 44 of the 2017 interim constitution to revoke existing city zoning plans.
Nantawan said that the local people should be a ‘direct partner’ in every process of the EEC, having rights to share their perspectives and suggestions that go with local resources management. Sanam Chai Khet is well-known for non-chemical farming products. As such, it would be better to turn the area into a Healthy Food Hub instead of heavy industrial sector.
“Sanam Chai Khet is the land where Sanam Chai Khet people live, we don’t want to be just a victim or sacrificer. We are the owner, so we have rights to participate in the development plan and government’s decision.”
Thai version: กลุ่มเกษตรอินทรีย์ ชีวิตดีๆ ที่ชาวชุมชนลิขิตเอง