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The Providence Journal

Free Trade, Chemicals Threaten Village-Based Farming in Thailand

Ruth MacNeille

Thailand - Rural Thai farmers were told that free-trade agreements and profit-based agriculture would help them. But now many find themselves without enough food to feed their families. The Nakhudsim Primary School has decided to take matters into its own hands.

An old bike sits between the garden at Nakhudsim Primary School and a murky pond. From under a shaded pavilion, the bike looks out of place at first glance. I am barely able to focus on anything other than the beads of sweat peeling down my temples. In the sun, children are talking. Some hold empty watering buckets, some bounce the handles of hoes back and forth from hand to hand, and others kneel over rows of young vegetable plants breaking through the hay-covered soil. The healthy young plants in the garden shine bright green against the sea of brown in the tilled rice field beyond the pond. When the garden needs to be watered, students can pedal the bike to pump water from the pond to a hose that waters the vegetables. All of the vegetables in the garden are organically grown using compost fertilizer; when harvested, they are added ingredients in the student lunches, lowering the school's costs.

These Nakhudsim students, as with many Isaan students (from the northeast region of Thailand), come from rice-farming families whose existence depends largely on the village community. Villages in Thailand are often a cluster of shared public institutions because people feel a genuine sense of responsibility for one another's livelihood. Interdependent villagers can create independent self-sustaining communities by using their resources and working together.

The break of dawn is not a quiet, still time in the Isaan countryside. Roosters crow at 4 a.m., and on market days, they are not the only ones awake. Mothers wearing straw hats or caps and aprons pile onto the two benches in the open back of a truck, squished up against their buckets of goods to sell. Some buckets are filled with jumping frogs, some with chicken claws, and others with bugs collected after being fatally attracted to a bright fluorescent zap-light in the dark.

As we drive into town, the mehs are laughing at jokes I cannot understand, but every once in a while, I catch them laughing at my mishaps during my home-stay and I laugh, too, happy to be in on conversation. The truck is a comical clown car of sardine-packed people, and when it arrives in town, a chaotic bustle ensues as villagers help each other unpack.

During the hot season, the Isaan countryside is mostly brown rice fields, which stretch across the flat land between villages, nearly empty except for scattered foliage and a few roaming cows and water buffalo. There are no fences, only an occasional row of trees to indicate separation of property. Because homes are grouped into village centers surrounded by continuous fields, an outsider might not realize that the land has many owners; each household in a given farming village owns between five and 10 rai (a Thai land unit, equal to about 1,600 square meters). Thai farmers traditionally harvest their rice in November and begin the growing process again in May, when the rains begin. The rain also fills the ponds, which provide villagers with a way to water their vegetable gardens and fill their bathroom washing bins when rain is infrequent.

Theoretically, villagers could be nearly self-sufficient by making use of such methods. However, rapid changes in Thailand's development strategies over the past 25 to 30 years have industrialized food production, neglecting the local wisdom behind traditional and sustainable agricultural practices.

Farmers have been encouraged to use chemical farming methods introduced by the Green Revolution to increase yield per rai. These new methods have not proven sustainable in northern Thailand — economically, socially or environmentally. Not only are the chemicals expensive, sinking farmers into debt, but they are unhealthy for the people and the environment. Because the increased harvests deplete the soil, farmers have fallen into a vicious circle of dependence on outside resources.

In addition, free-trade agreements (FTAs) threaten Isaan livelihoods by negatively opening up the domestic agricultural market, on which farming households depend, to foreign markets: For example, Japanese rice has nearly wiped out the domestic Thai rice market. In turn, Thai rice has nearly wiped out the Korean domestic market. While FTAs were established on the theory that nations that trade do not go to war, the organic farmers in Thabtai, Surin told us that Korean farmers now hate Thai farmers for destroying their market. Because not all economies are equal, FTAs create lopsided circumstances, in which small-scale farmers find themselves competing with the machines and hired labor of large-scale agriculture.

While such development projects were ostensibly created to help Thailand's rural farming communities, now farmers do not have enough food to feed their families. Farmers find themselves returning to sustainable agricultural practices, in which they eat what they grow, using compost and manure as fertilizer and planting different plants and flowers to deter harmful pests. But the process requires a shift in the values that many farmers have internalized as a result of government propaganda and pressure from the international community. These values revolve around profit-based agriculture, which does not take such issues as the safety of producers and consumers, economic dependence or environmental sustainability into account.

In a collectively minded country like Thailand, communities are at the root of effective development. At the Nakhudsim School, though students are eager to do their garden work, the school failed a recent academic evaluation. Ironically, while local wisdom has been incorporated into the school's garden, it is not present in the classroom.

The students are given scenarios such as: "If a car leaves a city traveling at 60 miles per hour .  .  . " They could instead be provided with scenarios that are applicable to their lives, such as: "When you sell a fish you caught from your pond at the market for three baht, having fed it from food in your garden and bred it from other fish .  .  . "

Local wisdom is not valued in the current education system, though it is vital to students' lives. Many children in the village are sent to private schools for a better education. The public education system is failing.

The importance of strong communities is reinforced by Thailand's legal bureaucracy because public funding for social-welfare projects requires community appeal and proposal. One hope for Nakhudsim School is that by directly incorporating the village's farming culture into primary education, the community will become more invested and involved in the school. A re-evaluation of development in Thailand requires creative problem-solving that takes local wisdom and resources into account. The old bike that sits near the Nakhudsim School's pond to help irrigate the garden is a perfect case in point. The bike didn't cost much: It was just a good idea.

Ruth MacNeille is a University of Michigan junior concentrating in anthropology and history. She is studying in Thailand. This article originally appeared on, an international news, travel and feature magazine.

© 2007 The Providence Journal

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