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11/05/2013

The Dilemma of Organic Agriculture in Na Samai, Zoe Swartz

Chemicals provide both ease of life and environmental challenges for Na Samai farmers.

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Our group began our study of development and globalization by looking into agriculture in Thailand, particularly focusing on organic vs. nonorganic. In Thailand, 90% of farmers use chemical fertilizers to grow their crops so are not considered organic. In order to better see the whole picture of Thai farming, half our group stayed in the organic farming community of Kachoom and the other half with nonorganic farmers in the Na Samai community. Before going on unit, our group did a significant amount of reading on food systems, particularly on the dangers of chemical fertilizers and big agrobusiness. Because of this, at the onset of our home stay, we were all expecting that life would better in Kachoom and that the people of Na Samai would have great desire to switch to organic agriculture. 

I personally was most excited to see the organic community and learn about their sustainable farming techniques. However, I was assigned to stay in Na Samai, the nonorganic community. At first I was worried that I wouldn’t get as much out of the unit since I wouldn’t be seeing organic agriculture in action. To my surprise, experiencing community life in Na Samai, challenged my views on organic farming and I began to understand the complexities and pressures that come with being a farmer in Thailand. 

On our first full day in the community, it was apparent that there was much more to life in Na Samai than just farming. Many traditional crafts, such as wood carving and basket weaving, are still practiced and provide villagers with another source of income. Whenever I was around my meh, I was transfixed by the mechanical way in which her hands were constantly busy intertwining straw to create impeccable cow neeyow baskets. One of the villagers, Paw Lan, even started a copper factory right in the village that provides jobs for many community members. Villagers also seemed to place great importance on their relationships with each other. It seemed like villagers were always together, whether farming, weaving, or enjoying a meal. Although villagers seemed content in Na Samai I still had the lingering thought that they must not be happy with their agricultural techniques. There was something disconcerting about watching a farmer, covered from head to foot, spray toxic chemicals on the picturesque rice fields. I felt anxious knowing that these chemicals could slowly be destroying the community’s idyllic natural environment. 

 The next day we were able to exchange with Paw Lan, who owns the the copper factory and is also a rice farmer. At first we bombarded him with questions about transitioning to organic agriculture and the health and environmental risks of chemical farming. However, to our chagrin, the more Paw Long talked, the more it seemed that he had no true desire to change his practices. Tension was beginning to form as responses became increasingly polarized. Paw defended chemical use, saying that chemical fertilizers produce much higher yields and require and much less labor. Furthermore,  Paw makes ten times more per year using chemicals allowing him to live an easier life and spend more time with people in the community. This increased wealth, according to Paw, also helps keep the younger generation from leaving the community because there is more for them to do than just rice farming. 

 As the exchange began to wind down, Paw posed a question to the group: “If you were me, which would you choose?”

Before my stay in Na Samai, I definitely would have said organic. However, after exchanging with Paw, the choice felt more perplexing. I still am a proponent of organic agriculture because I think that environmental damage, loss of seed diversity, and possible health risks associated with chemical agriculture outweigh the ease and income gains that chemical fertilizers sometimes provide. That being said, if I were Paw, I’m not sure which I would choose. For him, chemicals seem to provide a dramatic increase in his quality of life and, as of now, he has not experienced any health or environmental problems. From everything I have read, I worry that it might be only a matter of time before something goes wrong for Na Samai as a result of chemical use but right now they are happy. I now see another complex layer of the organic agriculture debate and see that, for nonorganic farmers, experience has the most pull in their choice. 

*** CIEE DG fall 2013, Unit 1: Food and Agriculture ***

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