The link between sustainable farming and the prevention of child trafficking is probably not immediately apparent. It’s definitely not as sexy as live-tweeting a brothel raid. But throughout the last nine years of our grassroots work in vulnerable communities in Northern Thailand, we’ve come to see how essential it is.
Poverty, Risk, and a Lever for Change
When it comes to child trafficking for labor or sexual exploitation, poverty is one of the most significant risk factors. It’s not that the poor necessarily lack food or shelter. Though hunger and homelessness can be results, poverty’s effects are often subtler. Limited options and opportunity lead the poor to drop out of school early in order to work, which leads to jobs with little pay and no benefits, which leads to their children having to drop out of school early to work; and the cycle continues. While some have argued this cycle might be due to a character flaw in the poor, recent research reveals this assumption is false. It’s not that character produces poverty. In fact, it’s the other way around. Poverty, and the scarcity mindset it creates, limits one’s focus, one’s capacity to plan long-term, and one’s ability to maintain commitments. Whether a lack of time, attention, or money, poverty begets poverty, no matter the cognitive capacity or character traits of the person considered.
Scholarships are an excellent intervention for individual children and youth facing risk. They help break the cycle by opening access to education. Our Resource Centers provide some other missing links – the emotional, intellectual, and physical support at-risk children and youth need to dream and achieve their dreams. But over the years, we’ve seen how vital community-wide health is for the health of a community’s children.
Because we can’t change everything in the communities we work with, we look for levers – interventions that will have an exponential effect. After years of work, we know how important small-scale farming is in the communities we work with.
Agriculture in Thailand
While the agricultural sector in Thailand has significantly contracted since the 1960s (in terms of its share of both GDP and exports), both large-scale and small-scale farms are still a huge component of the Thai economy. Large-scale farmers practice export-oriented agriculture, while small-scale farmers provide for the domestic market and themselves. About fifty percent of all farms in Thailand (estimates are around 8 million households) are small-scale (6 – 10 acres). However, they only account for 25% of the total farm products sold.
Several factors have worked against small-scale farmers. First, they rely on unstable rainfall and singular crop (monocultural) production. Second, as chemical fertilizers, herbicides, and pesticides flooded the market in past years, small-scale farmers followed the large-scale farms in using these, unaware of safety protocols and thus the consequences to their health and the health of their land. (Many of the farmers in our communities don’t even cover themselves when spraying their crops with pesticides.) Third, with a limited grasp of the market, many small-scale farmers took out loans for expansion only to find themselves bankrupt when agricultural prices dropped due to economic fluctuations and global market integrations.
What is needed in the communities we serve is some way to help small-scale farmers transition to – in many ways, back to – sustainable farming practices.
According to the research of Thanwa Jitsanguan, Faculty of the Department of Agricultural and Resource Economics at Kasetsart University, Bangkok, a successful transition to sustainable agriculture for small-scale farmers in rural Thailand requires the following:
- understanding fully what this transition entails,
- going through a process of learning and understanding how to do it,
- having support from external agencies,
- receiving short-term subsidies, and
- the identification of leaders in the community.
The Eco Agricultural Learning Center
In 2016, thanks to support from LUSH and the generous donation of a long-term land lease not far from our Pong Prae Resource Center, we opened The Eco Agricultural Learning Center.
Over the last two years, Worn Donchai, The Freedom Story’s Sustainability Director, has overseen the development of the land as a learning center for organic agriculture, natural agriculture, integrated agriculture, New Theory agriculture, and agroforestry. By integrating these practices, the learning center offers a unique space for the many rural farmers in the communities we serve to learn environmentally and economically sustainable farming practices.
Another aspect of the Learning Center that we’re really excited about is that it honors the incredible legacy of His Majesty King Bhumibol Adulyadej. Based on the concept of self-sufficiency, New Theory Agriculture is an agricultural system proposed by King Bhumibol in 1993. It’s ideally suited for farmers that have limited fields and lack significant water sources. New Theory Agriculture has shown that Thai communities can easily subsist, if not flourish, through cooperating in sustainable farming using plots as small as 15 Rai (5.931 acres). Assuming this size, the plots are broken down as follows: 5 rai for rice patties, 5 rai for field crops, 3 rai for a pond (at least 4 meters deep with a capacity to store about 19,000 cubic meters of water, the amount sufficient for use in the dry season), 2 rai for accommodation and other purposes. After attaining self-sufficiency, farmers sell their crops. By modeling New Theory Agriculture at our Learning Center, we get a chance to help bring King Bhumibol’s strategic vision to fruition.
Given the high demand for organic produce, the comparatively low cost of production (since no chemicals are needed), and the integrated and sustainable approach of the five methods of agriculture we use, the practices taught at the Learning Center are a perfect intervention for creating sustainable and scalable income for small-scale farmers and others interested in farming in the communities we serve.
The Learning Center is now up and running. We’ve begun developing a local network of farmers in the area who are excited to be learning about and beginning to practice the five forms of integrated agriculture. We’re also providing short-term subsidies in the forms of jobs, training, the development of best practices for the construction of rural infrastructure, much-needed data, and the identification of leaders within the community.
As with all our Sustainability Programs, the Learning Center increases our constituents’ resilience and self-sufficiency, decreasing their dependency on us and outside funding.
Our Role in the Transition to Sustainability in Thailand and Beyond
When it comes to sustainable development, especially during transitions to practices that can (and must) be scaled, NGOs fulfill a critical role by coordinating between government organizations and those on the ground. Our work has created trust not only with those who live in our communities but with other NGOs in the field and the Thai government. With our almost ten years of successful prevention and our international status, we’re situated as a prime candidate for the implementation and eventual scaling of successful programs across Thailand and, we hope and dream, eventually across the Upper Mekong Region of Southeast Asia.
We’re incredibly excited to see what the future holds for prevention and sustainable development in Northern Thailand and beyond.
Dan Olson is The Freedom Story’s in-house writer and researcher.