Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Two Villages

Met Bing at the office at 7:45am. Not sure where we were going, something about villages and a van.

Turned out we went to the village I went to earlier with Doc. Well, not quite. This village has two locations. Old and New. Last time I went to the fair at the old location, today we went to the hill top location - after picking up a Japanese professor from Rikkyo University, a program coordinator, their post doc student, a Japanese student doing her doctoral thesis in Chiang Rai, Thailand, and a Japanese-Thai translator.

This is the meeting space at the first village. It was nice to see familiar faces, including a couple of guys who had gotten pretty drunk at the fair. I have a lot to write about these two visits and the stories of the villages. Here, the "occupied" the land 6 years ago to the day today. I'm posting this late March 11 Thailand time - it's actually slipped into March 12 while I've been working on this. The leader of this group - the man whose house I slept at when I went to the village last time - explained the issues and the translator translated. I asked Bing a lot of questions. It's sort of how I expect being very hard of hearing is. You catch some of what is being said, but the stuff you fill in may or may not (more likely) be correct. So in mixed Thai and English, Bing would fill in. Basically, some 'rich' man owned the land and had subdivided it and was going to sell it for housing development. The farmers in the neighboring land needing nearby land as their children grew up and their land was already barely enough for a family, took over the land and started planting. Eventually, the government bought the land and sold it to the farmers with a 50 year mortgage. I know I'm missing a lot here and the justification for taking over someone else's privately owned land seems sketchy. There are issues of the impact of globalization, the commodification of land and the resultant loss of farm land for the farmers. And questions about the economic structure that enables some families to get wealthy and others not. Corruption plays a role as well. It's a long story which I don't have completely straight. Or even partially straight. But I'm going to try to get it written down in English. And, apparently the legal issues are not yet over, though if I understood right, in four years they will have been on the land long enough for it to be their own.

Here we are inside as the leader talks - he's in the white t-shirt to the right of the map. Since this is the 6th anniversary of getting the land, they were preparing for a big feast. I'm not sure how many pig heads were in this pot.

During the meeting Bing showed me his cell phone "hot news" screen. This was how I learned that oil had hit $108/ barrel. After 108, dollars and barrel are written phonetically in Thai.

We had lunch at a restaurant not far away. I couldn't help, as a loyal Alaskan, snapping this picture advertising dried salmon skin for 15 Baht per little bag. (about 50 cents.)

And in case one had trouble reading the Thai, and interpreting the little man, the bathroom had a more graphic sign.

After lunch we drove south to Lampoon to the second village. Here people are again being introduced and then discussion of this village's land problems. They were given this government land - divided up among the various villagers. After they had it for ten years, according to what I learned today, some rich Thais - both individuals and companies from Bangkok and Chiang Mai - produced a deed to the land and charged them all with trespassing. The explanation was 'corruption.' The poor, relatively uneducated farmers never got documentation when they got the land and these others then got the officials who were in charge later on to forge new documentation and they planned to build a resort here.

You can see the mangos growing - a major crop for them - and these should be ripe in about three months.

When this man showed up a little late, it was obvious that he was 'the man.' There was something about him, just like the leader at the last village, that commanded attention. I just knew, this was the man who knew things. (My boss confirmed this later when we got back) He also has served about 8 years in prison over a longer period of time for trespassing. The case is still on appeal. I did get to ask him if any of the original government officials were still around who could vouch for them. He said they had all died off. Again, it is not clear what the basis for appeal is, though he did say that when asked who they bought the land from, the first people they claimed to have bought it from denied it. The others all turned out to be dead. There is a receipt that they paid for anything only for one small parcel. Or so I understood from the discussion.

This guy also asked the visiting Japanese sustainability experts, why a Thai mango that a friend had bought in Tokyo cost 25Baht there, when they sold for 9Baht a kilo in Thailand. Surprisingly, while I understood the question immediately, the Japanese interpreter, whose Thai is much better than mine, had trouble understanding this one.

We didn't get back to the office until 7:30pm. The lights were still on so I went in and talked to my boss a bit. I'm going to give some more seminars - people from the other organizations in the compound will be invited to some, and for those we will get an interpreter so that when I get to the more complicated abstract concepts, I can get help with the Thai.

Lots of thoughts are swirling through my head, but I'm going back to the second village tomorrow with Bing - 9am this time - because they are having someone come to survey the land. Bing and I had lots of time to talk in the van and at the villages today and that was good.

He said, "When we have English speaking volunteers, their Thai always gets better, but our English stays the same." So we used a lot more English today. He also asked how I was doing. I told him I'm fine and I'm having a great time, but I'm concerned that I'm not giving the organization enough value. He quickly said not to worry, that he was learning a lot just through our conversations. I asked for an example, because I was a bit surprised. He mentioned a discussion we'd had last week about his work with some women in a village who sew clothes for sale. A rich man gives them cloth and needles and thread and buys what they sew and sells it for 300% more than he pays (less markup than the mangos.) Bing thought they should sell the clothes themselves and make more money. In part of that discussion I told him about the proverb "You can lead a horse to water, but you can't make it drink." Only I added, in this case, you aren't even leading them to water, you are only telling them about water. The horse story was the example he gave.

I told my boss, when I got back tonight - he was still working at 7:30pm and didn't seem ready to leave when I left at 7:50pm - that I was learning a lot and really should come back in November, after the US elections. He said, that sounded good, but I could save the airfare by just staying. So, I think we're getting along well, though the more I know, I discover there is even much more that I don't know. But then that was the case when I first came to Thailand as a Peace Corps volunteer. Today my Thai wasn't quite as frustrating as it was last week. Many of the words I've been studying were used in the discussions. Enough. I doubt too many people will get this far anyway. Congrats if you did.


  1. I read it all the way through!

    I got a bad feeling in my stomach thinking about the mango farmers loosing all that land.


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