Thirteen individuals representing eight different countries left Bangkok on the November 26th (2018) evening train to Surin—hoisting with them an assortment of coloring pastels, rolls of long white paper, sleeping bags, tents, and straw mats for sitting on cooled tiled floors. I was blessed to be a member of this motley crew and a documentarian of this process. By the end of 12 days, we had zig-zagged by train, plane, minivan, and once, even a puttering farm cart to almost every major region across the country.
Why? Because we had spent the week prior discussing the major political and economic systems underpinning societies in Asia and around the world. We examined massive concepts—capitalism, socialism, democracy, authoritarianism and beyond—and how they affected each of our families, homelands, and ecosystems. Though we hailed from different corners of the world, we all knew what trauma looked and felt like under the collective heft of these systems.
Now we journeyed to find what words and theories could not. We set out to explore whether alternative ways of living and governing were possible and to meet pioneers in praxis, beginning with the “community” as society’s foundational unit and with examples found in our very own host country, Thailand.
In truth, the trip was such a whirlwind of geographies, cuisines, and visionary, passionate people that I find myself unsure of how to summarize. All I know is that it was successful in its end goal, which was to inspire and plant seeds of possibility. The metaphor of farming is apt because in almost every example we saw, we found local people re-acquainting with and reclaiming their land, on their own terms.
Spending a day and night with Tammoon Network allowed us to hear about various groups of poor and marginalized farming people forced to defend their homes and natural lands from the destruction of hydropower dams. But they weren’t satisfied with remaining on the defense. They united their disparate groups into a stronger network (connected across a sprawling region faced with a string of dam-building projects), formed musical bands and other cultural activities to support a victorious hunger strike, and began weening their farms free of chemical fertilizers and pesticides. They collaborated with local government to establish farmers markets on unused parking lots and fed us one of the most delicious breakfasts in my recent memory, on colorful straw mats laid on the black concrete.
At Mae Tha, I witnessed a phenomenon that I have never seen in any other part of the world—generations of young people proudly, eagerly returning to their village to build their families and dreams. They were in dialogue with their parents, grandparents, and children about creating cafes, organic farms, co-operative businesses, agro-forests, heirloom seed banks, community learning spaces, and much more. Because of this, the outside was steadily coming to them. Their videos are watched on YouTube and other social media platforms; their products are now contracted to be sold in some of Thailand’s most upscale supermarket chains; they receive a steady, regular stream of volunteers, farm-to-table tourists, and study groups interested in sustainability in one form or another. Poh Pat, a respected elder who helped lead Mae Tha’s first wave of transformation from households beholden to agricultural corporations’ debts into a model up-and-coming “eco-village” traipsed us through the forest behind his teakwood house talking about imperialism, natural resource exploitation, and the importance of protecting forests as a source of vital wisdom.
Sometimes, I felt the urge to renounce the life I had built and instead, give myself to these communities instead. But the more we traveled, the more I realized that the greater urgency lied in me getting to know my own piece of land—that instead of growing one community into an all-expansive model or institution, it was more important to grow many, many possibilities in every corner of the world. That was our work—to reinvigorate our homes and lands, to soil and wet our hands, and to redefine what our security and success meant.
– Doreen Wang, US/Taiwan