Chiang Mai, Northern Thailand – January 2010
by Chris Roach and Hannah Perkins
While resting in Chiang Mai, The Expedition was invited to visit another Oxfam supported project in Northern Thailand. This project is supported by Oxfam and run by a Thai NGO called the Institute of Sustainable Agriculture Community (ISAC). ISAC exists to support sustainable agriculture communities in Chiang Mai and help develop a competitive consumer market for Organic produce. I got in touch with ISACâ€™s director, Khun Chomchuan who enthusiastically agreed to give Hannah Perkins and I a tour of the project.
Khun is a charismatic Thai man who has been working to help promote organic farming in Thailandâ€™s north since 1993. As a university academic, Khun pointed out that the historical monoculture of chemical based agriculture had left a legacy of problems for farmers including: high debt to income ratios; land deterioration issues and local health problems from the over use of pesticides (which are taken up in the food chain). This has also resulted in loss of food security, the patterns of production and consumption have changed, the environment has been damaged, biodiversity has been lost, self reliance has been reduced and social problems have also risen as a result. Khun also suggested that this happened due to a emphasis on relying on external inputs such as new varieties of plants, chemicals, fuels and fertilisers, the use of modern farming methods, reliance on outside knowledge instead of traditional indigenous knowledge and a dependence on export orientated markets. This was not only a model for what was happening in Thailand, I thought, but also around the world!
Oxfam helps ISAC to organise several organic markets in the city, where producers from the region come on a weekly basis to sell their organic produce. By working with the Thai Government to promote organic agriculture and self-sufficiency, ISAC has established a thriving market for organic produce in Chiang Mai. There are currently over 15 different locations where farmers can sell their produce directly to the consumer, at regular fresh food markets held in schools, universities, hospitals and from ISACâ€™s organic warehouse.
The model for a Sustainable Agriculture Community is one which is built on close and collaborative relationships between all community members including organic producers and consumers. The main objectives are to provide safe access to food, self-sufficient economy, healthy environment and general social well-being.
Over the past five years, ISAC has trained over 2500 farmers, including the members of Chiang Mai Organic Cooperation. Although some local farmers have been practicing organic agriculture for the past 18 years, ISAC trains newer members to convert their traditional farming practices to sustainable agriculture and also offers capacity building and training in fair-trade business and marketing.
Some consumers who have been coming to the market since its inception remarked that they prefer to shop at the market for their fresh produce, as they can be guaranteed that the food they buy is organic, local and in season. They do most of their shopping at the local market and source some of their dry goods at the larger organic chain in Chiang Mai which unfortunately is very expensive for Thai people as most items are imported from overseas.
We also spent some time visiting ISACâ€™s model sustainable agriculture community in Chiang Mai. Their small farm (8 rai) is only 2 years old and, ironically, is surrounded by other farms which still use chemicals. The ISAC farmers have used various techniques to maintain their organic soil and are regularly inspected by the Thai Government to make sure they are meeting Thai Regulatory Standards for Organic Agriculture.
It wouldnâ€™t have been a visit to a Thai organization without a delicious (organic) lunch. There was a training in session, so we sat on the ground with approximately 40 farmers and enjoyed a fantastic meal of vegetables, fish and sticky rice all sourced from ISACâ€™s farm.