Paradigm Shift

And then she said, “food land and hospital for the villagers”

I was in Surin, Thailand, helping out as a facilitator for an English and Environment camp organised by Dekrakpha, a NGO(Non-Governmental Organisation) whose cause is forest conservation. Rin, who uttered the above line that blew me away, works as an activist trying to solve the problems of overflooding caused by dams.

My group comprised a good mix of individuals. Some of my team mates were English and Communication students at Ubon University and signed up for this camp because they wanted to practice their English. Others might not be able to speak English fluently. However, since they were working in various NGOs, they had a profound understanding of the environmental issues in their country, which we hoped to tap upon.

We were in the midst of an activity which required our participants to imagine them as members of a village intent on settling down in a forested area. They would then need to brainstorm how they would want to develop this plot of land. We distributed sheets of paper to our groups so that they could crystallise their discussion points and reflect their ideas on their sheet.

engrossed in discussion

Now, being an urban kid, I had a slightly different view of forests. I learnt about the value of forests during my geography lessons but I kinda arrogantly dismissed it as paying lip service. I thought it a harsh foregone conclusion that forests must give way to industrialization if people wish to lead a better life. Who would be silly enough to reject the appeals of material comforts?

Evidently, this was not a view shared by my Thai friends as they didn’t even seem to consider the option of demolishing the entire forest to make way for their needs. There was an unspoken unanimous agreement that they would only demolish the land area they would need to build their homes and farm land. In fact, Pi Jeab, who incidentally owns a Master degree in Agriculture, explicitly suggested that the community keep the north-west portion of the forest intact because it would protect the village from the seasonal monsoon winds, which blow from that particular direction.

Perhaps, it isn’t too hard to withstand the lure of urbanization because as Rin astutely pointed out, the forest is a treasure chest of food and medicine. Nonetheless, I was impressed with how they didn’t disdainfully disregard the forest as a primitive, unsophisticated source. Instead of blindly pandering towards modern remedies, I sensed their grounded attitude as they understood the value of medicinal herbs and appreciated how its importance doesn’t just diminish with the emergence of new technologies. That was something that touched me.

crystallization of various talents!

Observing them excitedly mark out their prospective homes on the “map”, I also noticed their reverence for the forest. They drew a spirit house on the edge of the forest and explained to me how the guardian spirits inside would protect the forest and the village inhabitants. Again, this was an unanimous decision as no one questioned the need for this spirit house. It was simply something that had to be constructed.

This was yet another refreshing perspective because my Thai friends exhibited a desire of paying tribute and showing gratitude towards their provider. This was humility and maturity at its best. Most people would have unrestrainedly exploited whatever they desired and taken their blessings for granted. Some might even justify their greed by thinking that the forest owes them.

I didn’t know what I would expect from this activity. But I certainly didn’t expect my Thai friends to display such a fierce conviction to preserve the forest and its advantages to mankind. Without this activity, I would never have felt the co-dependent relationship they share with nature, their love for land and their commitment to managing their forest resources responsibly. These were valuable insights an urban dweller like me would never have fathomed on my own.

I felt privileged to partake, albeit briefly, in their world and hoped that someday, I might develop this deep, abiding love for land too.

7 responses to “Paradigm Shift

  1. Agrarian society has a lot of respect for the land and forest, this is more so in Thailand where the people embrasses Buddhism. Nomadic tribes have little respect for land and when the land become useless or wasted, the tribes just move to another fertile land. Wars and conquests become common due to this and you can find a lot in the Bible.

  2. I often feel there are two distinct attitudes in our minds – the desire to own what we see as ‘ beauty’ as against the deisre to be part of the beauty we experience. I prefer the latter!

    In my country, we have tribal people who strongly protect their forests. I tried to see if there is any information on the net about it and I got this link : Maybe you like to read it as it seems similar to your experience? I feel there is a link in the thought processes here with what you mention?

  3. faterider,

    First off, I want to say that you have a very interesting and easy-to-read style of writing. I really appreciate good composition.

    But I’d also like to say that you are fortunate to be involved in such an important project. Living in harmony with nature is what we all must pay more attention to. Good luck.


  4. Thanks for the wonderful story khun faterider. Its another good example of why I am enamored with Thailand and her people,

  5. KhunChin, thanks for pointing out the subtle, yet significant difference between agrarian and nomadic society. it kinda summarises what i have learnt from this experience and crystallises my learning points on a deeper level. thanks:P

    trangam, “be part of the beauty we experience” is expressed so succinctly and poetically! think you really hit the nail on the head with these few words. thanks for sharing your insights. i don’t have enough time but i would definitely check out your link and return to share my thoughts

    Brad, what a flattering compliment. it’s nice to know that someone thinks i write well, even though i know i still have a long way to go. hee

    Bassai, you’re welcome. i hope to hear some of your wonderful ancedotes too. if you are a blogger on this site, show me the links to your works so that i may benefit!

    thanks all

  6. As a scientist, I read your blog with great interest, faterider. I learned something new about forest conservation NGOs today. Unfortunately, I found the knowledge disappointing.

    I guess we look at the issue from two ends of the ‘is the glass half-empty of half-full?’ perspective. While you find it impressive how the students chose not to demolish the entire forest, merely destroying life where they need place for their houses and farms, I found it disappointing that increasing land enroachment is even on the agenda of today’s ‘forest preservation’ programs.

    What I thought such NGOs do is exploring viable alternatives to such damaging practices. Better-yielding crops, more efficient agricultural techniques that don’t require much land; structural and social improvements of already existing communities, so there is no need to move out further and further into nature… these are just some ideas.

    I think that the scientific view of forests as complex economical systems that need cohesion to function properly needs to seep down to the general public. Then ‘forest preservation’ will mean more than just leaving small patches of green here and there, around yet another new settlement. :/

  7. A correction: “complex economical systems” from the last paragraph needs to be read as “complex ecological systems”. Big difference! 🙂

    The rest stands as written.