Applied Geography formerly Rural Training Center, Thailand

Community-based Education in Northern Thailand


The First Summer, 1999

This article first appeared on the Earth Systems Science, Inc. (ESSI) website in Fall 2002, and has been re-formatted to reflect the program shift from ESSI to the Rural Training Center-Thailand (RTC-TH).

[Note: The 1999 & 2000 volunteer projects were organized and led by Gregory Lee when he served as President of the Los Angeles Geographical Society (LAGS).]

The LAGS Thailand Volunteer Project was launched in Ban Tha Ko, Mae Suai District, Chiang Rai Province in northern Thailand in the summer of 1999. The two-week project had the consent of the Royal Thai Ministry of Interior (MOI), Community Development Department. There was no funding support from the US or Thai governments for the American volunteers. This was a purely volunteer effort conducted in the name of the Los Angeles Geographical Society (LAGS), though no LAGS funds were used.

Greg Lee and Clarice Albert took the lead in training local Thai farmers in soil analysis, soil erosion control, building check-dams, composting, and non-toxic pest control. Neither Greg nor Clarice spoke Thai. The Chief Administrative Officer of the Sub-district Administrative Office (SAO) at Tha Ko was Ms. Saifon Suttisan. She studied English in school, but never used it outside the classroom. Since starting work, she hadn't used any English in nearly 6 years---and had never spoken with foreigners.

After a few days in the village, the program began to take shape by mutual consent between the volunteers, the SAO, and the villagers. There was no other Thai government involvement from the District, Provincial or National levels. After demonstrations given at a village meeting, the SAO arranged for similar demonstrations in 2 other villages. Greg and Clarice trained 5 self-selected Thai volunteers from three villages. These Thais pledged to teach-back to others in their home villages as well as surrounding villages. (Note: In 1999, there were a total of 19 villages under the Tha Ko SAO. By 2001, this increased to 23.)

The training was conducted in the local temples, in farm fields, under trees, and thatched-roof shelters in the fields. The weather was hot and very humid. There was no air conditioning. Conditions in the village were very basic---little or no TV, no phones, no showers. (Bathing was out of a bucket with cold water.) The LAGS volunteers got an up-front-and-personal glimpse of life in a rural Thai village. The roosters began crowing non-stop at 2 am---then at dawn seemed to disappear the rest of the day.

The Second Summer, 2000

The Royal Thai MOI gave Lee permission to return to Tha Ko and continue the effort started in summer 1999. Two other student volunteers went with him; Bruce Piscitello and Panawat Kriangchaivech. Due to logistical problems, the volunteers were housed in a guesthouse in a nearby town. The commuting to and from the village severely reduced the available training time.

The plans for training 60 new Thai volunteers were disrupted by funerals held for two Thai elders in different villages. A brief alternative training session was held for the original 5 Thai volunteers and a new recruit. In addition to reinforcing the composting, new lessons were taught in measuring slope angles, repairing check-dams, and measuring sheet erosion soil loss.

After the volunteers left, Ms. Suittisan managed to reconvene the original training group. Sixty Thai volunteers from 18 of the 19 villages attended. They consisted of villagers and local government officers. (Note: Representatives of the 19th village could not get to the training site. Heavy rains made the dirt road from their remote mountain village impassable.) Within two weeks of the training session, some of the new trainees called the SAO with requests for additional training sessions in their home villages. One new trainee had recruited 35 villagers!

Later that summer, in Chicago, Lee and Ms. Suttisan co-presented a paper at the annual meeting of the National Council on Geographic Education. The LAGS Thai volunteer project was featured as a practical application of common Geography lessons to solve real world problems. It featured the community-based education model piloted in Ban Tha Ko. Funds to support participating in the meeting were raised through the LAGS.

The LAGS Thailand volunteer project aptly demonstrated the effectiveness of community-based education and effectiveness teach-backs for improving community life. The basic knowledge provided in a short time empowered the villagers to make their own community more sustainable. The practical, hands-on Geography demonstrations and lessons were effectively adapted to conditions in rural Thailand. The language barrier was overcome by the relevance of the lessons and the aptness of the Thai trainees.

The End with a New Beginning, 2001 and Updates

In Spring 2001, Greg got word from the Tha Ko SAO that Provincial officials were hesitant to issue an invitation to return to Tha Ko. The reason cited was "lack of funds." Since no Thai government funds were used the previous two years, it was hard to comprehend. Any funds from the Thais were made from local sources at the village level. Lee went to Thailand at his own expense just to get some follow-up information on the project.

Although it was discouraging to end the LAGS Thai volunteer project, the villagers refused to stop. The core Thai volunteers were true to their word and continued to conduct teach backs. They operated at the local community level (from the sub-district and village) to conduct the training. They received no direct Thai government funds for this program. The community-based education method worked!

In Fall 2001, 6 different villages formed 8 teams to begin to produce compost commercially. The teams ranged in size from 15 to 35 people. Every 3 months, each team produced 3000 kg/3.3 tons of compost. Demand exceeded supply. All the compost is sold in advance. The return is nearly 9.7 times their investment. What started off as an environmental conservation project had a rural economic development component to it. This clearly showed the community-based education helps create sustainable communities.

Spring 2002: Ms. Suittisan got a group of 100 villagers to set up a non-chemical fertilizer/pesticide demonstration farm. There is hope that a second demonstration village will soon follow.

Summer 2002: Lee received inquiries from two different Thai groups to get his help in organizing similar community-based education programs in their areas. Discussions are underway. Lee visited Nan Province to scout out possible training sites. Upon his return, another Thai group in Chiang Rai Province indicated interest in getting his help.

2002 UPDATE: Thai MOI & World Bank Interest
During Fall 2002, both the World Bank and the upper levels of the Thai MOI were very interested in the American Volunteer project. Unfortunately, no further word has reached us. But it is rather significant that national and international attention are being paid to this community-based education activity!

2004 UPDATE: ESSI launches the Rural Environmental Education Enhancement Pilot Project (REEEPP) at Ban Na Fa Elementary School in Nan Province. It introduced the community-based environmental education methods successfully implemented in Chiang Rai Province. This was integrated with 3 programs for elementary school students: Green School, Habitat, and the NASA CERES S’COOL project. The Rural Training Center-Thailand (RTC-TH) was created as the local ESSI affiliate to coordinate the project.

2005 UPDATE: The summer 2005 ESSI Thailand volunteer project brought volunteers to Ban Na Fa to help boost the REEEPP effort. A cross-cultural component utilized home stays with local villagers. The overwhelming success of this project resulted in spinning off the RTC-TH as a wholly separate entity from ESSI. ESSI would focus on urban families in southern California. The RTC-TH would target rural families in Nan Province. (See the 2005 project reports in the PDF section of this website.)

Winter 2007 Volunteer Trip: Plans are being made for a Jan 2007 effort to continue REEEPP. Preliminary trip information is available in the PDF section of this website.

copyright 2002, revised 2006, G.K. Lee. All rights reserved.

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Thailand Volunteer Project Links

2005 Situation Report
2005 Field Report #1 Advance Team in Thailand
2005 Field Report #2 Local Coordination in Thailand
2005 Field Report #3 The Faces of REEEPP
2005 Field Report #4 Review of First Year of REEEPP
2005 Field Report #5 RTC Staff Training
2005 Preliminary Thai Project Photo Summary Report
Preliminary Winter 2007 Trip Information Packet

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