Rural Training Center, Thailand (RTC-Thailand)

Self-sufficiency & “Social Security”: What if you are laid off?

Nov 23, 2008

Self-sufficiency and ?“Social Security?”: What if you are laid off?

[Note: Whatever your situation on Thanksgiving Day 2008, consider that many in the world are enduring hardships many times more difficult than what most of us are experiencing. Let us all be very thankful for what we have and consider what we can do to make the world a better place.]

Small rural family farms played an important part in Thailand?’s 1997 financial meltdown. With about 65% of the people living in rural areas, rural family farms were the safety net for many of the displaced urban workers. These farms may not have provided gainful employment for the displaced workers. But at least there was food to eat.

According to various international studies and reports at the dawn of the 21st Century: Half of the world?’s people
?• cannot get to clean drinking water once a day.
?• cook their food by burning wood
?• live on less than ~$2 USD per day
Nearly 1 billion people are illiterate; some 840 million people go hungry or face food insecurity; about one-third of all children under the age of five suffer from malnutrition.

The current global economic crisis is starting to impact Thailand?’s export driven economy. Thai banks were not heavily affected by the financial meltdown caused by the US sub-prime mortgage crisis. However, as the western economies of North America and Europe decline, they also reduce their Thai imports. The Thai news is filled with reports of factories reducing production and cutting staff. In some cases workers are furloughed with full pay for 1 month while in others they are laid off and become unemployed. For many of these workers, there is no "unemployment" insurance system.

A recent UN report warns of rising potential unrest in SE Asian countries as more and more urban workers are unemployed. Many SE Asian nations saw economic growth due to exports. In the Asian-Pacific area, the UN estimates 900 million people live below the UN defined poverty line. The report also stated another 300 million people recently rose out of poverty. The economic down turn means they are vulnerable and could become impoverished again. The UN report also points out the long-term effect of a major economic down turn: children drop out of school. In the case of female drop outs, this leads to a generation of illiterate mothers. That illiteracy can creep or cascade into the next generation. Poverty estimates for Thailand range from 10-25% of the population (among the 2006 population estimate of 64.6 million Thais). Hopefully the 1997 rural safety net is still exists for Thailand.

In the RTC-TH view, all of this reinforces the importance of self-sufficient, sustainable small rural family farms. While there is no universal definition of poverty, anyone who has been unemployed knows that with little or no income, it is very difficult to buy food. Most people recognize the plight of people living in poverty is a combination of lacking both money and food.

But consider the profile of a self-sufficient small rural family farm. It may be cash poor, but it can feed itself. In dire economic times, people who have enough to eat, and who have a secure, sustainable food supply, are better able to survive. And, if they are well fed, they will be less prone to social unrest.

Some critics point the finger at wealthy nations for creating, imposing, and continuing conditions in third world countries resulting in perpetual poverty and hunger. It is amazing to see countries such as the US and Canada dominating 70%+ of the world?’s wheat trade yet we have so many hungry people on the planet. Agri-businesses seem more than capable of producing the food needed to meet the need. The critical sticking point is the inability of the needy to pay for the food produced by the developed countries.

The message seems clear enough to us at the RTC-TH. The poor cannot and should not depend on the wealthy nations to solve their problems. Certainly, the resources of the developed nations are welcomed in the effort to alleviate poverty. But for all the years since WWII and the end of the Cold War, poverty seems to grow.

International aid and relief is overwhelmed with the immediate food and medical needs of the impoverished. There never seems to be enough food, water, and medicine in many areas in need. But those relief efforts are clearly not sustainable. And they are largely dependent on the largess of others. When times are good, the donations flow. When times are bad, the donations often dry up.

In the long-term, the Have-Nots continue to Have-Not. Self-sufficiency is not about isolation and being a pillar of independence. The key is to have enough to eat. This greatly reduces the need for money to buy food and other goods. If you don?’t eat, you die. You can?’t eat material goods (e.g. motor bikes, cars, TVs, etc.). Education plays an important role not only to empower people to be self-sufficient in food. People need to learn how to sustain the environmental conditions to allow them to continue to grow their own food. They also need to learn to think critically and avoid the trap of spending more than they earn and chasing after materials goods at the expense of the health and welfare of their families. They need to rebuild their communities that are often torn apart when families fragmented in pursuit of money in far off cities and industries.

Life in a free society is sometimes mythical. There are many fine ideas of freedom, democracy, etc. These abstractions have strong emotional appeal. But to those living in free societies, one harsh reality is that you have as much freedom as you can afford. With little or no money, you don?’t have as many choices for food, shelter, education, entertainment, or an enjoyable life. Every time you turn around, it costs money. It seems that money is needed for just about everything needed in life and death. That?’s what it seemed life was like for us living in Los Angeles, CA. It is clear that our home in a large urban center was not sustainable.

Using the functional definition of a habitat (SWFS: space, water, food, shelter), a family needs enough land in which to find sufficient water to grow enough food and create shelter to support itself. Using the Geographic Systems Model helps assess any particular location on Earth to determine the specifics to apply SWFS. The King of Thailand analyzed the needs of some of the poorest farmers his nation. He drew up a guideline for poor rural farmers to become self-sufficient in term of food for the family. The King?’s Theory for a self-sufficient farm in Thailand uses a similar line of reasoning to SWFS and the Geographic Systems Model.

In contrast to our former house in LA, the RTC-TH demo farm has a much higher potential to be sustainable. The RTC-TH started, and continues to be, a grassroots all volunteer effort. Practically no major outside funding is used. This is purposefully done to demonstrate that community-based resources can be mobilized to educate and empower small rural family farms to become self-sufficient and sustainable. This is also why we tend to use no-tech / low tech methods to reduce training costs. The success of our efforts is largely due to ready acceptance to our proven methods that are easily adapted to local conditions and cultures.

We don?’t make headlines or the evening news. We don?’t save or aid thousands of people at a time. After all, we are a community-based grassroots group. Our goals are to train a few people well, who will then go forth and share their knowledge and skills with others in the community. It is a slow gradual process. But the geometry of the Teach Back model (where we train a small group of 4-5 people, who each then train a group of 4-5 people) can produce staggering results in a shorter period of time than traditional formal schooling. This informal approach has no written exams, no diplomas and graduation statistics. We don?’t shuffle papers and keep records to write impressive reports and studies. We prefer to spend our time training those who want to learn. Because we are not chasing after funding support, records and statistics are a much lower priority for us. Besides, this saves a lot of overhead costs to maintain an office and staff.

In retrospect, it is interesting to see that public education often features 1 teacher to 40 students and gets dismal results. Studies show that smaller class sizes results in higher student achievement. But the economics of smaller classes for teachers is not ?“cost effective?” in the short-term financial models used. We have the luxury of training those who self-select to come to us. They are motivated learners with a purpose. We live what we teach. Our farm is a small rural family farm. We call it a demonstration farm, but it isn?’t a show case. It is the farm that feeds our family. We are showing that reasonable self-sufficiency and sustainability is possible.

It isn?’t because we have the money to afford to do this. We live modestly. In the local economy there are a good number of people who are richer than we are. And there are also a good number who are poorer than we are. We strive for a reasonable balance, following the King?’s Theory and being socially responsible as well as self-sufficient. Our REEEPP effort with the village elementary school is one way we give back to the local community AND train the next generation of self-sufficient and sustainable Thai farmers.
As the global economic crises deepens, it will become more and more apparent to many living in cities how unsustainable an urban life-style can be. They are almost totally dependent on others for water and food---very critical needs for survival. It is difficult for urban populations to be self-sufficient?….but not entirely impossible. It calls for a different life-style of greatly reduced consumption and waste. There are some who say it is ?“too late.?” But from our perspective, it is never too late to make a change. First, make a difference in your life before trying to make a difference in the lives of others. Actions speak louder than words.

We don?’t claim our efforts will save the world. And we don?’t claim to be as big and important as the international NGOs (Non-government Organizations). We are a grassroots group, working in a small rural community, living the life-style we advocate others should live. For those who chose to encourage us, support us, or follow us, we express our sincere thanks and appreciation. In the end, we can at least claim that we tried our best to make a difference.

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