Kumrab Phanthong is encouraging farmers to shift from "Green Revolution" monoculture farming techniques to traditional polyculture techniques, through mechanisms that increase their knowledge of farming techniques, market wisdom and ultimately, collective bargaining power.
Kumrab is attacking the problems of environmental degradation and deforestation resulting from modern farming methods. He realizes that there is no one simple solution to this problem and therefore has developed several key innovative methodologies to accomplish his goals, most importantly: "Grassroots Universities", "Fruit Fairs", and a chain of "Green Market" shops. Most recently, he has put all these ideas together in his "Green Road" project, which combines all the individual pieces of his methodology in a concerted effort to achieve broader effectiveness and a more comprehensive approach to the issues facing rural communities in Thailand. This initiative is strategically located to market Kumrab's approach both in the consumer and political arenas. Through his "Grassroots University," Kumrab is facilitating a peer-to-peer transfer of knowledge. Sessions are held in local community centers where local community members learn and exchange local farming knowledge with and from other communities. Kumrab has also implemented "Fruit Fair" competitions to recognize, document, and increase the marketability of local fruits that are currently not widely marketed. These competitions encourage farmers within the local communities to become aware of the diversity of locally produced crops, ensure the mapping and recording of the diversity, and to appreciate the market value of many of the products. Through the fairs, Kumrab is working to persuade the local farmers to choose the poly-crop farming method in preference to the discredited mono-crop by showing what can be grown in the region and showing that these products can be sold at very good prices if identified properly. In addition, Kumrab has introduced a "Green Market" chain of shops for chemical-free produce. While individual natural produce markets exists in scattered locations throughout Thailand, Kumrab is systematically setting up a chain of "Green Markets" with recognizable branding and quality control. Finally, Kumrab is campaigning to affect public policy change through the strategically positioned "Green Road", a heavily industrialized area, where he is beginning to showcase all elements of his project and emphasizing the need to work towards to a sustainable natural alternative agricultural system. His long term vision involves the replication of his Green Road model along with government policy change that is accepting of his model.
The problems that Kumrab and his organization, SAAN, were originally organized to deal with fall into two categories: environmental and social. Environmentally, they stem from two related sources. First, during the 1960s, Thailand decided to make a serious push to enter the global market, and its fastest source of export dollars was natural resources. All over Thailand natural resource exploitation led to deforestation at a disastrous rate. At the time, approximately 75-80% of the country was covered in old-growth forest; now that figure is approaching 15%. This deforestation has led to many problems such as the silting of rivers, reduced water tables, erosion of farmland, and increased flooding.
Along with this policy of deforestation, the government also joined into the CGIAR (Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research) "Green Revolution," which promised to revitalize the world's food supply through high-tech seeds and modern agricultural methods. The "Green Revolution" entailed intensive irrigation, heavy machinery, and chemical-based fertilizers and pest control. These methods, although showing successes in the early years, are now understood by many Thais to have caused many more problems than they solved. Agricultural biodiversity has been severely degraded as farmers were told to concentrate on a small handful of high-tech seeds which responded well to the new farming methods. For instance, before the advent of these new farming and marketing strategies, there were several hundred species of the popular fruit, durian, in Thailand. That number, however, has now decreased to 20.
Huge areas of monocultures were also very susceptible to pest infestations, and new pesticides used in greater quantity constantly had to be developed. This huge growth in pesticide and chemical fertilizer use had further repercussions, as the health of farmers was placed in jeopardy and the many chemicals began to find their way into the surrounding ecosystems through water, wind and animal vectors. This led to further erosion of natural biodiversity as species after species was wiped out from the combination of habitat loss and chemical poisoning.
Social problems also increased dramatically during this period. Forest communities lost their homes following the deforestation. Farming communities were heavily impacted as modern farming methods, requiring large tracts of land and heavy equipment, rendered many small farming families either homeless or relegated them to the role of dependent contract farmers. Along with its policies of agribusiness and deforestation, the government was also promoting industrialization, which drew many people who had once lived in small communities as farmers into larger centers as factory workers, poorly paid with few rights. And overall, through these changes, the small communities became increasingly less autonomous - decisions made in government centers far away were taking their land and incomes away from them. The local people lost the capacity to make the decisions for themselves concerning their right to farm or their right to have a say in the use of natural resources in their communities.
Kumrab began his work by doing a survey of all crops of the region, conducting research on edible and medicinal plants and meticulously recording all the relevant details. From approximately 1000 species, Kumrab believes the communities will eventually be able to restore approximately 200 types, as there are only between 10-20 identified species currently grown and distributed in the market. Kumrab has been encouraging members of the local communities to preserve seeds of crops that, although popular with local communities, are no longer in the mainstream market. He intends to make these crops available in the mainstream market once again.
Kumrab originated the "Grassroots University" concept with the object of encouraging local communities to locate senior community members who have the necessary knowledge and experience concerning traditional agriculture, medicines, lifestyles, and social activities. Community members then communicate their knowledge in a farmer-to-farmer approach. Currently there are nine "Grassroots University" groups in the southern provinces which are presently linked through Kumrab's network. He expects to expand this network throughout Thailand and eventually to other countries. Through the "Grassroots University" groups, Kumrab has given local people the confidence to bring about change for the better in their own lives and communities for future sustainability.
Another element of Kumrab's strategy is the "Fruit Fair" competition. Any farmer can bring along a rare variety of fruit or edible crop from their own farms or gardens to be entered and displayed in the competition. Kumrab's idea is that prize winning produce will be carefully recorded with a view to patenting them for future use within agricultural communities using the polycrop farming system and publicizing them with local and international markets to increase their popularity with the consumers. The local community working group at the fruit fair is responsible for analyzing the produce to determine its size, weight, taste, smell, color, texture and its marketing prospects. For example, Bangkok residents generally eat the "Golden Pillow" durian, but recently they have become more aware of the "Bold" variety. As a result, its popularity has increased greatly due to scarcity and superior quality and it now sells for 2-3 times the cost of the more common durian.
Kumrab's "Green Markets" are aimed at educating and changing the attitude of consumers to accept naturally produced foods. "Green Markets" are already up and running in Songkla province every weekend. Kumrab is expanding their reach to include approximately 40 outlets along the Songkla-Satun Road (the "Green Road", see below) during the next three years. They are currently being publicized through various media outlets such as television, radio, newspapers, etc. to promote green products and educate people about the green process, good health, and alternative medicine. In addition, Kumrab has mobilized various resources including public and private sector agencies to support the "Green Market" concept, e.g. Canadian Fund to organize Community Support Agriculture[CSA]; a local newspaper owner donated land for Weekend Green Market use; the Sub-District Authority permitted the use of its center for training courses.
Kumrab considers the education and training of farmers in the use of polycrop farming and marketing skills, e.g. packaging, presentation, and distribution, will be key factors in achieving acceptance of chemical-free farming methods by the general public.
Kumrab has most recently launched his "Green Road" project which unifies his three main independent strategies for encouraging polycrop farming and sustainable agriculture, i.e. the "Grassroots University", "Fruit Fair", and "Green Market". Kumrab selected the 90 km main road between Songkla and Satun provinces as his first "Green Road" due to its strategic importance for his project on several fronts:
1. A major academic institution is located along the road and is partnering with Kumrab to establish the Weekend Green Market and also support the organizing of consumers and producers. 2. This road is an important land-bridge link between the main eastern and western coasts of Thailand and part of the government's Southern Seaboard Complex. 3. The road runs through an extensive forest-covered mountainous area, full of bio-diversity, such as evergreen trees, hot-springs and waterfalls. This area is under threat from a government project to build a series of dams and reservoirs to provide water for the future industrial development in that area. 4. Kumrab has worked closely and fostered good relations and positive responses with local communities in this area over ten years. 5. This will be a pilot project to show the government a holistic development approach, appealing to people of different religions in the region- both Buddhist and Muslims- rather than the government's present divide and rule approach.
At present, along the Green Road, there are 12 villages containing 240 families participating in the poly-crop agricultural method. Kumrab expects that during the next three years that this will increase to between 50 and 60 villages with 1000 families. The six groups of local communities who conserve the forest and take part in natural resource management by themselves are expected to expand to between 10 and 15 groups over a three-year period. Kumrab predicts that in this time period, 200 or more plant species will be restored, protected, and marketed from the present 10-20 species.
On an even larger scale, Kumrab will be working to include the "Green Road" in the Ninth National Economic and Social Development Plan. Industrial development of the Southern Seaboard region would then be reconsidered or adjusted on a higher level. At the same time he will be working to incorporate the "Grassroots University" educational concept into the National Alternative Education Acts.
Born in 1960, Kumrab comes from a very poor family where he had to work very hard becoming a laborer while still very young, often gathering the contents of garbage bins to sell. These experiences encouraged and inspired him to help underprivileged children by forming peer groups of students who helped others with less opportunity to overcome their various problems. This was the beginning of his concern for society and social problems and he determined that when he grew up and finished his education he would return to his motherland to help develop and bring up these less fortunate people.
His degree in Local Government and Administration encouraged his concern for self-government of local communities. Kumrab then took his knowledge and applied it in real-life situation.
After graduation, he worked as a district officer in Satun province, but quickly found intransigence and other problems in the government sector, so he decided to branch out on his own.The NGO leaders involved in various development projects in the South of Thailand inspired him and acted as role models for his participation in community development. His first developmental project was working with fishermen as a volunteer. He then worked with Save the Children Fund for six months as a community development worker within both the fishing and farming sectors. From this experience, he decided he would rather work full time with the farmers and focus entirely upon land and farming issues.Kumrab is a devout Buddhist, who believes very much in a philosophy of compromise and working together rather than confrontation. In many instances, he has been able to forge alliances and cooperation between government agencies and villagers, who were often originally more inclined to be confrontational.He is a hard working, practical minded, very knowledgeable and experienced person who is well respected by the government, NGO and local communities in the region where he is based.