“Sustainable” local initiatives and diverse aspirations A model village of organic farming in the Northeast Thailand

Event: 6th International Symposium on Environmental Sociology in East Asia (ISESEA)
Date: 20 October 2017, Taipei: Taiwan National University
Conference Paper

An increasing number of national and local governments are developing their strategies on sustainable development, due partially to the recent international agreements aiming for a medium and long-term transition toward sustainable societies. These strategies sometimes highlight local/community-scale initiatives as their key drivers to achieve “sustainability.” However, ground-level actions often stem from unique concerns among the local people on (non-)sustainability, which is noticeably different from those discussed among the policy makers.
This study analyses such coincidental matches between the ground-level initiatives and the local/national strategies to better understand the discrepancies of concerns on (non-)sustainability, taking a case of a village in Thailand where all farmers shifted to organic farming recently. The national government acknowledges the village as the “sufficiency economy model village,” and their activity is also aligned with the city’s strategy to promote low carbon and greener development. However, most villagers shifted to “organic” not from their concern for the environment. It is among the various tactics taken by the elderly farmers who stay in the village to continue agriculture with less labour and financial inputs while most of the youth currently work in the cities. A group of 30 farmers are keen on further promoting the organic farming, while the other villagers are uncertain whether the village-wide organic farming is a “sustainable” option for their living, on account of the further expected changes in the labour market, family structures, and climate.
From this case, the study proposes four key points of analysis. Firstly, people combine diverse activities including which the external experts or governments often appreciate as “sustainable”, and what they denounce as the cause of threat to the sustainability of the local environment, economy and society. These “unsustainable” activities, e.g. pursuit of the opportunities of off-farm jobs in the cities, are often the key activities which enables the “sustainable livelihoods” in reality.
Therefore, secondly, we should carefully look into the discrepancies of the concerns on non-sustainability, rather than the coincidental matches on the awareness of sustainability, to capture the unique threats of the conventional patterns of development to the local societies as well as people’s livelihoods.
Thirdly, in spite of such discrepancies, governments’ labelling of “sustainable actions” to the ground-level initiatives is not meaningless. Acknowledgements by the authorities may provide different viewpoints to the local actors on their challenges as well as the resources to cope with them, and give them further opportunities to collaborate with wider stakeholders.
Lastly, such interactions between the local initiatives and the local/national/global strategies of sustainability indicate an important fact that some of the challenges to sustainable societies may not occur in the exact order of the economic development as we tend to imagine. Even in the remote areas of developing countries, people sense the necessity to cope with challenges of ageing, depopulation, overconsumption, most of which were considered as the issues of developed countries until recently.
For the above reasons, we should not just praise their virtues of “sustainable” actions, but try to look into the unsustainability sensed in their everyday living.