In the absence of state support, the poor help the poor

It’s a revolutionary vision for community support. The fishermen of Rawai, Phuket were unable to sell their fish after the closure of Phuket island. Now, they’ve started exchanging their fish for rice from Karen communities in the North. The “Rice for Fish” program is a grassroots effort facilitated by an association for indigenous peoples, which spans indigenous communities from multiple provinces across Thailand.

“They have rice, we have fish. If both of our communities have rice and fish, we will survive,” said Suwichan Pattanapraiwan, one of the project co-founders and an Assistant Professor at Srinakharinwirot University. As a member of the Karen tribe, he was involved in the indigenous peoples’ association even before it was founded in 2010.

“We do not think of this exchange in terms of business or profit. We think in terms of cultural exchange – we give each other enough without taking advantage of one another. We’re not troubled, our families are not troubled, our communities, our rivers, our forests, our mountains are not troubled by this exchange.” 

The current rate of exchange is 2kg of dried fish for 15kg or 1 bag of rice. The fishermen usually sell their fish fresh but are learning to dry their fish using traditional methods. Meanwhile, Karen communities across Tak and Chiang Mai are targeting the production of at least 3,700kg of rice, to feed 243 households in the Rawai community. They will need the dried fish – their supplies of food remain unstable amid the raging forest fires in the North.

Suwichan highlights how inaccessible the government subsidy is for most of the poor. The fishermen of Rawai are mostly illiterate, most do not own smartphones or bank accounts. He estimates that of 1,300 afflicted fishermen, perhaps 3 or 4 will receive the 5,000 baht.

“We can’t wait for the state. The people have to step in to help each other – it’s based on a P2P system of exchange: people to people, in this case, it is also a producer to producer exchange.” 

The only costs that need to be offset are the delivery costs of bringing the fish from Phuket to Chiang Mai, and the rice down the opposite route. For those who are distant from both the rice production and the fishing, this is how to contribute.

A decentralized, localized response

This is not the first time the indigenous community has mobilized its own response to a crisis. Forest fires have convulsed the North of Thailand for the past few months, and many villagers in Chiang Mai and its surrounding areas have become community firefighters. When a fire ripped through Mae Wang district in Chiang Mai a few days ago, it was indigenous villagers from the surrounding area that fought overnight to put it out.  “Because the forest is life,” one said.

“We have to fight during the day and during the night. We don’t know when the fires will break out, but when they do, we have to go,” Suwichan stated matter-of-factly.

A ‘Forest Fighting Community Support Center’ was set up by indigenous people, which has coordinated donations from other indigenous communities. Firefighting equipment, dry food and emergency funds have been distributed to Lampang, Nan and Chiang Rai.

Suwichan elaborates: “Our brothers and sisters from the city have helped by sending equipment, dry food, those from the South sent dry fish, which become provisions for fire-fighting missions.”

Pongnarin Pechompu, a villager firefighter from Mae Hong Son, passed away on April 4 on a community fire-fighting mission.  “He died protecting the forest which villagers called ‘life’,” wrote a statement from Pokwa Productions, which does community relations for the indigenous peoples’ association. “We will remember him as a fighter.”

While villagers risk their lives, the government continues to blame them for the fires. National Resources and Environment Minister Varawut Silpa-archa and Deputy Prime Minister Gen Prawit Wongsuwon have both attributed the fires to local agricultural burning. Both have threatened to terminate the forestry rights of those found to be starting fires.

Even in expressing condolences to the families of three villagers who died fighting the firefighters, Director-General of the Royal Forest Department Attapol Charoenchansa couldn’t help but warn villagers not to fight fires on their own, and instead wait for trained officials to handle them.

These are not practical realities, Suwichan points out.

“Even with the government curfew – when the fires come out, burning our homes, we have to go out. We can’t wait for the authorities to come. We have to rely on the power of the community.”

Instead, “both Covid-19 and the forest fires have made us more reliant on ourselves,” Suwichan asserts. Karen communities locked down their own villages in response to Covid-19 before the central government even decided to impose a curfew in Bangkok.

“In this Covid-19 period, it helps us recognize our own wisdom in organizing our communities.”

“We are able to see that in terms of resource management, the local community is the most important force in organizing and protecting natural resources.”

As such, the prospect of having their rights to forest access ripped away from them – as the state has continually threatened – is devastating. To Suwichan, this alone is more devastating than the fear of Covid-19 or even the loss of income that will ensue.

“We are afraid of many things, but we are most afraid of state policies that will not meet the needs of us villagers. We are afraid of state policies that will benefit those who have power, that will make us lose our rights, our capabilities, our power in society.” 

Here Suwichan alludes to the forest evictions and land grabs that have long been sanctioned by Prayudh’s military government. When the junta came to power in 2014, it promised to “reclaim” encroached land and introduce a new forest zoning system. Controversial plots of forest land have been found under Palang Pracharath MP ownership – and said MPs have subsequently been cleared of blame.

“We’ve been living in these forests before these forestry zoning laws,” Suwichan points out, “but some unjust laws have made forest encroachment worse. If you look at the forest fires, it’s been getting worse and worse every year – before, this was never a problem. It’s because these policies are not in line with the context and traditions of how we live.”

For a people that continually refer to the forests as ‘life’, Suwichan emphasizes, policies that don’t take their voices into account not only harm their communities but also the natural resources in the area.

“This is the scariest thing. It will make us people without rights and capabilities, not having the rights to use the resources that we live with.”

The Future of the “Rice for Fish” Program

With the current exchange agreement, Suwichan anticipates that the two communities will be able to last at least a month, perhaps longer.

“We are getting help from the North and are hearing that our brothers and sisters from Isaan will also participate in the program.”

For Suwichan and the indigenous peoples’ association, their first priority is to help their communities weather the crisis. After that, they may entertain other hopes about the possibilities of this project.

“We hope that this crisis may provide an opportunity to rethink the food market for indigenous people. Not just for those in the North and the South, but to Isaan, to the Central region or to the West.”

“It may be the beginning of setting up an entire P2P system of exchange.”

How to help

Help offset delivery costs by donating to the Thai Community Foundation (bank account number: 061-0-24961-4 / Bangkok Bank), also shown above! The Pokwa Productions page gives daily updates on the ‘Rice for Fish’ programit can be found here!

Photo Credit: Pokwa Production


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