Back to Balance

There are fish in the water and rice in the fields. This classic Thai idiom has been repeated ad inifinitum to children as they grow up.

By | Tue 1 Jun 2010

There are fish in the water and rice in the fields
– inscription on an ancient Thai stone tablet

For hundreds of years, this classic Thai idiom has been repeated ad inifinitum (in some cases ad nauseam) to children as they grow up. But while this tribute to the nation’s natural abundance might once have rung true, its veracity has been muddied by the passage of time. Survival in modern Thailand is an entirely different story: rivers have been overfished and polluted; most rice fields lie within the confines of private land. The World Wildlife Fund’s Ecological Footprint Index shows that our single earth ceased to be sufficient for our needs somewhere around the mid-eighties. We are currently exceeding our planet’s regenerative capacity by roughly 25 % and climbing, without any clear road map back to a place of balance. The issue of sustainability has never been of such vital importance _ but how can this abstract concept be defined in less elusive terms? And more pertinently, how can it be achieved?

Not a cup but a cow
– Dan West

In 1939, a fellow called Dan West travelled to Spain on a relief mission to provide food to communities ravaged by the Spanish Civil War. As he was distributing packets of powdered milk, he began wondering what would happen to the refugees when the aid workers left and the supplies ran out. It would be much more practical, he reasoned, to give these people a sustainable source of nutrition rather than a transient one. In 1944, about a month after the war ended, West established Heifer Project International _ aimed at achieving empowerment through sustainability _ and embarked on his first project, delivering 18 cows to impoverished families in Puerto Rico. Since then, Heifer has evolved into a global organisation, with branches spread as far and wide as Rwanda and Romania, Cambodia and Kosovo, Tanzania and Thailand. Heifer Thailand was set up in 1974, and today oversees projects all over the country, each with its own specific set of characteristics, needs and challenges, but all following the same approach: ‘Not a cup, but a cow’.

To distill the most essential components of successful sustainability into a workable format, Heifer did a global assessment of all their existing projects. They came up with the 12 Cornerstones – some typically associated with sustainability, such as animal management; training and education; improving the environment. But the list also includes elements that might not spring to mind right off the bat as being inherent to the concept: gender and family focus; sharing and caring, accountability; spirituality. “We use animals as an entry point into the communities, but our approach is more about values,” explains Sangwan Sapma, Heifer’s communication and networking manager. “Every community has values, but many of these have been lost in the modern world. We remind people of the things that once sustained their communities and try to revive those.”

Give a man a fish and he will eat for a day, teach him how to fish and he will eat for a lifetime
– Lao Tzu

In the Lahu hamlet of Ban Huay Ratchabutr near Mae Tang District, villagers are sharing their experiences of Heifer’s diverse training programme. It’s the eve of their big day – the Passing of the Gift ceremony in which the families will pass on to another community the same number of livestock and seeds that they originally received from Heifer. Sangwan and her colleagues have been working with the village families (of which there are only 23) for the last four years, guiding them through each of the 12 Cornerstones. Tomorrow is the culmination of the project – the hallmark of its success.

“There have been many developments since the project started,” says villager Polu Ja-nga, “but before that, without the training we’ve received, we didn’t know where to start.” The developments he speaks of are multifaceted. For one thing, the villagers have changed from mono-cropping to integrated farming, so they no longer have to spend money on other sources of food and it’s easier to farm without the aid of expensive and soil-leaching chemicals. They have constructed a series of dykes to create catchments of water along free-flowing streams that otherwise dry up in the hot season, so it’s easier to irrigate crops, catch fish and keep their buffaloes cool. Since local officials noticed the progress, they have been more willing to offer additional assistance, so the village now has tap water, solar power and better road access.

“The village is much cleaner,” says Polu’s wife Haesae, “and we have a better relationship with government officials and the local Thai people. Before, the forestry officials wanted us to leave this place, because it lies within a protected area and they were worried we would destroy the environment, but now they see we help to preserve the forest – that we plant trees, not cut them – and we don’t have problems with them anymore; we all work together for the same goals.”

But the most impressive difference of all, says Haesae, is that men and women are much more equal since they attended gender equality training. Before men were the undisputed leaders, agrees Polu, but now women participate more in meetings and making decisions, and some, like his wife, have added much to the community this way. “The men understand it’s a pity that only we women have to work so hard,” adds another villager, Nalor Jayee, gesturing to her husband beside her. “Now we both work in the kitchen, we both cut rice, we both look after the children and we both go to community meetings. We understand each other better and we’re happier together.”

You can take a horse to water but you can’t make it drink
– old English proverb

Damrong Taweesuksathit of the Rural Community Development Project (RCDP) is Heifer’s man on the inside: a project partner who is familiar with the Lahu culture, customs and the social context in which they live. The most striking difference he has witnessed is the villagers’ inner change, he says. “They live much more harmoniously now, and think in a much more reasonable way on all kinds of levels. “They have more experience of the world and are much more confident and empowered. Buffaloes and pigs won’t make them rich, but we use these animals to change their mindset.” Damrong believes the combination of the 12 Cornerstones create the catalyst for this internal shift and are key to Heifer’s success in promoting sustainable development in rural communities across the planet. But the Cornerstones won’t work if communities are not ready to help themselves, interjects Sangwan. “We use many variables to identify our target communities, but one of the most vital is their readiness for progress.”

Only after the last tree has been cut down; only after the last fish has been caught; only after the last river has been poisoned; only then will you realise that money cannot be eaten
– Cree Indian Prophecy

But what about sustainability in urban environments? In 2008, the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) reported that, for the first time in recorded history, more than half the world’s population was living in towns and cities. Heifer works exclusively with rural communities, but Damrong believes that the 12 Cornerstones are still relevant to the urban context: “Many of the same principles apply, but spirituality – in the sense of values or inner change, not a specific religion or set of beliefs _ is possibly the most vital, because many other Cornerstones stem from that.”

Mark Ritchie of the International Sustainable Development Studies Inistitute (ISDSI) has been working with sustainability for over a decade, running study-abroad programmes that examine the concept in both rural and urban settings. “Sustainability is all about the links between systems – how people shape the world around them, and how that in turn shapes them,” he says. “It’s an exchange between culture and environment, and regardless of whether the environment is rural or built, it’s essential to maintain these links so that balance exists. The way we can figure out if something is sustainable is if it has the capacity to restore or regenerate the local environment. Unfortunately in many urban environments the links to the natural world have been almost completely broken, and the challenge is to find ways to reconstruct these within an urban context so the ecosystem can heal itself.”

“Urban sustainability is a far more complex subject,” adds Taylor Cantril, one of ISDSI’s students, “simply because it involves so many more people, at so many different echelons of society – from the poorest of the poor to the very wealthy, and from activists to government officials. In small communities, small changes can make a big difference, but in urban society that’s a lot harder to achieve.”

In Chiang Mai, the consciousness for that reconstruction is just beginning, continues Ritchie. “People are starting to be more aware, and there’s more demand and opportunity for a sustainable city than before – for instance people are beginning to recycle and to be more genuinely concerned about the pollution problem. But there are still many obstacles in place: there’s no really effective form of communal public transport – tuk tuks and songtaew aren’t super green – and while in some cases a legal framework exists to enable sustainability, in most it’s not enforced. But at least the city is starting to introduce initiatives that have restorative potential.”

There is a lot that people in a city can do to increase sustainability and “repair the link” with the natural world, maintains Ritchie. “Simple but important things like recycling and composting kitchen and yard waste have a huge impact. Even growing plants or vegetables in a container or a small garden is a step in the right direction, and brings you more in touch with the natural world. Buying vegetables from local farmers (like at the JJ Organic Market on Wednesdays and Saturdays) reduces your carbon footprint and supports the local social and ecological networks that help sustain a healthy city. Small steps matter.”

Only time will tell whether initiatives such as those implemented by Heifer, the ISDSI and others like them manage to shrink our ecological footprint sufficiently to restore a state of equilibrium. In the meantime, they are achieving large successes in small pockets of the planet, and providing models – should we choose to use them – for moving forward in balanced, sustainable ways.