Fried Frogs in Plaboo: Community Development in Northeast Thailand
August 14, 2019
We arrived at Plaboo Village, in northeast Thailand’s Maha Sarakam Province, just as a community meeting hosted by the local farmers’ association was coming to a close. It was hot and dusty, but the recently constructed community center was an oasis of clean, unfinished wood bedecked with flowers and colorful pillows. Around 60 residents were seated in rows of chairs in an open-air square with a makeshift stage at one end. The speakers were finishing up, and the meeting concluded with a round of rousing chants from the audience.
As the milling crowd departed, we were steered to a spot overlooking the rice fields, where we sat down to chat with Theerada Namhai, founder of the Thai Baan Association. Ten years ago, after completing her studies abroad, Theerada came home to Plaboo Village. At the time, she said, many families in the community—farming families in particular—were basically destitute, trapped in a cycle of debt. Motivated by her own parents’ struggle to produce enough rice simply to eat, Theerada got together with other young people from farming families and started a local farmers’ association, which they called “Thai Baan.”
As described in a recent Asia Foundation report, the Isan region of northeast Thailand is the nation’s poorest and most populous, and its development is a key to the country’s future prosperity. In Plaboo Village, the community center is a bustling hub of social and economic activity that is starting to turn things around for local residents. It is a testament to the Thai Baan Association and Theerada’s multidimensional approach to community development.
Thai Baan’s initial activity was to form a local cooperative of 50 families. They built a rice bank to distribute surplus rice to the neediest families, so that everyone would at least have enough to eat. From there, some members of the cooperative began moving into organic farming, a potentially more lucrative market, with Theerada and the Thai Baan Association bringing in technical support to help them meet European Union standards. It’s been a difficult road, Theerada explained. Only 10 of the 30 families who went organic have qualified to sell their rice in the EU. Their success, however, has inspired the broader community, and roughly 1,000 farming families in the province have signed up for the program in the past few months.
Poor communities in northern Thailand face multidimensional challenges. Poverty and disempowerment go hand in hand, Theerada explained, particularly when accompanied by predatory lending. Farmers are often victimized by “middlemen,” who buy their rice at low prices at harvest time and then act as high-interest lenders at planting time. Through training and community engagement, Thai Baan is helping farmers negotiate better prices for their rice, and the association is working to set up a “farm factory”—a collective social enterprise that provides the processing to convert the raw harvest into finished produce and food products that sell at higher prices.
A decade later, according to Theerada, all the residents of Plaboo village have pulled themselves out of poverty and are much less vulnerable to economic shocks. Various local enterprises are selling their products—locally, within Thailand, and even on international markets. The impression that things are looking up for Plaboo is reinforced by the handsome community facilities, the array of produce on display, and the friendly vibe of bustling activity.
Gradual improvements in basic livelihoods have now allowed the community to branch out into other areas. There is a “green market” selling organic vegetables, and a workshop that dyes fabric and makes clothing and accessories that fuse modern and traditional styles. The local teenagers have put together a band that plays traditional music of Isan, and they’re doing quite well, with paid gigs in Bangkok and elsewhere in the country.
A striking aspect of the association’s success has been its autonomy: it is largely self-funded and draws its skills, direction, and energy from the community. Not that it never seeks outside funds: some of Theerada’s work to improve local education is funded by an international NGO, she explained, and there have been other times when Thai Baan has received project funding. But in Theerada’s view, the project approach isn’t always successful, because the needs and goals of the community don’t always match the programs and objectives of outside donors.
Three features of Thai Baan’s model are striking. The first is a multidimensional approach that encompasses all aspects of well-being, not just economic livelihoods. The economic, the political, the social and cultural, the individual and the collective—all are important. Providing elderly residents with massage, sauna, and preventive medicine services at the community center is just as important as supporting better farming. Plans for economic diversification, Theerada explained, are based not only on the needs of the market but also on the passions and interests of those who get involved.
The second feature is a focus on collective problem solving. Thai Baan draws on the community’s innate knowledge of its own needs to prioritize shared problems. With each success, another challenge appears on the horizon. Now, Theerada said, it is the lack of access to groundwater for local farms, which will need government intervention. “The governor visited us last week,” she explained matter-of-factly. “He said he will support us. We will send him a plan.”
The third feature of Thai Baan’s model is its outward-looking vision and pursuit of strategic partnerships. For instance, Thai Baan has successfully encouraged the community to set up their own social enterprises with support from local businesses. Another recent partnership, between Thai Baan and Silpakorn University, in Bangkok, looks at improving local farming techniques. Engagement with the provincial government is yet another.
These three characteristics mark this as a community development approach, not merely a local one. And Theerada’s own drive and vision—her leadership in the community—seem to draw these threads together. Not that it’s all been smooth sailing. The difficult venture to establish accredited organic farms is only now starting to bear fruit, a decade later.
In future, Theerada is keen to make a more systematic contribution to health and education in the province. She would like to see the local schools encourage independent thinking. People don’t just need more knowledge, she said; they need a new disposition to think globally and entertain new perspectives in order to foster community adaptability and resilience. Through Thai Baan, she has started lobbying for changes to an education system that teaches facts, she suggested, but doesn’t encourage free inquiry or expression.
After chatting with us for an hour or so on the wooden deck of the community complex, Theerada took us on a tour. The main path was lined with food stalls and registration tables. Families were socializing and signing up to join the Thai Baan organic rice program. As we walked, she introduced us and described the activities around us. The bustle and creativity were impressive, and Theerada shone with enthusiasm for the community’s achievements. As she offered me a skewer from one of the food stalls, holding five large, flat, fried frogs, Theerada giggled at my startled expression. Her laughter was infectious.
Nicola Nixon is The Asia Foundation’s director of governance programs. She can be reached at email@example.com. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author, not those of The Asia Foundation.
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