Friday, December 11, 2009

"Authentic development" and the Pun Pun model

A while back I was assigned to write an essay for my "sustainable community development class" on the following theme:

As a program officer for the Gates Foundation, your assignment is to allocate $100,000 for a development project for a rural community (pop. 5,000) in the developing world. As identified by your [participatory research] assessment team, the key issues are mounting population pressures on arable land, food insecurity, deforestation, high morbidity/mortality of [children under age 5] from infectious (especially diarrheal) disease, and a contaminated primary water source (river is contaminated with agricultural runoff-pesticides and fertilizers, grazing livestock fecal matter, and local laundry and bathing).

How will you allocate your funding? Why? Explain in detail how your project's output will extend a positive effect on other problem areas...Just to clarify, this grant is for one primary project output.

In class the profs further clarified that the assignment was to identify one major objective to address (i.e. not addressing all the challenges listed, just one, presumably in a piecemeal fashion), considering the $100k as "seed money" to pilot some project to then use to go after more money down the road.

Anyway, I wanted to take the assignment as an opportunity to evince a different approach and a different philosophy than these "development professionals" typically deal with. So I wrote some background about my views of conventional "development" and what I call "authentic development," and I used Pun Pun Farm as a case study in an alternate philosophy/approach and as an experience that has been formative for me.

So here's what I wrote...

* * *

Let me start by saying something about my fundamental beliefs regarding what constitutes authentic development.

I consider that individuals and communities can be happiest and healthiest, enjoy a strong degree of livelihood security, and minimize harmful ecological impacts by meeting the lion’s share of their basic needs (e.g. water/sanitation, energy, food, shelter, goods, medicine and heath care) through their own efforts and skills, according to local indigenous traditions, and though sustainable management and use of local resources. (cf. Hind Swaraj, or village home rule, by MK Gandhi.)

I believe this logic applies not only to “developing communities” or communities in lesser-industrialized regions, but equally to industrialized, developed, and over-developed regions like the US.

The logic of economic globalization and conventional “development” has been to create dependence: countries of the North such as the US have become dependent upon imports, and the countries of the South have become dependent upon selling their exports (e.g. agricultural commodities) on the so-called “free” market. Native production in the US has dwindled as industries move overseas leaving devastated communities and economic depression in the wake – my home region of Appalachia, the steel towns of western Pennsylvania, the abandoned farming communities of the mid-west, and the manufacturing areas in and around Detroit are examples that attest to this damage. Meanwhile farmers throughout the global South have been forcibly converted to capital- and chemical- intensive forms of agriculture and production for export; many others have been extirpated from their land and crowded into peri-urban slums as a consequence of big “development” projects and must compete against the growing hordes for scarce, underpaid, and often dangerous jobs. Their livelihoods are thus vulnerable to the vagaries of the global economy as their capacity for local self-reliance has been eroded.

The globalization of our food system, to take an example, has reached absurd proportions with devastating ecological consequences. I once went into a Safeway in Washington State and found that the apples grown locally cost nearly twice as much as apples imported 7,000 miles from New Zealand. A 2006 report (1) by the New Economics Foundation documented numerous examples of such “ecologically wasteful” trade. For example, “in 2004 the UK imported 17.2 million kilos of chocolate-covered waffles and wafers and exported 17.6 million kilos; [the UK] imported 10.2 million kilos of milk and cream from France and exported 9.9 million. The figures for the same trade with Germany were 15.5 million kilos and 17.2 million. Germany sent us 1.5 million kilos of potatoes and we sent them, yes, 1.5 million kilos of potatoes….”

One imagines jumbo-jets full of milk and potatoes passing each other in the night as they traverse the English Channel – an absurdity wrought by the “logic” of economic globalization and so-called “free trade.”

So my fundamental belief is that re-creating local economies and engendering local self-reliance among communities worldwide is integral to authentic development everywhere. Attaining this means re-building within communities the capacity for subsistence and livelihood security based primarily upon the stewardship of local resources for local consumption. It means developing knowledge of place and intimate understanding of local ecosystems. It means embracing the type of life a particular place makes possible through its natural attributes rather than forcibly refashioning everyplace into a homogeneous corporate wasteland.

Since these are my fundamental beliefs, I advocate a holistic approach to development that augments a community’s native resources – human and ecological – with an integral vision to promote local self-reliance across the multiple dimensions of basic needs. Why is a holistic approach superior to a narrow, piecemeal approach? Because cross-connections are fundamental to nature: surface water quality is strongly influenced by forestation – clear-cutting forests increases erosion and impacts water bodies. Concerns for sanitation cannot be divorced from concerns over agricultural soil productivity as nutrients must be recycled to sustain crop yields. Using the organic manures from animals and humans obviates the need for synthetic chemical fertilizers that lead to runoff and drinking water pollution. Sustainable management of forests provides sources of food, fiber, herbs and medicinals, building materials, and energy, as well as wildlife habitats, biodiversity conservation, and micro-climate stability – in perpetuity. And so on…

Local and indigenous knowledge forms, rapidly being lost because of economic globalization, “development”, “modernization,” “education,” urbanization, etc., can help us to see these linkages and explore our own interdependence with ecosystems.

The effects of economic globalization have led to overmuch specialization among individuals and communities. University education in the US, for example, is geared to produce narrowly specialized technicians. Livelihood “security” for such individuals almost always involves selling one’s labor as a specialist to a giant corporation in return for a wage that is used to purchase products to meet life’s needs manufactured and sold by other specialists at corporations. This system is inherently insecure as we become increasingly dependent upon multinational corporations to employ us and sell us all our needs for life.

In the global South, farmers are increasingly pressured to become specialized growers of cash crops in monoculture for export – a farming style that is particularly vulnerable to pest outbreaks and thus necessitates the use of dangerous chemicals and synthetic fertilizers to guarantee the single-crop yields upon which the farmers’ livelihoods are now dependent. Again this system is inherently insecure and damaging to individuals and communities. The rash of farmers’ suicides in India (2) when faced with mounting, multi-generational debt attests to the damage and insecurity industrial farming has wrought.

The solution is not to abandon specialization completely but to move in the direction of a balanced generalism. In other words, as a society we need to recapture the homesteading skills that my grandmother’s generation relied upon to live in relative abundance even during the Great Depression of the 1930’s. The small farming communities of Appalachia were “poor” by monetary standards but rich in tradition, skill, and knowledge of how to make a living from the forests and fertile bottomlands of our home region. Regaining these waning skills is my prescription for communities in both the “developed” and “developing” worlds alike.

To illustrate how this transition can happen, I’ll take the case study of the Pun Pun farming community in northern Thailand. (3)

This community was built from scratch by a nearly penniless couple with a vision to create an agro-biodiversity conservation farm and sustainable living-learning center. Six years ago, Coloradoan Peggy Reents and her partner, Thai farmer Jon Jandai, bought a dilapidated hill farm on the outskirts of a remote village in mountainous northern Thailand. The land had been deforested, cropped in corn for several years until the soil was exhausted, and then abandoned to the rocks and weeds. The land was nearly worthless, so Peggy and Jo could just afford to buy about five acres. Through three seasons of mulching and composting and growing a few banana trees, Peggy and Jo slowly rehabilitated the wasted soil. They began to plant trees of the native hardwood species and fruit orchards for future agro-forestry development.

They had so little money they had to learn to make a life in ways that didn’t require money – in my mind this is the best kind of research for developing appropriate technologies and sustainable living practices that can be accessed, emulated, adapted, and improved upon by the poor (by definition, people who do not have money). They built their home from mud bricks made from the local earth and beautifully painted with local clays and pigments mixed with tapioca starch. They made their own soap and toothpaste out of local natural plants and substances. The brewed their own rice wine for celebrations. As their soils improved they were able to grow a greater portion of their own food and depend less upon the gifts of sustenance from visiting friends.

Industrial agriculture spread through Thailand while Jo was growing up in a small farming village in the eastern part of the country not far from the border with Laos. With it came hybrid seeds that would not grow without the chemical pesticides and fertilizers sold by the same agribusiness companies. The seeds were not viable after the first planting so it was no use for farmers to practice their tradition of seed saving. The local varieties of vegetables began to disappear and were replaced by a very few hybrid varieties of inferior taste and nutrition, and that were more vulnerable to pests, floods and droughts. As Jo watched the erosion of the traditional vegetable biodiversity, he decided the most important thing he could do was to save seeds and try to perpetuate the local varieties.

With their knowledge of natural earthen building and practical self-reliance born of direct experience and some hardship, Peggy and Jo began to build their vision of a seed center and sustainable living-learning center. Local Thai and hill tribe people, as well as like-minded Westerns who heard about their work, began to arrive at Pun Pun (Thai for “thousand varieties”) farm in this remote corner of SE Asia to live, work, learn and be a part of the creative effort.

The farm has developed curricula for workshops in local self-reliance and sustainability in meeting basic needs for food, shelter, natural and indigenous approaches to medicine and health, and homespun goods. My colleagues and I have endeavored to add a component of appropriate technologies in water resources to the farm’s educational curriculum. Others have supplemented with decentralized energy technologies. A cooking school showcasing traditional Thai recipes using the local farm produce has been established. Local village women teach and perform traditional therapeutic Thai massage, and the farm has hosted a number of yoga and meditation retreats.

Now, hundreds of people from all over Thailand, south/southeast Asia, and around the world visit Pun Pun each year for workshops and programs. Peggy and Jo have started an alliance of organic farmers that is spreading through the northern and northeastern parts of the country, as well as a network of seed savers. They have conducted countless workshops training villagers and groups of Buddhist monks in the techniques of natural and earthen building. Thai, hill tribe, and Western families have moved to the farm community and they are creating a home-farm-school for the children – kids from the neighboring villages will thus have an alternative to the distant English-style Thai government schools.

They have opened a successful restaurant in Chiang Mai supplied by local organic farmers that was recently written up in the New York times travel/food section. (4) They have established and helped to supply numerous market stalls for organic produce throughout the region, and are helping many farmers in their village and nearby to make the transition from chemical farming to organic and to get out of debt to the seed and chemical companies. And this year they are hosting a giant seed saving fair complete with rock bands and carnival activities and sponsored by, of all companies, the Red Bull corporation.

Peggy and Jo, along with the team of like minded folk that have assembled around them, have had an incalculably powerful transformative effect on the lives of so many. They have helped local Thai and hill tribe farmers out of penury and debt. They have helped local villagers and many visiting Westerners along the road to more sustainable, natural, simple, and enjoyable ways of living.

A recent grant of about $25,000 has allowed Pun Pun to enhance their seed saving operations. With this money they have acquired a few additional acres of land to expand seed gardens, increase their water supply and install irrigation equipment. They purchased a hand tractor and wagon to assist with planting and harvesting of rice and materials hauling. They’ve hired local villagers to help with the additional labor, and to train for the management and oversight of the seed bank and distribution system. They’ve hosted large groups of trainees in agroecology workshops. They’ve spawned another organic cafĂ© in Chiang Mai, expanding the market for local farmers’ produce and generating income for the farm. They’ve facilitated school gardening programs in Chiang Mai coupled with education about the importance of saving seeds. And Jo has given many interviews to the popular television and print media in Thailand describing Pun Pun’s philosophy and practices. He’s recently completed a book on organic agriculture and seed saving written in a style and language accessible to “common” farmers and villagers (most Thai books are written in scholarly style and are read only by university people).

In short, Pun Pun has exemplified the maxim of doing a lot with a little. They’re able to accomplish this because of personal integrity and commitment to the principles of simple, natural, ecological living. Rather than employing typical life strategies that depend upon money, they’ve endeavored to minimize dependence upon money wherever possible and substitute ingenuity and creativity, and to emphasize money expenditures that truly maximize well-being and not just keeping up with fads. This philosophy provides the basis for their educational programs – what Jo calls his “brainwashing.”

What they are creating is so obviously attractive they do not need much if any conventional marketing or “PR.” So any money that comes in through grants they can make go a very long way to do a lot of good for many people.

So what would I do with $100,000 to serve the community in question? I would use it to extend the Pun Pun model of development, addressing sustainability and self-reliance through agroecology and seed saving, natural building using the local materials, decentralized appropriate technologies in energy and water resources, homespun goods and handicrafts, traditional knowledge of medicine and health practices, farm-school education for the children, and development of local businesses and cooperative cottage industries in connection with neighboring communities.

Rather than consider the $100k “seed money” to start some project to use to go after more money later, I would use it to build social infrastructure and local resources to avoid the need to get more money in the future. The aim would be to make the community self-sufficient, and to build in the capacity for the community in question to help neighboring communities on the road to local self-sufficiency and ecological sustainability.


1. Simms A, Moran D, Cordon C. UK Dependence Report. New Economics Foundation, 2006.
2. See for example: 1,500 farmers commit suicide in India. The Belfast Telegraph, Wednesday, April 15, 2009.