by Emily Blyth
Early in 2005 I traveled as a volunteer to Thailand for a month to work on a project with students from Melbourne University. The Banana Project (now evolved into the Ripple Effect) has been running for over five years, it is connected with community development groups in Thailand and gives four students, (one student is the translator), the chance to really work within underprivileged communities. During the year, students spend their time fundraising around Victoria (rotary clubs are most helpful in this), then the students travel to Burriram Province in North Eastern Thailand to distribute the money to schools that have submitted development projects that need our funding to run.
The idea is to have the schools and community decide what they need most and how they can achieve this with our funding. Then once they receive funding, they need to keep the projects sustainable. Often to keep the projects running, the schools need to be self-sufficient. This often means making an income from the project that can be put back into it. For example, one school chose cloth weaving as a skill their students needed, we gave the money for the materials and tools while the school keeps the project running by allowing the children to sell what they make. Each year when University students return to fund more projects, they also check on the progress of past projects and keep in contact with the schools running these.
I was fortunate enough to be asked (not being a Melbourne University student!) to accompany this years group as the Thai translator (with the limited Thai I have!)
We received a variety of projects from schools for things they are in need of and for which their community and government cannot supply them with. This includes development initiatives that the school feels are important for skill building (the idea that by giving the students access to a wide range of ‘hands on’ work, they would be in a better position for employment in the future). We met community and school members, discussed the issues within those schools and received numerous projects, which we will fundraise for, this year. The other half of our time was spent teaching higher level secondary students English.
The students I taught all came from very poor backgrounds. Some had no known families, some had parents in jail or on drugs, some had parents who had left the area to find work and many came from even more severe and frightening circumstances. For those students that had parents, the one thing they would tell me when they talked of their future after finishing school is that they would grab at any job that came along that could provide support for their family. These children had all the dreams and aspirations as Australian children in normal circumstances but they had none of the opportunities. They all knew that their only chance at a life other than poverty was a good education (they were the easiest students I have ever taught – so willing to learn). Unfortunately, in Thailand, education after high school requires money and money is what these families don’t have. So they continue the vicious circle that life gives them little option to escape from. Some try to find work in the big cities but find themselves drawn into the underworld, on the street or in prostitution.
The particular area I worked in really drove home the affect of land and the absence of access to it that the people I worked with suffered from. There is no scarcity of land. On the contrary, land is abundant, not only land for living on but land that could be used for cultivating and producing. Unfortunately, from talking to the locals, I discovered that a lot of this land is owned by wealthy individuals who either lease it or higher men to work it, or in many cases let it sit idle. It is sad to go through areas that are almost people and houseless with open spaces everywhere and then to get to the town, thousands of people crowded into tiny one room homes. Funny, it is not as though there is a shortage of material to build homes, nor a shortage of labour to get the materials. Only a shortage of access to land from which to take the materials and build the houses. So the communities are compressed into these small areas, forced to survive on a day to day basis.
What really interested me in the communities, however, was their real sense of one another, their real sense of community. Almost every school we visited (around a dozen), were in communities that had become tired of waiting for the government to pitch in and had come together to build school buildings or managed to raise money for things like, yes believe it, clean water for the school. They also used what little resources they had to attempt development projects within the schools, such as vegetable gardens, sowing and cement tile making. These projects increase the skills of students and in turn should improve job opportunities and the financial situations of community members. However, the one thing the poor areas were missing was the one thing they could not do without – land. Land is everywhere but unfortunately most of it is completely inaccessible to the bulk of the community, being owned by small sections or by outside investors. Unable to do anything else, the majority of people are made to rely on the whims of the owners of the land, the choice of where and when to work is not theirs, necessity dictates they take what ever is handed them.
Although the communities in these areas appreciate the banana project funding their initiatives and although the work done in the area has benefited many children and families, I know that in reality little has been done and I know that for most their situation will not change regardless of what volunteer and aid groups try to do. We can teach these children every survival skill we know but where will they practise them? We can teach them as much English as possible and although this is a very important skill in modern Thailand, not much can be done with it without a university education to back it up (a cost none of these families can meet).
At the end of my time in the north east, I traveled back to Bangkok and begun to wonder how the land situation relates, there is poverty everywhere you look in Bangkok. There is also vacant land alongside the thousands of homeless. A city so congested and with such a big population, how can there be vacant land? So I begun to ask questions and discuss the situation with locals who knew about the land situation. They talked about numerous problems that they saw at the moment. Land of course is being speculated, particularly in the area where I spent my time (on the outskirts of Bangkok). This area is becoming more and more valuable as the population is continually increasing, even the Prime Minister of Thailand has seen the benefits and bought his share!
Along with allowing the land to sit useless while slum upon slum builds up on the little land left, the owners make profits while they wait for the land price to rise by allowing advertisements to be put up on the land. Of course this leads to the increasing ugliness of these areas.
There is currently no requirement or incentive for land owners to take care of their land and as I looked more and more around me, I saw that a big reason for Bangkok looking so ugly was the blocks that had turned into overgrown rubbish dumps. The public streets are cleaned daily by government employed street sweepers who sweep the rubbish onto these blocks. So often we are left with a situation where, without land, the homeless in Bangkok make these overgrown hideaways their homes but are soon branded trespassers on land that they were utalising better than the owners.
As I mentioned, the area I spend the most of my time in when I visit Bangkok is on the outskirts of Bangkok but continues to expand quite rapidly. The changes in the two years since I lived there are really quite astounding. Huge blocks of land have been changed into row upon row of brand new two story houses. Where there was once poor people living amongst the rubbish are neat gardens. I often wonder what has become of the poor people I used to see in these areas; moved further out?
An interesting predicament that has occurred with this sudden uprising of houses is that many owners have decided that the boom is upon them and so an enormous amount of bright modern homes have been built every few kilometers you walk and now they have realized that the boom is not quite widespread enough for them to be assured of success. As my friend said, “The poor are too poor to buy the houses and the rich already own their own house”. So what has this lead to? An abundance of houses that cannot be filled. So we have a situation of thousands of homeless as well as thousands of vacant and useless houses! Such an absurdity! Such a waste.
The situation in Thailand as in many third world countries cannot improve as long as the wealthy minority have control of the biggest natural resource – land. I would love to see all the development initiatives started in Thailand show an effect but until poor people have more opportunities to develop and use their skills, little can change. To change, these people need more access to the land which they were born on, more opportunity to change their situations.
With the application of LVT, these peoples lives would change enormously. With the land currently owned by the wealthy suddenly unprofitable when idle, so much more land would be freed. With a steady tax on that land and the wealth going to communities, so many more development projects could be initialized to improve education and to give children the extra opportunities they so rightly deserve.
With steady wealth in the communities, the chances of these people owning and using their own land would be much higher. The peoples ability to generate their own incomes through small businesses would in turn improve the current rate of employment. So much could be achieved!
for more of Emily’s great work see the Earthsharing Challenge
Visit the Ripple Effect NGO, soon to be working in E Timor too.