Global food shortages and environmental crises require a profound paradigm shift throughout humanity. It’s about learning to challenge the greed that threatens to destroy us – and perhaps a lot of the lessons the world needs to learn can be found in the simplicity, and humility, of Thailand. By JAY NAIDOO
The rain is incessant. It tumbles out of the sky in torrents for days on end like curtains descending on our world. On a family vacation I finally experience a monsoon living in a little village on Yao Beach, more than an hour from the tourist hotspots of Ao Nang on the Andaman Sea.
The vegetation here is lush. It’s a God’s Paradise. I imagine anything could grow here. I pass bygone glory of rubber plantations that fed the robber barons of British Empire during the height of the industrial revolution. The natural rubber is still tapped and collected in the ancient custom of coconut shells tied to the tree trunks but the decline in favour of synthetic rubber is obvious.
Now I see plantations of palms. The roads are busy with farmers on their speeding motorbikes to the depots overladen with palm heads which will be processed into palm oil. This region is a major exporter. But the dominance of the paddy fields creates an incredible trellis of bright green pastures.
Household food security is no issue here. People live off the land. I haggle at the local food market with rural peasants. We don’t understand anything we say to each other. But it’s theatrics and the calculator. There is dazzling array of exotic meats, and many types of vegetables and fruit I have not seen before.
Thai cuisine is exotic and excellent. And it is inexpensive. I wonder why we do not put the profits of SA food companies under the spotlight. Thais are enterprising people. One of the best things we experienced was the mushrooming of pavement cafes every evening. Proper tables and chairs appear wondrously out of nowhere and serve delicious meals to the passer-by. In our cities municipal by-laws will run these entrepreneurs out of our cities. Here they are a fascinating glimpse into the microcosm of Thai society and provide livelihoods.
We do a Thai cooking course. Our teacher, Napalai Buathong, is from a village 15 hours away in the north east of Thailand. She has majored in English and is pure vitality. But cooking is in her blood.
“Why are you here?” we ask.
“I have to work to take care of my parents. They have spent their lives working hard to raise me and provide my education. Now it is my turn to take care of them,” she says.
I understand that. I always find rural societies in Africa and Asia have a profound respect for their elders, especially parents.
“I also have to save money for my wedding. It will cost $3,000. I have to work a few years with my fiancé to save so much money.”
She sees the question on my face before I ask it.
“It’s a lot of money. It is important for the family respect, that everyone from the family and village is well taken care of. It is our custom. Then we have the blessing of our family and community and I know that my mother and father will be happy. One day I want to go back to my village and my goal is to have a home and a piece of land to live on. ”
A simple wish, far from the technology-driven culture that defines our happiness today and drives the insane consumption we see in the world. Life here is so simple. Little homes nestled in tiny villages. It appears that every home is a corner shop dispensing everything from fresh eggs delivered daily to spring onions plucked from the fields.
I find Thai people hospitable and generous. It is rare to see them angry. Perhaps it’s the Buddhist culture. The country is dotted with the most exquisite Buddhist shrines, and street vendors sell beautiful fresh flower garlands that are used in prayers.
I think back to the teachings of Buddha – an open heart and open mind. The self, family and society falls on the continuum of life and service. The practice of silent meditation perfects that journey to one’s inner consciousness. (I have witnessed this first-hand: Lucie, my wife, and my son Kami, spent a 10-day retreat of “noble silence and meditation” in India this year. It gave them a greater meaning and perspective in their lives.)
I wonder what Buddha would make of the fashion culture that surrounds him and his teachings today – the opulent shrines and golden statues that adorn not just Asia, but the West. His life was one of simplicity. But that is the challenge of religion today. Centuries of hierarchical leadership with its vested interests has created institutional rituals that mask the true meaning of teachings of the Prophets. They had spoken to a way of life, not a set of traditions.
The spiritual is pervasive in Thailand; one encounters it everywhere. What our Thai cooking teacher said in passing reflected more spiritual principles than what our priesthood says today. I look at what we are doing to our planet because of our human greed, and shudder at the world we are leaving to our children and the next generation.
The locals I spoke to said the weather had become more violent. I see that where we live – a province located on the Andaman Sea, which is noted for its outstanding natural beauty. The battered shoreline has virtually disappeared and the seas spill over onto the roads that line the boulevard. The rise in sea levels is visible here. And then there are the the daily reports of flooding from around the country.
The carefully planned system of flood control and dams is breaking down as the rainfall patterns randomly change. I am told that the June rains can become more common, but it rarely rains for a long time. Now, it has been raining non-stop for nearly five days. The seas are so rough that many ferries are cancelled. The locals fear what will happen in the future. They will not have the money to build dykes. These are low-lying regions and, while the huge solitary limestone peaks stand like sentries dotted over the outstanding beauty of sea and the land, they offer no protection against tsunamis or rising seas. The region that once had two clearly defined seasons – wet or dry – are now experiencing unpredictable weather: it rains in the dry season and doesn’t rain in the wet season.
Tourism will take a dive and so will agriculture. So why is this happening?
Speaking to a few experts I have met, I learn that the problem cannot be just laid at the door of Mother Nature. Human activity is the culprit. Visiting a social development project some three hours from Bangkok, we pass commercial fields of cassava being planted for ethanol production. Our guide, who has been working in this area for ten years, says these were all covered by rainforests that have now been decimated. The number of mudslides, flash floods and soil erosion has risen. As the universally-revered King Bhumibol warned decades ago, “The major cause of the flood is the fact that we built our houses on wetlands. Humans have changed nature so much from what it used to be.”
Speaking to friends in Bangkok, I am told that as the water drains out of the north, it eventually ends up in the Chao Phraya River, which flows directly through the middle of Bangkok, the bustling capital city with its eight million-plus people. Last year, in the worst floods in half a century, the sewers spilled their contents onto the streets.
Besides the impact on the lives of ordinary people, an estimated 1.3 million acres of farmland is now flooded in Thailand – a disastrous situation, as Thailand is the world’s largest exporter of rice. And rice feeds the majority of the people in the world.
I will be travelling going to the Rio Summit in a few days. I know that there is a massive push by governments in the developed world to push back on commitments to development. While trillions of dollars are pumped into solving the financial crisis caused by the obscene avarice of the banking elites – who have largely escaped scot-free – there will be very few financial resources available to help the growing poor in the world. A new Apartheid is rising; one that divides the global rich from an increasing majority of global poor.
While ferment grows globally across the voices of the environment and climate crisis, communities – which include concerned governments and civil society – grow more discordant. Rio will establish their relevance.
If we fail to emerge with a strong vision and strategy, then we would have lost the trust of ordinary people – some of whom I was privileged to meet in Thailand. And without that vision and strategy, we will have no right to claim to speak on behalf of the people. DM
Stephen Hawking held a party for time travellers. He sent the invitation out the day after. Nobody attended.