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Thailand—The EcoTipping Point Strategy

One success story in Thailand is about the EcoTipping Point, a term used for describing the combined use of sensible environmental technology and the social organization in place to put these technologies in use. The EcoTipping Point was established by a Thai farmer named Thanawm Chuwaingan and was practiced in the Thai village of Khao Din situated in the Nakhon Sawan province about 225 km north of Bangkok. In the year 1954, Thanawm Chuwaingan migrated to Khao Din village from the Khorat Plateau of Northeast Thailand that was impoverished and lacked natural resources. In the early years after Thanawm Chuwaingan settled in the village, life was going well as the village had abundant natural resources and ample livelihood opportunities for villagers. However, during the period of the 1960s and 1970s, the Khao Din village underwent a rapid transformation. The transformation occurred because the Thai government decided to pursue the Western growth model policy with export-led development as the core objective.

This policy placed a key emphasis on utilizing forests and agricultural production as resources for foreign exchange revenue in order to generate investments in the emerging manufacturing sector. As an outcome, half of the forests, fisheries and agricultural areas were geared towards the international markets. This had an adverse impact upon small-scale marginalized farmers like Thanawm Chuwaingan. In turn, the government wanted such small-scale farmers to modernize and grow cash crops like maize, rice, jute and cassava for export to foreign countries. Similarly, the forests were also divided for the purpose of selling the timber and expanding farmland areas. To do so, the government provided farmers with loans, which were intended for enhancing agricultural productivity like hybrid seeds, chemical fertilizers, pesticides and farm equipment. The farmers also utilized the government loans to purchase radios, motorcycles and other tools. Eventually, the crop prices decreased because farmers were mostly growing the same crops. When the drought season came, crops grown by farmers often failed, which resulted in huge losses of agricultural revenues and increasing debts among farmers. As a result, the livelihoods of small farmers like Thanawm Chuwaingan were filled with hunger, poverty and social marginalization.

From here on, the crisis increased even more as villagers thought they had no choice but to cut down the entire forests to expand the agricultural areas. To describe this crisis, Thanawm Chuwaingan stated, “By that time, there were virtually no trees left on hillsides. It became hotter and drier”. There was also large-scale soil erosion, which degraded the soil fertility and reduced crop productivity because of the rapid rainwater runoff along with increased chemical fertilizer application. Because of the crisis, the villagers had no option but to migrate to cities for livelihood opportunities thus resulting in massive out-migration. To emphasize the out-migration that took place, Thanawm Chuwaingan argued, “Unlike in the past when people really cared for one another, everyone was now worried about their own fields and their own family’s problems. For the first time ever, we began to have psychological and social problems. There was little trust and less cooperation”. During the onslaught of out-migration, the village communities became completely disintegrated and only the young and elderly remained; and juvenile delinquency became a common feature in the village.

Some hope re-emerged in the Khao Din village during the year 1986 when a team from Save the Children U.S. was sent by the Thai government to visit the Khao Din village. Save the Children helped the villagers develop appropriate strategies to tackle the crisis. At the beginning, the villagers felt suspicious and did not trust the group. The joint discussions and regular meeting sessions between the group and the villagers for developing appropriate strategies increased the level of trust among the villagers and provided them with a sense of hope. Eventually, the villagers came to realize that the root cause of the crisis was the villagers themselves and it was their shared responsibility to respond appropriately to tackle the crisis.

Save the Children served an integral role in developing an ecologically viable strategy for the Khao Din village. The villagers began using a new ecologically diversified agroforestry system in which mixtures of trees and crops were planted. The agroforestry system was used in a manner that resembled the structure of the natural forest. For restoring the damages caused to the forest, the villagers facilitated local community protection and management approaches. Using the agroforestry system thus provided numerous benefits for the villagers like reducing household food costs, decreasing agricultural input costs, increasing the ecological stability of the land, and strengthening year-round food security. Due to the diverse benefits, the use of the agroforestry system became increasingly prominent, not only in Khao Din village but in other villages across the country as well. For instance, around twenty-five villages in Nakhon Sawan province have applied a variety of locally designed forms of agroforestry and sustainable agricultural practices on large plots of lands. Such practices have proved to be beneficial in the long run for preventing soil erosion and degradation generated from the overuse of chemical fertilizers. In recent times, due to the practice of agroforestry systems, the regeneration of natural forests has been massive. This has led to the repair of damaged watersheds, the reemergence of extinct species, and the rapid decrease in out-migration.

This example is replicable in Thailand as well as in other countries worldwide. The reason for this is because the story offers some valuable lessons for all of us. The story proves that human activities are the root cause of environmental damage and it is human beings who have to collectively bare the consequences from environmental degradation. It also highlights that degradation caused to the environment can be recognized if there is a sense of awareness among humans that they are responsible for the wellbeing of the natural environment. From this story, we can also learn that generating awareness among humans towards the environment is an imperative for developing a strong human-environment bond; and for gaining increased community support toward environmental protection initiatives. The example is also scalable to the broader international community as countries worldwide can employ similar environmental practices with respect to the EcoTipping Point method and the agroforestry system approach for preventing environmental degradation. Finally, the story places an emphasis on sustainable resource use that is one of the core principles of Thailand’s INDC pledge to the Paris Agreement.

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