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This episode is a permabyte from Michael B. Commons about his experiences hosting the 2015 Thailand Permaculture Convergence, which was held March 26-28, 2015. The theme of this convergence was Thai Self Reliance. The report comes from Michael, and is read by me your host.
On Saturday, 28 March, we wrapped up the 3rd Thailand Permaculture Convergence held at Wanakaset, Sanam Chaikhet, Chachoengsao, Thailand. I was a key facilitator for this event. During the programme while we focused strongly on a very participatory and co-owned programme and process, I still had the role as the primary Master of Ceremonies. So as you may imagine while this was all very inspiring, I had my moments of stress and worry.
But now having passed by, I feel myself and from most everyone who has communicated with me that it was a tremendous success. It took some time, and many others deserve credit for helping to enable this, including Ms. Sarinya who led the opening ceremony that was key to facilitating this process, but most everyone caught the spirit of co-ownership and we became for a small period in time, a community. Thus I too could participate as a member and enjoy the contributions and support of everyone else for this period of time. In fact unlike training programs I have organized, I (and my Wanakaset colleagues) purposely left much space and many things undone. This meant success was dependent upon the contributions of others. Sometimes I was asked to help organize for a participant’s session and I would respond something like, “I am not the organizer, you are, talk to the community and get the support you need.” This then happened and it became a reality.
My wife Yoke told me that she felt this sense of community very strongly and really felt like we were amongst a large extended family. While we knew a number of people before, like the many Wanakaset members involved, we also all met many new people. But as Yoke said to me, she felt that as we were are clearly engaged on a similar path of practicing what we believe in and sharing a similar vision of a way of life that is in balance with nature, we were very close in spirit. I also was very appreciative of the spirit of mutual acceptance and non-judgement. The way and work each one of us was doing in practicing the ideas of Permaculture or Self-Reliance might not be the same, but that was ok. It felt as if there is room for different paths toward the same goals.
The theme of this convergence was “Permaculture meets the Thai Self-Reliance Movement.” Prior to this event there was very little mixing between these two movements, one coming from abroad, and one born in Thailand that share many similar ideas and methods. This distance was most clearly due to linguistic barriers, but also perhaps due to the names (as some may be more attached to the name Permaculture, or Self-Reliance than to what are their goals and methods). This Convergence succeeded in bringing together people from these two movements, I believe more than any prior case yet. About half of the participants came from either movement. About half were Thai and half non-Thais. We had about 15 participants who were quite bilingual, with about 6 who could do very well as interpreters of more complex sessions. So pretty much every session was interpreted and there was all sorts of additional time for discussions and sharing beyond the programme schedule not limited by language.
I am not sure if there has been a prior programme here in Thailand that has used this very participatory and co-owned format. A quick count shows we had 40 different sessions. Many sessions were supported by two people (a presenter and an interpreter). Some like the guided forest walk, had 4 guides and interpreters to split the group up. So the event had more than 50 persons (of about 75 joining) participating in the content. Participants also helped prepare and break down, with cooking, cleaning the bathrooms, sweeping the paths, and all of the background logistical support even if more of this fell on a few key coordinators.
We agreed to try and keep costs as low as possible and manage the event as a non-profit voluntary event. Thanks to a donation from a good friend and fellow permaculturalist, we had some initial funds to invest in preparing the space to receive this large group. We also could then lower our expected contribution. We asked a minimum of 1000 THB (about $32 USD) per adult for the 3 day/ 3 night event. We also welcomed in kind contributions for up to half of this value. As it was, it seemed everyone felt this rate was affordable and fair and many in the end decided to contribute more. This meant that we had a surplus of about 10,000 THB left over. But as the convergence ended with different initiatives to further Permaculture and Self-Reliance in Thailand, it was agreed that we could use this surplus as a small budget to help support further activities and thus help extend the legacy of this event.
As all the work required to make it happen was voluntary, the in kind contributions were in terms of produce and materials. While most of the Wanakaset members made a contribution of this type and contributions like organic rice and wild yams were then used in the menu, it was difficult to integrate all of the in kind contributions from other participants. However as another key event and a highlight for many was the biodiversity and natural product market, where these in kind contributions did not fit so much into the needs, there was ready demand and interest from other participants to exchange for or purchase these products. Many seeds were exchanged and one of the ongoing initiatives is to try and link members to enable further exchange of products between us. While some might view such a market only as a trade initiative, what people brought in terms of seeds, seedlings, natural products, and appropriate technology all linked to their work, knowledge, and skill in applying Permaculture and Self-Reliance principles. Seeing what others were producing, was also an entry point to learn about how they do this, and thus come away with more than a product.
One of the principles we set was that knowledge would be freely shared amongst all participants, however products and services could be sold. So Chanin and Praew taught how to make chocolate bliss balls but then also sold some bliss balls and other special goodies to participants. My wife Yoke explained and demonstrated Shirodhara (a type of Ayurvedic head massage) but participants who wanted to receive a massage paid some contribution. These were however extras, beyond the interesting programme we all created, simple lodging, and good food mostly from local organic ingredients including many local vegetable varieties.
On a personal level, I was very happy how this temporary community also was a wonderful place for our children. A number of children joined and they all looked to be having great fun. The community of parents (and others) was like an extended family with many helping to look after the children who also enjoyed much freedom to explore, yet with help and support always nearby. This confirmed my understanding that such a community environment is our natural human condition and that the isolated nuclear family is really an anomaly.
On the larger level, my long held belief and experience is that everyone can learn and everyone has something to share. However I feel that our society and pressures within our culture tend to lead us to a position of fear and lack of confidence in our own knowledge and experience. Thus we may see trying (and potentially failing) as worse than trying. We also often see only those with a certificate or title such as Phd as having the capacity to teach others. As this was a convergence of practitioners, the general prerequisite was that those who were to join must have made some step to practice what they believe. Anyone who has made such an attempt has experience and whether successful or not, has learnt something. In my view experience has a much greater value than knowledge gained only from books and discussions. For along with observation, each experience tells its own story and increases the body of collective knowledge.
I may have been most strict in pressing this point on sharing experiences with participants as they requested to join. A number of those who were to join, were reluctant and felt they did not have the knowledge or experience to share. I however did not believe this and if it were really the case, then I said they were not fit to join. However my insistence and then the very supportive community environment meant that in the end a number of participants who may have never shared their knowledge or led a session did so. From what I saw and heard from them, this was transformative. And while we may have our own local “Permaculture Rock Stars,” the event showed that all of us had interesting and valuable experience and knowledge to share. As we had normally 3 sessions going on at the same time, neither I nor anyone else had the chance to join every session. However every session that I joined or that anyone told me about was interesting and taught something of value.
As I have worked in training and capacity development for a long time, my experience is that when one only listens or reads something, the knowledge and confidence is low. When one participates in doing something (like making bliss balls) or an interactive discussion such as about the principles and application of Wanakaset, the understanding and confidence is greater. When then one explains and teaches another person about what was learned it then brings a greater clarity to the learning. So while we all needed to make the choice between 3 interesting sessions and other options, later on we exchanged about what we learned from one session or the other. This process would reinforce and share the knowledge further.
As I have experienced before with such a co-owner participatory knowledge sharing process, the process and supportive environment meant that as the event transpired there was increasing energy and desire to contribute. The fear of sharing was gone, and it seemed that everyone felt more and more like they had received so much from others that they wanted to give more. So at the end of 3 days, it felt as if the community was just starting to reach its potential. While the event had to end and the temporary community had to dissolve, my hope is that for the next convergence wherever it is held that many of us will join together again and with much more experience in such a process, we will be able to quickly re-establish such a community of sharing.
Below you will a find a 12 minute video from the convergence where you can see the variety of activities the attendees participated in including permaculture education, making bamboo cups, the fundamentals of wicking beds, icecream from wild yams, and much more.
I’d like to thank Michael for this report and also for his invitation to attend the convergence. Though I couldn’t make it this year I would like to find a way to go in the future. As my permaculture is rooted in the Appalachian mountain of Pennsylvania and this particular biome, which is one of the reasons I would presume to teach on the ground methods of permaculture outside this region, I would like to experience what is offered elsewhere to get a feel for how these other pieces fit together around the world, and to reflect on those differences and how they impact the practice of permaculture where different people call home. To develop an understanding of the bigger pictures of permaculture as a global practice rather than filtered through the lens of, as Michael referred to them, our Permaculture Rock Stars.
To help support that vision, and this show, Michael is offering an interesting and unique opportunity to listeners of the podcast: A three day Permaculture Self-Reliance Movement Tour in Thailand. This tour would include directions to Michael’s, located about two hours from Bangkok, where you can enjoy a three day and two night tour for two adults, plus one or two minor children.
On the first day you can have lunch and refreshments with Michael at his home and see their adobe coffee shop and his wife’s natural product business, and talk about how they’ve worked the land and applied Permaculture to the property. From there walk over to Wanakaset where you will spend your two nights. There you can walk the grounds and learn about the techniques to convert open land to the Wanakaset forest.
On the second day awaken to a breakfast provided by the staff that is likely to be a rice soup with mixed rice varieties, grains, and vegetables, but can be adapted to your diet if you have any allergies.
On this second day you can then learn to make several of the natural products that are offered in the area, including natural soaps, kaffir lime shampoo, a tamarind face wash, or learn to extract sugar from sugar cane juice, to name a few.
Or if you prefer on this day you can go on a tour of local farms that are practicing integrated ecological agriculture.
In the evening you can return to Wanakaset, if you left, to have dinner and continued the learning process with Michael and discuss what you encountered that day.
The morning of the third day take a tour to the Khao Hinsorn Agricultural Development Center, a site that is being developed by the King of Thailand to encourage self-sufficient agriculture. Lots to see here, especially if you are an avid permaculture practitioner.
After that tour retire to have lunch, either at Wanakaset or to Michael’s home where he will send you on your way after an offer of some of his family’s natural products as souvenirs.
In exchange for this tour Michael is asking that you donate $200 US to the podcast. If you choose to do so, please include a note with your donation that lets me know that you would like to take this tour. For further details please read: Wanakaset Tour. This PDF contains further details about this opportunity. Note, you are responsible for all of your travel to and from Thailand and Michael’s home, which is located two hours outside of Bangkok.
Again, I’d like to thank Michael for offering a different way to support the show and give something back to the community by continuing permaculture education with a unique approach towards a sustainable future.
If anywhere along your path I can assist you, wherever you call home, get in touch with me. I will do whatever I can to connect you with the resources available. After producing this show for over four years I’ve developed a huge number of resources and contacts to help every listener on their journey, but very often I don’t remember I know something until I’m asked, like earlier this week when someone sent me an email looking for drip irrigation supplies for a hoop house, which reminded me of a one off conversation I had during my PDC back in 2010, and I was able to find the supply company recommended by one of my instructors. So call me: 717-827-6266 or Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Until the next time, take care of earth, your self, and each other.