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Going Organic

By Stuart Fowkes, Press Officer

Following on from Oxfam’s East Asia regional communications workshop in March, a few of us headed up through the mountains in Chiang Mai province, Thailand, to take a look at some Oxfam-funded organic farming projects.

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Our first stop, though, was an early start for the organic farmers’ market in Chiang Mai itself. Some of the stallholders had been travelling for five hours to get there in good time for a 6.00 am opening, though, so the early start could have been worse. The market is physically quite small, with only a dozen stands to its name, but what was striking was the huge range of organic produce you could get your hands on – I didn’t realise that organic toothpaste and shampoo even existed, but I’m now happily working my way through the stock I brought back to the UK with me!

 

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From there, we took a drive through the mountains to Fang district to see the different ways in which one particular crop – oranges – can be farmed. The stunning scene above is a huge commercial orange plantation, but behind this apparently idyllic setting, there are real problems for small-scale farmers. Using pesticides is the quickest and easiest way to get such large yields, but pesticides find their way into the water supply, which runs down the hill and contaminates the water for dozens of villages in the lowlands.

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Not only that, but some operators of large plantations create artificial reservoirs on the hillside to capture enough rainwater – this means that the water supply for many hundreds of people in the lowlands and valleys can be all but cut off.

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Leaving the huge commercial plantations behind, we arrived at one of the organic orange farms, which were much smaller. In the long term, farming organically means that small-scale farmers no longer need to spend a significant proportion of their income on expensive pesticides, which may also damage their health. However, since in the short term it’s possible to get bigger, faster yields using pesticides, Oxfam’s partner organisation sometimes finds it difficult to convince farmers of the benefits of the organic method, especially as it takes three years to convert to 100% organic.

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The farmer who owned this plantation told us about how his neighbouring farmers would mock him for changing to organic farming as they couldn’t see the benefits of it. But now the farm is fully established as organic, the savings made on preparing natural fertilisers instead of buying synthetic ones are significant, and yields are increasing safely and naturally. I must add at this point that picking an orange straight from the tree and eating it there and then will go down as one of the best things I’ve ever tasted, and I’ll never be able to walk past organic fruit in the supermarket again…

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