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Life on The Margin

By Burmese writer

Beyond the high city buildings, their houses are small and low. Beyond the noisy city streets, their roads are quiet. But beyond the rushed life of the city, their lives are also a struggle.
The farmers on the edge of Chiang Mai city have lived a peaceful and stable life for many years. But as the city has rapidly expanded, they must face new realities to survive. In Mae Fack Mai village, about 20 kilometers from the city center, the farmers have taken up the challenge.
The village has started to practice "integrated farming" – a change from the "intensive" farming of the recent past. The reasons are complex – social, environmental, economic. Professor Phrek Gypmantasiri, chairman of the agricultural system programme at Chiang Mai University, describes intensive farming as a technique from the "Green Revolution."
He adds: "It is only concerned with productivity. To boost productivity, high use of pesticides and chemical fertilisers are essential. After 40 years of the green revolution, people are starting to sense the bad side of it. It’s a silent damage to nature. In the long run, the harm it does to human health is undeniable."
Can the new method benefit the farmers? Wandee, a farmer from Mae Fack Mai village believes it can. "Organic food demand in Chiang Mai is growing. So we have to reduce pesticides and other chemicals. But these things have a bad impact on us, too. They make it hard to sustain our land and environment over the long term."
Manit Ompont, chief of soil and fertiliser at the Northern Biogas Center, a project nearby which turns pig manure into energy, also believes the new method is necessary. “Farmers can’t neglect environmental costs because farmers mainly depend on the environment. The land will be destroyed in the long-term. They can’t postpone the inevitable.
According to Professor Phrek, integrated farming method is a form of mixed farming different from monoculture "cash crops". He adds: " We take value in diversity. We try to combine farming and breeding to create a "closed loop" system – using waste from breeding animals as fertiliser for farming, and vice versa, to reduce rural pollution and sustain soil quality. This is better than relying on external sources such as pesticides and chemical fertilisers.
In the UK land farmed organically is under 3% of the total farm area. In Austria the figure is 10%; in Thailand it is probably less than 1%. So where is the market for the organic farmers of Mae Fack Mai?
Chiang Mai has only one organic food market, at Imboon. Shoppers at Imboon say the main reason they go there is concern for their health. Some believe his products are 100% pesticide-free; others are skeptical. “I come here for safety reasons – I think the food here is safer than any other,"  one shopper said. Another said: "I don’t think these foods are totally pesticide-free. It’s impossible. Maybe they’re 60% or 70% free. That’s good enough for me."
Professor Phrek is sure that attitudes are changing. According to one study, organic food demand in UK is growing 40% a year. According to one environmental expert, Imboon organic food market may be small but " it’s the face of future, so the villagers have to embrace it."
Many factors threaten farmers on the edge of the city. Urban sprawl pushes them from their land, air pollution and waste can harm food production. But Dr. Phrek is optimistic about the prospects of rural – urban integration. "To maintain the city’s " carrying capacity ", it is important to have a sound rural agricultural sector,"  he argues.
 If urban sprawl and other pressures continue, cities will face increasing difficulties getting fresh food, many experts believe. Transporting food from many hundreds or thousands of miles away – so-called "food miles" – increases energy consumption and global warming.
Perhaps, too, we all are on the margin – living in a world that is both divided yet connected. " Urban and rural are related,"  Dr. Phrek adds." Cities don’t exist in isolation."

Copyright 2009 IMMF.