Globalization: The World Reflected in a Grain of Rice

Rice has been much on our minds on this journey in Southeast Asia and Bhutan, where the nurture of this staple food governs the rhythms of life.  As I write this from Bhutan, I gaze out across the terraced paddies ascending the mountainsides like the steps to a majestic monastery.  Some rice is the gold of cottonwood trees in New Mexico in October; some is the brilliant green of young stalks; and some–already cut–lies in graceful patterns in the stubbly fields.

Golden rice paddies ready for harvest, bordered by newly planted paddies

Golden rice paddies ready for harvest, bordered by newly planted paddies

The fate of the rice crop here lies in the balance.  Two nights ago I lay in bed at a small hotel in the middle of the paddies as a freak storm, resulting from a cyclone in the Bay of Bengal, thundered down on the roof. Having watched the farmers cutting the rice with scythes the day before, I worried about what would become of it, lying battered outside my door.  The next morning, the tired faces of the local people employed at the hotel reflected their worry.  We left for the day without knowing the fate of the crop, but as the sun came out later in the afternoon, our group of travelers breathed a sigh of relief for those hardworking people who might now have a chance to dry out and consume the labor of a year.  Others throughout the country may have lost a year of painstaking work by cutting their rice before the storm.

Rice paddies under water

Rice paddies under water

Before coming to Bhutan, we were in Thailand for a few days, where talk also centered around rice.  Thailand has a more modern type of agriculture than Bhutan, so its challenges are related to agribusiness, as well as subsistence farming.  Ten years ago when we lived in Thailand, Jiim, our housekeeper, came from Issan a drier and poorer region of Thailand.  Out of five children in her family at that time, all of them were living and working in Bangkok while mom and dad tended the farm back home. Jiim had a baby, and as the baby grew a little older, she was sent up to the village to live with her grandparents and attend the local school for free so Jiim could continue to work in town.  Then as the economy worsened in 2008, three of the children returned to the village and the fields because of unemployment in Bangkok.

Boy with ox, plowing rice paddy

Boy with ox, plowing rice paddy

This kind of mobility is typical of life in Thailand today, and combined with the impact of technology, is changing the ancient practice of planting rice.  According to a Thai anthropologist friend of ours, who also comes from Issan, it is endangered in many ways.  Many farmers no longer transplant the new seedlings as they’ve done traditionally because the young laborers they need to help do it are working in Bangkok.   Because of the versatile little mechanical plow invented by the Japanese, most farmers no longer keep water buffalo, and without the rich buffalo manure, now they must buy fertilizers.  Many have also been roped into the cycle of using GMO seeds and are dependent on agribusiness corporations–very few are debt free.

These expenses require some to sell all the high quality rice they grow and live on a much lower quality bought for family consumption.  As small farmers find life increasingly difficult, they sell off their land to agribusiness companies that use massive quantities of chemical fertilizers that pollute the water running off into streams and rivers.  One village our friend knows of must buy bottled water because their local water supply is too polluted to drink.

Harvesting rice

Harvesting rice

It’s easy for the foreign traveler to romanticize rice farming as we cruise past the serene villages nestled among the rippling fields of colorful rice, but life on these farms is very hard.  What can we hope for the future of rice farming?  Change is occurring rapidly in today’s globalized world.  My hope is that in a country like Bhutan, where change is coming seemingly with more consideration, technology will ease the backbreaking work of rice planting, but farming will remain an honored and sustainable life’s work that is received with gratitude.

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Read more about this and related topics in Dr. Denise R. Ames’ book The Global Economy: Connecting the Roots of a Holistic System.  Chapters 5 and 6 examine the many changes for traditional people, from modernization and economic globalization.

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