2005 Journey - Going on a Journey & Thailand

Newsletter 1: Preparation for a Journey
25 Jan 2005

Hello All,
As many of you know, I have expressed my wish to depart the US and assist in the tsunami relief that devastated the lives of so many so quickly. After a multitude of inquiries and offers to volunteer my services, I found that many relief organizations are not taking volunteers, even if we pay our own way.

Despite this setback and after much brain storming, I believe that I have found a realistic and long-term means to help both tsunami affected areas and disadvantaged communities in South and SE Asia. This week I presented my idea to PeaceCraft, the non-profit Fair Trade store where I have volunteered since my return to the US a year and a half ago (www.peacecraft.org).

To summarize my presentation, I offered to travel to South and SE Asia to meet the producer groups we buy directly from, and as a PeaceCraft Liason, I will follow-up on our trade partners to document the co-operatives and their activities via interviews, discussion groups, observations, and photographing their work and living environments (yes, today I was forced to enter the 21st century and get a small-enough-to-hide 5 pixel digital camera). I will write their personal and community stories for PeaceCraft as I go. Additionally, I will be looking for new co-operatives to buy directly from.

I also have a personal objective in this journey and that is to inquire, "Does Fair Trade work for those whom it is intended to work for?" and "How does Fair Trade look from the perspective of those who it is intended to benefit?" For me, these questions are important because Fair Trade is based on basic principles and I would like to see first-hand how those principles are applied:

1. Creating opportunities for economically disadvantaged producers
2. Transparency and accountability
3. Capacity building
4. Promoting Fair Trade
5. Payment of a fair price
6. Gender Equity
7. Safe and healthy working conditions
8. No Child Labor
9. Environmental Sustainability
10. Positive Trade Relations

When possible I will also provide direct assistance to our trade partners in areas like creating a website, teaching an English class, so on and so forth. If an opportunity shall arise, I hope to assist in the creation and establishment of a local co-operative based on Fair Trade principles and standards. I will be keeping in close contact with PeaceCraft during this journey, so if I lose touch with you, they will know where I am and what I am doing (documenting, assisting, meandering, or simply lost).

My intention is to begin in Chiang Mai, Thailand to visit one of our best trade partners, WEAVE. At this initial preparation stage I am planning to go to Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia then move into the tsunami hit areas after all the international attention has left and the rebuilding has started. Many have lost everything in these affected areas so I am hopeful that I can help existing producer groups as they restart their lives, or assist in the establishment of co-operatives along Fair Trade principles, thereby contributing to long-term plans for local development.

Past this initial preparation, it is difficult to say where this journey will take me. I would like to head into India and visit the four trade partners of PeaceCraft there, and then travel up into Nepal to visit Ganesh Himal, a very popular Fair Trade producer, as well as look for other local co-operatives to buy directly from. I hope to go into China, Mongolia, and eventually into Central Asia (the former Soviet Union) in search of co-operatives, but this is just a thought at this time. I enter into this journey without an itinerary, but with flexibility and openness for learning.

In regards to the risk of taking such a journey, as I see it today, the most dangerous thing I will encounter is the American foreign policy under George W Bush. I will take necessary care to avoid the "American" label in certain regions, but hopefully there will be another message presented in my travels: Not all Americans are ignorant, ethno-centric, war-mongers wrapped in religious righteousness pushing their will on the world. Unfortunately, W has a four year head start.

Many places I travel to may not have electricity, much less internet (gasp...) or running water (so a hot shower is out of the question?), but when I get back to the cities I will send off email updates and clean up a bit. I can be reached by email, but understand, there may be long delays in my response. 
I will be departing Albuquerque on Feb 7th and depart LA on the 9th.

This will be the first and last mass emailing from the US. Next time you hear from me, the journey will be on!


Newsletter 2: The Journey for Fair Trade
March 15, 2005

Hello from Chiang Mai, Thailand!
I cannot believe it has been a month already! Well, this is my first newsletter on this Journey for Fair Trade! I will try to send one every 4-8 weeks, just to keep in touch with all of you. As for my current status, I am officially the International Liaison for PeaceCraft, a non-profit, fair trade store in Albuquerque, NM, USA. If you are not in Albuquerque please check us out on-line www.peacecraft.org or support your local fair trade organization, many of which can be found on the Fair Trade Federation website.

My Purpose
I am hopeful that in the process of my travels you will have an increased awareness as to why Fair Trade is so important. I am doing this research for a myriad of reasons, and one is to put a face to those people who make the products and you can see how your purchase of fairly traded products really does make an important difference. I am not out to change the world, but to help make a world of difference in small communities. It is my hope that in due course you will see through my writings how important this is.

With that stated, my objective here is two-fold; I am researching, photographing and documenting co-operatives we import directly from to answer the question: "Does fair trade work for those who it is intended to work for?" The second aspect is to find new or struggling cooperatives not in the fair trade loop, and help them find an export market for their products.

Starting the Journey
As I began my journey last month my lovely aunt Addi, insisted that I could not leave the country without getting a haircut first. I hadn't had one since the motorcycle accident in September, 2003 that landed me in a hospital for five months with two broken legs, a shattered elbow and a new appreciation for life. I agreed that it would be a good way to start this new chapter of my life, so I complied, but more importantly she was my ride to the airport, and I really couldn't afford to jeopardize that.

From LA, I flew into Bangkok and went to the embassy in the morning to get additional pages for my passport. I hope to fill this one up! Next, I got a new pair of glasses for the fieldwork - so the old ones are now my backup, just in case. I think my backpack is about 1/3 full of backups and supplies, 1/3 books and material for my research and 1/3 clothes that I bought from cooperatives here in Thailand, plus a medical kit. I have accomplished making my backpack into something like a Dr. Who telephone booth - larger on the inside than it is on the outside...

I started my inquiry in Chiang Mai with WEAVE (www.weave-women.org), a trade partner of PeaceCraft. Upon arrival I found genuinely committed staff in an incredibly diligent organization with working in the Burmese refugee camps along the Thai-Burma border. Before I am corrected as to the proper name of the state, I will say that it is the despotic government of Burma who renamed the country, and it is the wish of the Burmese people to have democratic government, so out of respect to them I will refer to Burma the same as the refugees do.

WEAVE staff brought me to the refugee camp of Mae La, north of the border town of Mae Sot and along the river dividing the two nations. It had taken a week and a half just to get a one-day camp pass. We arrived at 9:30, and the Thai military guards on post stated that they had not been notified that we were coming. After much negotiation they let us in, but only till noon. And no photos allowed. As you can see from a few photos in the camp, I don't listen well to military orders these days.

The first impression of the camp I had was claustrophobic’s nightmare. There is so much to say about the impoverished condition of the camp itself. From the road you can see the bamboo-sided houses are crammed tightly together. It gives an impression of an overcrowded urban ghetto of thatched roofs and narrow dirt walkways winding between endless uneven rows of huts. Inside the camp is a maze and at every turn I saw colorful, brightly clad women and children going about any number of daily tasks – a woman preparing food; a teacher herding children into a classroom; a mother nursing her newborn; boys collecting water in five-gallon cans at the hand-pump well, and a goat left to eat foraged greens from the surrounding forest. When foraging outside the camp, the refugees must keep one eye open for Thai border police lest they are captured off the camp, rounded up, and returned across the river. There are no guarantees here.

We enter into one hut where a woman sits on the floor working a handmade loom. It is anchored to the wall on one end and fastened around her waist at the other end pulling taunt the brightly colored strands as she repeats the intricate motion of weaving another row. This is the lead trainer's home. All around there are women colorfully attached to the walls. As I look around, I see many smiling faces. It seems they find a refuge within the confines of the congested camp. Observing  their concentration I gather a sense of quiet contentment in their undisturbed repetition of motion. I have found a sanctuary of weavers in meditation.

I was led to the open end of the hut where three women were stitching detailed décor onto small handbags which I immediately recognized from the shelves in PeaceCraft. I could sense an air of excitement after a brief announcement by my handlers. I was told that this was the first time they ever met someone from PeaceCraft – one of their best customers. I knew this, but little did I realize the impact it would have for them to see someone from that distant and obscure store suddenly standing amongst them taking photos and wanting to know their names and stories.

I was introduced to Meireh, the Teacher / Trainer for WEAVE in the Mae La refugee camp who has been working with WEAVE since 1996. I pulled out my pre-printed questionnaire and mechanical pencil, and began my inquiry.

How do I spell and pronounce your name? That is beautiful! What does your name mean? What is your position within WEAVE? How did you become involved with WEAVE? Describe your family structure and current living condition. How has the WEAVE impacted your life? …and so on.

I had prepared these questions a month ago, but suddenly sitting in front of her, I was less interested in the questions and more interested in her story. I wish I had more time inside the camp to get to know these weavers of patterns I was so familiar with on shelves thousands of miles and a world away. My time was too rushed and the WEAVE personnel accompanying me were concerned about the Thai military restricting what little access I had been granted, so I stuck to my script.

Meireh is a widow and mother of five daughters, all living off camp with families of their own. She lives in the house we are visiting with her in-laws and she cares for a mentally disabled woman residing with them. She teaches English and volunteers at the Baptist Church on the camp. As a primary level English teacher she makes a little over $25 per month and is paid every three months. Working as Trainer for WEAVE helps supplement her income with another $10 per month. “I am ok,” she tells me, “I get paid monthly, but women (who weave, embroider and sew) only get work when orders come in.”

What are the impacts of WEAVE on you and your community? She tells me, “There are about sixty women who work for WEAVE regularly in different programs…income from WEAVE is very helpful”

I naively ask, What do you know about Fair Trade and sustainable development? She frankly states, “I don’t know much about Fair Trade, when I sell for 100 Baht and I get 100 Baht, this is fair. Usually for things sold on camp we make about 20 percent of the cost to us. For example, if something costs 100 Baht to produce, it is sold for 120 Baht because we must consider what camp refugees can afford.”

Despite the brevity of my stay, I was able to collect information regarding the costs of living and opportunities for the weavers and other women in the camp. In a week, a woman can weave two shawls in her home. Each shawl produced will bring 150 Baht, totaling 300 Baht (US $7.73) as a week’s worth of pay. When an order for fifteen shawls comes in, twenty are actually produced and quality control selects the best ones for export. The ones not chosen still get paid the full price and these are sold locally, either in the Borderline shop in Mae Sot or in the small shack just on the outskirts of the camp along the main road. If there was a flaw, an unattractive edge, a mistake in the weave, an unattractive design, or if a weave was considered dirty, the weaver will still get paid at least 50%. This set up was agreed upon by the women of the Karen Women’s Organization and WEAVE.

WEAVE provides the spools of naturally dyed cotton and all weaving materials, to the weavers so there is no expenditure to the individual and the money she receives is for her labor. The cotton is bought in Chiang Mai from a family-owned business. The cost per spool of thread is 55 Baht, and typically it takes three spools to make two shawls. Thread form Burma is 28 Baht per spool, but of a much lesser quality and chemically dyed. The natural dying occurs at one camp near Mae Sariang, although their access to natural materials such as bark is increasingly limited because local Thai villagers complain about the impact on the local flora. The refugees I spoke with did voice an opinion that it would be best if the natural dying process could be taught to, and completed by peoples in IDP areas in Burma and sent into the camps because they have better access to the natural materials needed for dying.

When WEAVE pays for the product, such as a shawl, 5% of the money is to the group for cases of emergency. Last year there was extra money, so they used the money to buy every member a new towel.

These are a list of things the refuges receive from NGOs and aid organizations on camp. This list is per person in the household / per month:
• 1 kilo rice
• chili oil
• beans
• fish paste
• salt
• charcoal (5 kilo per person per month – lasts one week for average family)

On the camp, the refugees can buy the following to supplement their provisions:
• 1 kilo meat 50 Baht
• 1 kilo fish 30 Baht
• 1 kilo onion 10-15 Baht in-season and upwards of 35 Baht off-season

“Sometimes we like to eat sweats,” Meireh said in English, with a grin.

On the camp there is little or no space for gardens. The camp is extremely crowded and there is no access to maintaining fields outside of the camp. Surrounding fields are owned by local Thais who hire the refugees to come work during the planting and harvesting seasons. Each refugee who goes off camp must pay a 3 Baht bribe for a pass. Once outside of the camp there is no guarantee that immigration will not show up, capture them and deport them back to Burma. Typically, the refugee can make 50 Baht for a day’s labor.

The good news is many international NGOs (Non-Government Organizations) work in the camp providing assistance from various private sources and foreign governments. From what I witnessed in my brief stay, WEAVE offers the women in the camp an opportunity to maintain pride in their cultural traditions while making extra income for their families to survive and provide reason to hope for a better future.

After my short jaunt through the camp, I returned to Mae Sot.

The Buzz of a Border Town
The situation along the border is a multifaceted one to say the least. After a morning on the Mae La camp, I went to Mae Sot, one of two border towns where you can enter Burma. Visitors can only stay till 6 pm and then you must return. Most tourists use this as a visa run to get a fresh 30-day tourist visa in Thailand, but some who make it across will actually take the time ponder the Orwellian signage posted in English on billboards around the town.

Mae Sot is a story in itself. A border town that buzzes with seen and unseen activities: gun-running; drug smuggling; the illicit jade trade; migrants, both legal and illegal moving to and fro. Stand for a moment on the bridge you can feel the hum of activity. Western tourists making visa runs over the bridge while many without papers can be seen crossing the river below. Mae Sot is also home to a multitude of local and international NGOs. All the comings and goings occur under the watchful eyes of the Thai military and the government agents from the other side of the river.

Keep in mind there is an ongoing decades-long war along the border between the Karen Army and the Burmese Army. There are a multitude of ethnic minorities toting arms, and forming and reforming allegiance, all dependent on some illegal activity to fund their fighting. Mae Sot is  a funneling point.

To give context to my Fair Trade journey here, in Mae Sot alone there are over 700 factories, built like small compounds and complete with security to keep unwanted visitors away. I made several inquiries with local labor and human rights organizations and this is what I heard repeatedly:

The factories hire both legal and illegal migrant workers. In Thailand it is legal for a company to hire Burmese for much less than they pay Thais. Typically migrants make 50 Baht/day (US $1.25). A meal costs 20 Baht, so two meals a day would leave a worker with a savings of 10 Baht/day ($0.25) this money is often sent back to families in Burma or in the refugee camps.

When a legal migrant goes to work for one of these factories, the management will confiscate their papers. Without documentation they cannot leave the compound. Fear keeps them from stepping outside. The immigration police regularly patrol the factory areas on the hunt for a stray.

Inside the compound legal and illegal immigrants find themselves in the same boat - enslaved by the factory. In these conditions the 10 Baht saving per day is seldom seen on payday when a portion of their pay is held back for "administrative reasons" which line the pockets of management. These scandalous companies are the small sub-contractors to the multi-national corporations we are all familiar with, the household names and promoters of globalization and free trade.
This begs to question, when we as consumers purchase those name-brands, are we complaisant with the enslavement and exploitation of the disenfranchised and dislocated? Where is the accountability of the multi-national corporations when they sub-contract the system of exploitation and hide behind legal contracts and Wall Street lawyers to avoid responsibility  of their contractors while their stocks rise and investors reward them for such behavior? 

A Hill Tribe of Northern Thailand
From Mae Sot, I returned to Chiang Mai, where I emailed my interviews and photos to PeaceCraft. I had been contacted by Lamdoun, a woman working in WEAVE, who wanted me to visit the Bokero Women’s Association (BWA) a couple hours west of Chiang Mai. They have no market to sell their beautiful products and asked me to come visit them. These are the hill tribes of Thailand where the main source of income is from picking strawberries on Thai owned farms in and around their villages. The Bokero, H’mong, Lisu and Karen ethnic minorities are among the many marginalized peoples of Thailand. Thais are enjoying the burgeoning middle-class lifestyle, but just as in many countries around the world; ethnic minorities are repeatedly excluded from economic prosperity.

Lucky for me, it is harvest time in the strawberry fields! It reminded me of late summer days of my youth spent in my grandmother’s strawberry patch – and here, like days gone by, the red stains give away my secret love of gardening. I had a great time with the members of BWA photographing their products and interviewing members. In the evening I ate dinner with the pickers before they went out to do their all-night work by flashlight. They graciously filled me with fresh strawberries and I met the village chief, who is also Lamdoun's brother-in-law. Not surprisingly he was quick to introduce me to his imported Filipino whiskey. Everywhere we went, Lamdoun garnered increased support in her personal mission to hook me up with her younger sister who was a teacher in the village. As the evening wore on, aided by the prized whiskey, I was being called “brother-in-law,” supposedly married to a woman I had never met, but all were in agreement that this was to be done....

From Thailand, I am going to go into Laos in search of small cooperatives. I have heard it is quite difficult to export from there, but I will go find out more for myself. I may be out of reach for a while if you email me, but I am sure to respond, just not in a timely manner.

I thank you for all of your support in my Journey for Fair Trade. If you would like to directly help WEAVE, they are in need of funds for additional training on camp. I heard a repeated request for training programs, all of which WEAVE does, but the funding is not always there. Please contact them if you want to donate directly to such programs or perhaps have a creative idea about possibly selling their products and donating the proceeds to their training programs. You could directly help to make a difference in many lives.