UPLift--Poverty Alleviation For The Ultra-Poor

UPLift is a program designed to empower communities on the Thai/Burmese border that lack food security, opportunities for income, and education. Through the use of small grants and skills trainings, these families receive the opportunity to pull themselves out of poverty without having to rely on external aid indefinitely.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Compost In A New Light--Chokchai Integrated Farm

Today we visited the Northern Sustainable Development Learning Center in Chiang Rai province.  Located halfway in between Chiang Rai and Chiang Mai, it was a convenient place for us to visit.  Using what we learned about integrated farming, our school garden projects in Mae Sot will yield additional benefits to the Burmese communities there!

After over 50 years of serving as a community development worker the founder of this organization, Khun Chokchai wants to change the attitudes of local farmers in order to overcome two important problems: poverty and debt.  Poverty comes from the lack of knowledge and support to gain income on a consistent basis, while debt comes from the costs of growing rice and raising animals in the conventional Thai manner. 

Having an integrated farm (using everything available from the natural surroundings and not using expensive cost inputs like fertilizer and pesticide) can solve both poverty and debt.  Chokchai mentions that one rai, or 2/5 of an acre, can result in 200,000 baht (US$6000) of annual income by using integrated farming.

Fermented pig food using cheap natural ingredients found around the farm

Using bottles to water plants efficiently
Using everything in an average village's surroundings helps an integrated farmer get past some difficult challenges.  Egg shells become sources of calcium for plants, empty beer bottles become water tanks for individual plants during hot season, and pigs do most of your labor for making food and compost!

The most impressive aspect of what integrated farming can achieve is composting.  This involves finely chopping a mixture of dry and living grass/leaves (free) and layering the bottom of a pig pen with it and some rice husks (extremely cheap).  The pigs are fed on a diet of fermented banana tree stalk (free), rice husk (very cheap), some corn (very cheap), and banana leaves (free).  The manure they produce is then mixed in with everything else by the pigs, their nature being to kick everything around.  Removing the mixture on a monthly basis and replacing with another batch is a great way to create high quality compost that outperforms dry compost made by conventional methods. This technique also removes all smells usually associated with pig rearing, as the bacteria in feces and urine are broken down almost immediately by the composting process.

Pigs play the role of worker by making compost for you

In terms of quality, quantity, cost of production and final sales price, compost that is made by this method is excellent.  For example, five pigs raised for six months can produce four metric tons of compost!  This compost can be sold at 6 baht per kilogram, meaning that one year of small scale compost production yields
48,000 baht income.  This is from owning just five pigs and using free materials from just one rai of land!

Of course, the pig compost can also be used for intensive vegetable growing, as this lettuce bed showed.

However, it gets better! Mixing the pig compost with some ground bonemeal and a little corn allows one to make pellets which can then be used to raise chickens, which are kept in a closed coop so that the eggs can be collected each day (one per chicken from the 100+ chickens in this farm). And, of course, the shells are collected to be included in feed or fertilizer.

We are excited about using these concepts to help the migrant learning centers in the Mae Sot area to increase their food output, and will now be planning a training/demonstration center near Mae Sot to provide training to teachers and pupils at participating schools.

To see all photos from our trip today click here.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Water Solutions for Burmese Migrants

In January we met a group of four Burmese families in Mae Sot, Thailand.  They live near a red dirt road winding through fields of sugarcane, just past the town landfill.  A Thai farmer was kind enough to give them permission to live on one acre of his land without having to pay rent.  They can also grow vegetables and use water from his pond to do so.

The youngest woman of the group recently had a stroke, leaving the right side of her body partially paralyzed.  She no longer can collect recyclables or harvest sugarcane (two primary job opportunities for the Burmese in this part of Thailand), staying at home instead.  When she expressed interest in growing vegetables both for personal use and for sale, we noticed that this project would not only allow these families to improve their food security and income, but also give her an opportunity to boost her livelihood.
Improved soil leads to improved crops

Our first few visits were spent speaking with them about the water supply, what the land is like, and what types of veggies they have experience growing.  Given that they have a year-round source of water from their pond, we wanted to test a foot pump, a small plastic tank and normal 40-meter water hose.  This will reduce labor by cutting down walking time and distance for using a bucket to water the plants, and benefits the paralyzed woman greatly.

A deep pond near their homes

Their first round of vegetables were planted without much planning on their part, and most of the crops died as a result of poor soil and handling the seeds improperly.  However, by February they had learned much from their first month of practice and began managing their garden plots in a more serious fashion.  By using subdivded square and rectangle plots instead of planting in and around existing bushes, they have more order and control of what they are growing.  In addition, they are now using seeds bought on the Burmese side of the border, which they have more familiarity with.

We also tested our foot pump and explained the need for a tower of some kind to make all of this a "gravity system", which is fairly easy to understand--if the water is put in a high location, then gravity takes care of the rest by pushing the water back down inside a hose.  Two days later when we came back to measure the land, the families had taken the initiative to build their own wooden tower!  Together we gave the gravity system idea a shot, the results (see video above) were successful.

A half-day of work leads to a decent (and cheap!) gravity tank

See more photos of the families' garden, tower and great progress so far, and stay tuned for more updates on how they are doing!