2016 Student-Faculty Fellows Program: Eckerd College
Local Forest Use and the Feasibility of
Carbon Credit Programs in Kam Chai, Thailand
Mentor: Jeff Felardo, Assistant Professor of Economics
Students: Robert Musci, Julia Sparks, Michael Bartosewicz, and Grace Miller
Four students and one faculty member spent the summer of 2016 in Thailand as part of ASIANetwork’s Student Faculty Fellowship. Students were exposed to environmental, economic, and gender issues in an Asian context. While many of these issues share common characteristics across borders, Thailand provided a different perspective. Each student was able to provide their own input to the research project after being immersed in the rural Thai culture. They all participated in a homestay where they met local villagers dedicated to the Thai traditional way of life. While the students struggled with the language, and the weather, they embraced the local culture and seemed to enjoy interacting with their local counterparts. In particular, Mukdahan Community College was very welcoming to us and provided several opportunities for collaboration. Students were matched with a local Community College student for the trip, and as a group we participated in the grand opening of the College’s branch of OKMD (Thailand’s National “Office of Knowledge Management and Development”). We also assisted the College with several English classes, and helped translate, edit, and record English language promotional materials for the College. The students then participated in finalizing the survey, which was constructed to measure local’s attitudes toward possible payment for ecosystem services (PES) programs using contingent valuation methodology.
After the survey was finalized, the students participated in focus groups where they were able to ask locals questions through translators. The students then accompanied the enumerators who were tasked with administering the survey to experience the village where the study was taking place. This exposed students to the reality of rural Thai life-style. The community, education, and income were all very different from those they experienced in the United States. We all took part in hikes through the local forests and in the tree inventory. This exposed students to the different styles of conservation engaged in by the United States and Thailand. Students particularly noted the utilitarian management of the forest as opposed to the conservation motivation promoted through the United States. Students left with an appreciation of the rural people, and their dependence on products that the forest provides. With respect to the tree inventory, GPS devices were used to record the latitude and longitude of the trees. The students shuffled roles between using the GPS, measuring the trees, and recording. After the data is finalized, each student will write their research reports, conduct statistical analysis, and work on presentations. There are plans to present the research at the ASIANetwork conference, and undergraduate research symposiums in 2017.
The motto of Thailand is “Amazing Thailand;” and there is no better way to sum up my experience there. In the days leading up to leaving, I felt very prepared. I had spent hours learning Thai, reading research papers similar to the study we were trying to orchestrate, as well as finding as many personal anecdotes and tips people had about their travel to Thailand and Southeast Asia. Upon arriving, though, I realized nothing could have prepared me for the experience I was about to have.
Nothing made that more evident than the homestay we took part in. Spending two days in a rural village directly on the Mekong River exemplified the traditional values and philosophies of rural Thai people that persist today. The villagers embraced us with open arms and open hearts, eager to show their customs and traditions. We discovered how the river was the lifeblood for the village: not only a form of transit but also a vital source of food. We saw first-hand the relationship and dependence these people have on the environment around them. As we gathered data and better formulated our research questions, our experiences during the homestay offered a reminder into the deeper meaning of the work we were doing. The better we understand the extent of the relationship rural Thai people have with the environment around them, the better our interpretation of any experimental findings will be.
While it was the most grueling parts of the experience, exploring the forest was the most incredible and rewarding time during the trip. Given Thailand’s history of deforestation particularly due to conversion of land to rice paddies, all of the forested regions we explored often consisted of steep inclines and long hikes to get to plots that were suitable to collect biomass and density counts. It was during these long hikes that we learned the most about Thai culture and history from our guides who spent the majority of their time venturing into the forest to collect non-timber forest products (NTFPs) to earn money.
With our data coming in, it is becoming clear that these people seriously depend on non-timber goods collected from the forest as a way to provide for themselves and their families. The goal is to quantify what percentage of their income ultimately comes from these goods so as to know which ones we could potentially see threatened in the future as more collectors enter the forest and more forest is disappearing. Using the scientific method and advanced statistical analysis, this research will help prepare me for what I can expect as I look to graduate school and all future research.
Thailand was the exact opposite of what I expected. I expected to go and see poverty and people who looked like the sad photographs of global poverty. What actually happened was that I learned that poverty is a serious issue in Thailand, but that almost everyone seemed happy. Their happiness appeared to be much more than what I would see wandering the streets of America. The people were happier because they cared less about things like how much money they have as compared to someone else. In preparation for the trip I did research about where we were going, learned some Thai, and began writing my journal. The way I wrote about Thailand in my journal changed as we went along. In Thailand I was in a sea of wonder and amazement, I had never been to an underdeveloped country before. When the bus arrived in Mukdahan I had not expected a large bustling town with westernized restaurants. It was a testament to what globalization in our world has become: they have malls, KFCs, and even movie theaters. While in Mukdahan, we met with local students who were learning English. They were incredible nice and welcoming, they taught us Thai as we taught them English. We even spent a home stay with them where we learned about the facets of rural Thai life including rice gathering, traditional food making, and how rough rural life can be. After Mukdahan we moved on to Kam Chai to begin focus groups, forest inventory collection, and handing out surveys. This was my favorite part of the trip, we went through the forest during the day, measured trees and cataloged them. At night, we ate at the market for dinner. After leaving Kam Chai we stayed in Mukdahan and Bangkok for a few days, where we inputted data from the survey and forest inventory collection. Since returning from Thailand I have focused less on what a job will get me financially and more on what I want to do for the rest of my life. For the project I have been attempting to find a method to identify trees from collected data and pictorial evidence. I will eventually be writing a paper as well as giving a presentation, hopefully at the student research symposium we have at Eckerd. Thailand has so far been the greatest journey of my life and I hope it stays that way. After graduating Eckerd I want to go into graduate school for natural resource economics, this has given me lots of experience in the field relating to survey making, research methodology, and GIS.
Despite the many fears that naturally occur when being fully immersed in a rural Thai community for a month, the unexpected support system of local strangers offering everything from their food to help with the language made us feel at home even though we were nearly 9,000 miles away. Since a great deal of our research involved interviewing people in the community of Kam Chai, Thailand about how they used and valued their forest resources, we experienced first-hand the genuine hospitality of all we met. Although I did considerable preliminary research about women’s issues related to conservation and farming, nothing could have quite prepared me for the positive realities I saw once we finally arrived. I expected to see similar pressures placed on women as we do in the U.S., but with a vastly different culture, come unique and varied challenges.
My research focus was about “how family dynamics in relation to gender impact how individuals use and value their forests.” In addition to administering surveys and recording extensive forest data, we also had the opportunity to shadow an incredibly candid woman to observe how she gathered resources (primarily mushrooms and snails) from the forest each day. We wrote comprehensive reflections every evening that will play a vital role in how we interpret our final data analysis. Now we are faced with the task of combing through the data from hundreds of surveys given to local people. I aim to pinpoint if and how gender and number of children relate to the stated monetary value an individual gives their forest resources.
This experience has built the foundation for my aspirations in the field of international economic development and will be immensely useful for when I begin my anticipated program for a Masters in Sustainable Development in Fall 2017. Most importantly, it was the first field experience I have had working directly with local people, some of whom will be life-long friends.
My month-long stay in Thailand was an unbeatable experience that made me recognize the amplitude of my privilege. In setting out to better understand the interaction between rural Thailand’s forests and the people who use them, observing practices and interviewing locals opened my eyes to the tremendous and inevitable dependence they have on the forest for their livelihoods. Deforestation in northern Thailand is a big problem despite the government’s efforts to combat it, so our research was focused on possible solutions that might succeed when considering the reason for deforestation. The interconnectedness between deforestation and poverty was evident when speaking with locals of the Kam Chai forest. It is unreasonable for them to prioritize conservation when they have to focus on feeding their family.
In preparation for this journey, I read many surveys previously administered in developing countries to help construct our own. After the survey was translated, I got to attend a focus group where I gained insight on how to overcome the challenges we faced from the cultural barrier. By spending many hours in the forest, collecting mushrooms and measuring trees to find biomass estimates, I experienced the physical demands necessary to collect the forest products sold in the nightly market I often attended. Helping teach an English class with our counterparts at Mukdahan Community College and visiting a local elementary school, I was introduced to the Thai institutional education which will help me in the advancement of my research on education level and how that may impact forest use. Since returning to the US, I have been furthering my research by analyzing the data collected from our survey, specifically on education level and forest use, and applying it to the information I observed in my time there. I also plan to create a presentation of our findings, which I will present at my college’s annual research fair. This experience made me excited to continue to work with impoverish populations in developing countries and possibly joining a program after college that allows me to do that.