Migration and Rural Change in Thailand- A cross cultural research expedition

Latest update July 16, 2019 Started on July 1, 2019

22 students from the University of Vienna and Chiang Mai University, in partnership with Raks Thai Foundation, head to Chiang Mai province for three weeks of co-creation and fieldwork on the linkages between rural change and migration.

July 1, 2019
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In The Field

NAME OF STUDENTS: Barbara Panny, Carina Wagner, Atcharawan Supaka

RESEARCH TOPIC: Livelihood Diversification and Migration


Field assistant: Jiraporn Chandee

Barbara, Carina and Atcharawan are posted in Ban Na Hong, one of the largest and most developed villages among the six field sites. In Ban Na Hong there are many shops present, including agricultural feed depots, convenience stores, and small roadside restaurants. Well fed animals wander lazily across the streets, and dogs have to be coaxed out of the way of oncoming traffic. Upon initial arrival, the students were formally introduced by the village head to the entire community, and report that since then they have been welcomed with open arms. Despite some setbacks, including Carina leaving early due to unforeseen circumstances, and Barbara experiencing a foot injury few days into the expedition, the team has proven to be extremely resilient and are enjoying their time working together.

Their research topic is migration and livelihood diversification, and their thesis question specifically asks what “farmer- led innovation, agro- and soft-tourism and rural non-farm enterprises (RNFE) in rural areas of Chiang Mai province can be found”. To that end, being posted in a village with quite a bit of off-farm activity has been an asset to them. Their host mother herself participates in diversified economic activity, working as a middle person in the maize purchasing supply chain for the village.

So far, the team has already begun mapping the village and collecting data, and one of the main findings of note is that migration is perhaps more of a subtext to agrarian change than a main driver in the minds of local people. Local level policies, such as taxes imposed on hired migrant labor for fertilizer spraying, are associated with migration, but explicit linkages between migration factors such as a remittances and entrepreneurship are less visible. Gunnar Stange from the University of Vienna encouraged the students to assess what questions they have been asking, and perhaps find ways to hone in on the more subtle ways that migration is present and pursue those as avenues of exploration. Often times in exploratory research, the answers are not necessarily easily accessible, and finding ways to listen closely and adjust to the subtext of what is being said for clues can be a challenge.

When asked about the main group takeaway, the students responded overwhelmingly that they were surprised by how welcoming and willing to talk to them everyone in the village is. Barbara mentioned that seeing the village through the eyes of the local children was especially useful in providing perspective; several days ago they went on an informal transect walk (a semi-structured route intended to be undertaken with a community member) alongside their young host siblings. In doing so they were treated to an in depth analysis of which yard guard dogs were the friendliest, in addition to more concrete questions of who lived where.

In the coming days, the team plans on undertaking more formal transect walks, continuing data collection by interviewing the other shop keepers in the village, and incorporating the feedback from their instructors regarding interview strategies.

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Day 4: Arriving in the Field

On the first day of fieldwork, we all departed from Chiang Mai early in the morning, crowding into buses and onto the windy mountain road out of the city and into the Mae Chaem Valley. The valley itself lies about two and a half hours outside of Chiang Mai, and the road traverses through two National Forests. The mountains are a rich green and blue, with farming terraces set back among the steep hills. Many farming communities still live in the forest, existing among the context of land right struggles, government cropping programs and the encroachment of urbanity.

After a brief stop in Mae Chaem to fuel up on snacks and any last minute field needs, we arrived in the Mae Suk subdistrict headquarters. We were welcomed by the subdistrict head, Mr. Santi Chatyingsinwat, who presented the students with an overview of the villages, their relevance to our work, and some local tips- reminding us to respect the elephants and the power of the rivers. We also heard some more from Raks Thai about the geographical work being done in the sub district and were introduced to a newly launched community based GIS project called the Mae Suk Portal, an initiative of the subdistrict in partnership with the village communities to map their lands. Parts of the portal will be public facing, and allow researchers and stakeholders to better understand and track changes to the Mae Suk villages and farms. As a community funded initiative, this project represents one of powerful ways that mapping can empower people living in rural communities in claiming space- both digitally and physically.

Finally, the students assembled their PRA kits and printouts of the village maps, and were ready to leave to begin their work for the next ten days. Their homestays hosts filtered in one by one to pick them up and everyone departed for the evening and headed out into the field. We received some great photos in the LINE group of students on their first evenings- some enjoying beers with their hosts and others attending temple.

I had the chance to sit down with Marion, Chaya and Yanin later to chat with them about what best part of the expedition has been thus far. For Chaya, it was getting to see the more technical GIS trained students interacting with qualitative methods and broadening their experience in human geography. For Yanin, it was the methods training in Chiang Mai, especially witnessing the students collaboratively working on their conceptual mapping. For Marion, it was watching the students interact with the empirical nature of their work, and unspooling the theoretical into the something understandable and measurable.

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More photos from our three days in Chiang Mai!

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Preparation in Chiang Mai: Days 1-3

The joint expedition began with introductions from both the CMU and the Univie team, as well as a presentation from Raks Thai on their work in the Mae Chaem region. Raks Thai is a deeply important civil society organization doing work in communities all over Thailand, and from them we learned about the forestry management and community based adaptation issues facing the areas that we will be working in. From Chiang Mai University, we learned that their faculty cover a diverse and inspiring collection of research interests from GIS to human development geography, and that CMU is home to the first Geography department in Thailand. Patrick from the University of Vienna spoke about the history of the Univie Department of Geography and the work of the AGRUMIG project. After these formal introductions, Yanin from CMU led us all through a lively competitive icebreaker, filling the room with laughter and clapping. After the first joint student presentations of their research proposals, the day wrapped up with Thai dancing lessons and jasmine.

Over the course of these past few days, the Univie students have all worked very hard to adjust not only to their new teams and on their research projects, but also to immerse themselves in Thailand and Thai culture. We have had several great opportunities to exchange cultural knowledge and learn about the diverse sociological and ecological contexts of the field sites. Chaya Vaddhanaphuti from CMU presented takeaways from his thesis work with rural farmers on their perceptions of climate change, including cultural practices around food and clothes, as well as the nuanced ways that ethnographic research requires humility and awareness of one’s position and power.

Sopon as well has been an invaluable asset to the team- providing everything from help with SIM cards to GIS and census information about Mae Chaem. On the first and second days, he led us through an overview the field sites, and the students were introduced to the villages where they will be posted for the duration of the expedition. Each village has its own distinct characteristics, and the field sites represent a diversity of livelihoods and socio-demographic profiles. This includes ethnic Karen villages, villages supporting tourism enterprises and villages growing distinct crops like organic coffee and maize.

On the last day, the students met with their translators and had the opportunity to brainstorm field roles. After that, they continued finalizing their methodological plans, adjusting expectations as a group with their translators, and strategizing for the field work with the new information they have gained over the week in Chiang Mai.

This research project represents the first time that the two Universities have come together to take students jointly into the field, and as such, we are all in the process of creating something new and exciting. For many of the students it is their first time working with translators, and their first time traveling to Southeast Asia. For many of the translators, it is the first time they will have worked with the students. This practice of co-creation, where everyone is simultaneously novice to the process but an expert in their own cultural context is already a rewarding experience. Tomorrow we head to the field!

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Arrival: Chiang Mai

After an overnight train from Bangkok, the instructors (and your correspondent) met up in Chiang Mai to strategize with the research leaders Asst. Prof. Liwa Pardthaisong, Yanin Chivakidakarn Huyakorn and Chaya Vaddanaphuti at Chiang Mai University. CMU is a beautiful campus, set back in leafy trees and white modernist buildings with dogs sunning themselves in the tropical humidity. The instruction team sat for several hours and discussed the preparation schedule before the fieldwork. Besides icebreakers and breakout sessions to co-present the research proposals, over the next few days the students will work collaboratively on structuring causal/impact chains, sharing knowledge about cultural expectations, and preparing for their days in the field. The Viennese student proposals have been submitted to their Thai research partners, and now the teams will spend their preparation time getting to know each other and deep diving into methodology and practical considerations before leaving for the villages on Friday.

Our Thai colleagues at CMU took us for a delicious lunch of traditional Thai food, and we wrapped up for the work day with full bellies and ready for some strategic napping before meeting the students.

Later in the evening, the entire team of Vienna students and researchers, along with our Indonesian colleagues, convened at the hotel for some introductory remarks from Patrick Sakdapolrak from the University of Vienna before heading off to the official first dinner of the expedition! Sopon Naruchaikusol, who has worked with Patrick prior to this expedition and is assisting with our trip, graciously explained the Northern Thai delicacies we tried, including the seasonal mushroom soup and spicy Thai sausage.

Meet the team from Chiang Mai University:

The team leaders at Chiang Mai University include Professors Liwa Pardthaisong, Head of the Department of Geography at CMU, Yanin Chivakidakarn Huyakorn and Chaya Vaddhanaphuti

The students from Chiang Mai University include Worayut Takaew, Panitan Srilimpanon, Patsawut Nantarata, Atcharawan Supaka, Chakkaphor Namwong and Parichart Chawiwong

Meet the team from Gadjah Mada University:

The team from Indonesia includes Adrianus Venda, Dewi Okta and Wicaksana Agnung.

Meet the team from the University of Vienna:

The team leaders from the University of Vienna include Professors Patrick Sakdapolrak, Marion Borderon and Gunnar Stange.

The students from the University of Vienna include Dominika Teluchova, Jan-Niklas Janoth, Pia Feiel, Veronika Furnsinn, Vinzent Hilbrand, Carolin Biberger, Carina Wagner, Barbara Panny, Hannah Platt, Patricia Hartl, Cristoph Kiss and Kristijan Istodorovic.

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Expedition Background

AGRUMIG "Leaving something behind" - migration governance and agricultural and rural change in "home" communities.

Under the banner of the AGRUMIG consortium project, this field expedition will take 11 students from the University of Vienna and pair them with students from Chiang Mai University. Over the course of three weeks, the student pairs will work together on finalizing the Univie student proposals, and then undertake the initial fieldwork in Chiang Mai province. Upon completion of the fieldwork, students will analyze and present back their team findings at Chiang Mai University. In partnership with Raks Thai Foundation, this research seeks to inform the background understanding of the complex interplay between rural change and migration, and contribute to the ultimate goal of AGRUMIG.

AGRUMIG works in seven countries (China, Ethiopia, Kyrgyzstan, Moldova, Morocco, Nepal and Thailand). The project seeks to understand a range of economic, institutional, cultural and agro-ecological factors that mediate the outflow of labor from rural areas; explain how demographic changes feed back into reshaping rural transformation in these places; and challenge our thinking on what are the best policy and practice approaches to governing migration in these contexts. Our emphasis is away from regulating the movement of people to harnessing flows of knowledge and finance as a result of migration to help leverage more equitable agrarian change, including tackling structural constraints and stresses on economic development, such as gender inequality and youth exclusion. Our overall aim is to identify policy and practice interventions that harness migration processes and outcomes to stimulate more sustainable, inclusive and equitable growth in rural areas, and reduce the distress so often associated with migration decision-making.

Funded through EU H2020 [grant agreement number 822730]

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