CURLS Summer School 2016


The Commons, Compassion and Community

Text: Hans van Willenswaard

The School for Wellbeing Studies and Research organized its third CURLS summer school in Thailand. Participants included young people, activists and professionals from all ages. They came from Nepal, Bhutan, Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Laos, India, Poland, Madagascar and Thailand to join the two weeks summer school. A second CURLS 2016 group made a study visit to Bhutan from 23 July – 8 August.

Video Curls.jpgResource persons the whole summer school through were theatre activist Alok Ulfat and filmmaker Gunjan Sethi both from India. Alok – Avikal Initiative for Life conducted all mornings Inside-Out exercises with the CURLS group and produced a theatre improvisation, following excursions to rural communities. The improvisation was performed the day the two CURLS groups came together at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok and was open for the public.

Hans van Willenswaard & Sulak Sivaraksa, CURLS 2016, Thailand

The CURLS 2016 opening presentation was delivered by Sulak Sivaraksa, Right Livelihood Award laureate 1995, and the initiator of CURLS. His ‘umbrella’ foundation, an alliance of Thai NGO’s and social enterprises, organizes CURLS together with three partners: Chulalongkorn University, Bangkok, the Royal University of Bhutan and the Right Livelihood College, with campuses all over the world. The Right Livelihood College was founded by Anwar Fazal, consumer activist from Penang, Malaysia, Right Livelihood Award laureate 1982, with the aim to create a global learning platform around Right Livelihood Awardees. Professor Anwar Fazal made a Source Book for this occasion which lists all Right Livelihood Awardees.

Opening speech by Sulak Sivaraska


Sulak Sivaraksa  explained in a perspective of the history of Siam (Thailand) how Right Livelihood could play a more central role. Ajarn (title for a teacher) Sulak described how Siam is being misled by successive governments towards the ambition to move from a “middle income country” to a “rich country” – See: Bangkok Post 23 January 2013.

No wonder we got deeply stuck into our present political and spiritual crisis. Because, in order to become rich, we have to compete!”  With our neigbours; in the global economy; and we have to compete between sections of society. Competitiveness is the miracle word for economic progress. The wealth we want to achieve has to be earned by increased productivity of low-income earners: farmers, construction workers, factory workers and immigrant laborers. Everywhere where the economy is driven by GDP-growth, the rich become richer, thanks to the efforts of the low-income work force.

Instead of competition as the major driving force towards our future, could we choose for compassion? Could we transform our societies from GDP-driven to receiving guidance from Gross National Happiness?”

“Here comes my first suggestion. In order to make de-centralization successful we should not only go back to territorial rule and functional governance. Localization is important but it is not enough. And functional divisions are deluding from a more holistic development. In the 21st century, a third and complimenting dimension of national governance, in addition to territorial and functional, should be added. We can call this dimension of “purpose-driven”. The major purpose of our time – a challenge still far from The Wisdom of Sustainability by Sulak Sivaraskabeing met – is sustainable development. That is where compassion should lead us: The Wisdom of Sustainability. Buddhist Economics for the 21st Century.”

Compassion is more than being kind: we should unite with the oppressed through our compassion. And good friends, Kalayanamitra, driven by compassion, are those who tell you what you don’t want to hear.” Sulak said.

The academia-civil society part of CURLS included exchanges on the commons with resource persons Shalmali Guttal, Focus on the Global South, (who commemorated the forced disappearance of Sombath Somphone in Laos), Surat Horachaikul, Faculty of Political Science, Chulalongkorn University and Anan Ganjanapan, professor at Chiang Mai University; as well as professor Suchin, Khon Kaen University, who instructed the group for their Participatory Action Research projects in the rural communities.

The action research projects were digested during a retreat at Wongsanit Ashram (founded by Ajarn Sulak more than 30 years ago) where also the theatre improvisation was rehearsed.

Closing event

The closing event with an exhibition of the community research results at the “Chula” campus included presentations by two more Right Livelihood Award laureates.

Walden Bello

Walden Bello, Philippines, Right Livelihood Award laureate 2003, delivered a speech titled Land, Inequality and Democracy: Reflections of an Ex-Parliamentarian.

After an analysis of why land reform in the Philippines failed, Walden Bello stated:

“Let me add that the failure of agrarian reform in the Philippines has been accompanied by an aggressive assault on the commons, on communally shared lands and water.  This has not only reduced the space for survival of farmers but it has resulted in the massive displacement of indigenous communities.  All in all the lot of people in the countryside is now worse than it was when the Marcos regime was overthrown 30 years ago.

Now even as the landed elite was relying on the mechanisms of liberal democracy to subvert agrarian reform, it was also through liberal democracy that foreign powers like the US, International Monetary Fund, and the World Bank sought to fashion our economy along neoliberal lines.  It was not a dictatorship but a democratically elected Congress that passed the automatic appropriations law that allowed foreign creditors to have the first cut at the government budget.  It was not a dictatorship but a democratically elected government that brought down our tariffs to less than five percent, thus wiping most of our manufacturing capacity.  It was not a dictatorship but a democratically elected leadership that brought us into the World Trade Organization and opened our agricultural market to the unrestrained entry of foreign commodities that have led to an erosion of our food security.”

Grain-1The speech by Walden Bello was followed by a presentation and a World Café conducted by Kartini Samon (Indonesia) Asia Coordinator of GRAIN. GRAIN received the Right Livelihood Award in 2011.

“Since 2001, GRAIN has been tracking how so-called Free Trade Agreements (FTAs), negotiated largely in secret, outside the World Trade Organisation (WTO) are being used to go beyond existing international standards on the patenting of life forms. FTAs are legalising corporate theft and threatening farmers’ ability to save, produce and exchange seeds around the world.

Signed in 1994, the WTO agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) was the first treaty to impose global standards on intellectual property or legal ownership of plants, animals and microorganisms, bolstered by an enforcement mechanism. Representatives of the US seed and biotech industry brought the issue into the trade talks. Their goal? To ensure that companies like Monsanto, Dow and Pioneer, which spend money on plant breeding to bring new seeds to market, can recoup their investment and make a profit by preventing farmers from re-using those seeds—obligating them to purchase seeds from corporations year after year.

The patenting of life has been hotly contested for decades. For farmers, it makes seeds and livestock more expensive and takes away their right to freely reproduce them. It also reduces life and culture to a commodity that corporations can own and control.

FTAs negotiated outside the WTO go even further and help US and European corporations get what they weren’t able to achieve under TRIPS. These deals often require countries to: 1) allow companies to take out patents on plants and animals, 2) adopt the rules of the International Union for the Protection of New Plant Varieties (UPOV) which provide patent-like rights for plant breeders, and 3) join the Budapest Treaty on the recognition of deposits of micro-organisms for the purpose of patent protection. These measures give monopoly powers to agribusiness at the expense of small and indigenous farming communities. For example, UPOV and patent laws generally make it illegal for farmers to save, exchange or modify seeds from so-called protected plant varieties. This is a tremendous injustice, since farmers and indigenous peoples are the original source of these seeds. Corporations take seeds from farmers’ fields, tinker with them and then claim property rights over them as “new” varieties. ()

Source: BIOTHAI a Thai NGO

What’s more, corporate varieties, promoted as more “modern” than traditional seeds, end up replacing the diversity in farmers’ fields. This genetic uniformity makes the world’s food supply extremely vulnerable, especially in the context of ever-increasing climate chaos. The main countries pushing these measures through bilateral and regional trade deals are Australia, Europe, Japan and the US—with Europe and the US being by far the most aggressive. This is logical, because they house the world’s top seed corporations. US firms alone account for more than 51 per cent of commercial seed sales around the world. Washington promotes the hardest line: patenting when and where they can get it, UPOV as the backup option. The European Union, the European Free Trade Association, Australia and Japan are pushing countries to join UPOV. As a result, the list of who is being forced to join UPOV or allow patents on life as part of a trade deal outside the WTO is growing.”

“Clearly” Kartini concluded as introduction to the World Café “the pressure to establish new powers for the seed and biotechnology industry comes mainly from a handful of governments (US, Europe, Japan) for a handful of beneficiaries (the increasingly concentrated corporations based in these countries).”

The closing event concluded with the hilarious and moving theatre improvisation which depicted with songs and gestures, powerful texts, how communities are lured into modernization and risk to lose their identity, land and resources, community spirit and local governance. Unless they unite and stand up to counter the trend and wake up to the challenge to “reclaiming the commons”.

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