The 3rd Sombath Somphone Public Lecture

Empowering Young Organic Farmer and Regenerative Seeds

2 August 2020, Online Platform

Sombath Somphone Online Public Lecture 2020 is the third lecture being held to commemorate the spirit of Sombath Somphone, a Laotian activist who was a victim of forced disappearance in 2012 and has never been seen since. Sombath Somphone is well-known as a local activist in Lao PDR whose work focuses on community development, youth training, and food security. He believes that development should be balanced between social and economic development, and environmental harmony. With this aspiration, he founded the Participatory Development Training Centre (PADETC) that works with rural communities to promote self-reliance and self-resilience.

However, December 2012, he was seen on the CCTV footage being escorted into a police jeep and has never been seen again. Sombath’s enforced disappearance is one of many cases that widely occur in Asia. Many activists have been abducted and the governments remain indifferent. This resonates that we all need to come together to protect agents of change if we would like to see a transformation towards a just and sustainable society.

A short version of the Speech on Sombath Somphone: His Vision and Relevance in 2020 by Shui Meng Ng, wife of Sombath Somphone.

Sombath is a Lao community development worker and civil society leader who had worked in Laos for more than 30 years, in agriculture, community development, youth education, environmental sustainability, and engaged Buddhism.

Sombath was studying agriculture in the 1970s, it was the period when the “green revolution” and use of high-yield seed varieties based on high application of chemicals, and high-costs agricultural machinery was the vogue. Sombath rejected many of those ideas as not appropriate to the Lao rural farmers, who were still largely subsistent farmers, and where the market economy was still relatively under-developed. But the scientific training he received did give him the necessary skills to collect, collate analyze and present data and information in a logical and convincing manner, not only to the government establishment, but also to the regional and international scientific community.

He also backed his ideas with field-based agriculture practices working with local farmers and communities from across the country and documenting these in his writing. He was already promoting farmer-to-farmer learning and farmer schools’ out-reach, long before those terms became popular. He was also promoting organic agriculture and setting up local seedbanks before any of these practices were recognized as important. 

Relevance of Sombath’s Vision in a post-Covid world, the impact of COVID-19 has even convinced some mainstream economic and academic institutions to openly acknowledge that climate change, environmental destruction, and the current production practices have all contributed to collapse of our eco-systems and rising spread of diseases. If Sombath were here today, he would not reject all these new information, knowledge, and technological advances. But he would instead advise us to analyze and test the relevance of these ideas through rooting them in actual practices in the local context. Many of the new ideas spreading, either about organic farming techniques or ecological practices are also not new. These have been in practice for many years according to local customs and cultures. Some are valuable and others less, hence Sombath would say, try and test these ideas and practices, and document and validate them. In other words don’t just go for the “flavor of the month”, but to root these ideas in actual field practices within your community in an inclusive and participatory manner. He would also advocate learning sharing across your networks, like through the network that Towards Organic Asia is building. 

Lastly, I would like to share one final aspect of Sombath’s vision that you might consider to pay some attention to – that is going back to your spiritual root, regardless of your religious beliefs or lack thereof. Being spiritual means to be true to your values, and true to your heart. For Sombath, as he is a Buddhist, he strongly believes that whatever we do, we must do from the heart, with kindness and compassion as our true happiness and satisfaction comes from being kind and compassionate to ourselves and to others.

A keynote speech for the 3rd Sombath Somphone Lecture: Empowering Young Organic Farmers and Regenerative Seeds by Dr.Vandana Shiva

Dr. Vandana directly addressed the situation and concern on agriculture to young organic farmers who were also participated in the Young Organic Farmers Online Training.

I got involved in agriculture 10 years before Sombath. Because the total violence of the green revolution, it created the agriculture of killing. The earth, the water, the butter fly, the bees, our indigenous culture, our indigenous knowledge, and our compassionate of compassion. Regarding to seeds, the green revolution was nothing but change the seeds to absorb more chemical. The United Nations said, it shouldn’t call high yield varieties but they are high response varieties. It you don’t’ have the chemical they produce less. They only respond to chemical, but with the chemical you need ten time more water. So, it destroys the water. Ten units of energy going to produce one unit of food, in the chemical farming system.

In organic system, we work with nature and the cycle. One unit of input produces 10 units of good food. And my work in Navdanya shows, we grow more food when we grow more diversity.” She also shared other important messages to young organic farmers as below.

  • The work of Sombath is the work of compassion and love – the seeds of humanity. Young people are carrying these seeds in hope that they will make the world be compassionate and loving.
  • Organic agriculture is the way because it has these values by taking care of the earth and all beings.
  • Indigenous seeds care about diversity and they are nutritionally dense.

Industrial agriculture is the opposite of these values because they are destroying the earth and diversity. Because of its value on competitiveness and greed, industrial agriculture has militarised our minds to be at war with the earth.

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