The 4th Sombath Somphone Public Lecture

Permaculture: Practical Experience for Community Development and Food Movement

22 August 2021, 14.00 – 15.30 (Time in Bangkok)


Sombath Somphone Online Public Lecture 2021 will be the fouth lecture being held to commemorate the spirit of Sombath Somphone, a Laotian activist who was a victim of forced disappearance on 15 December 2012 and has never been seen since.


The purpose of the annual lecture is to enliven our remembrance of Sombath Somphone, not only as a victim of forced disappearance, but also as a community leader who stood for an important mission in society. By inviting persons and organizations who are engaged in similar movements and aspirations in various countries and contexts, we express our solidarity and international recognition of the need to protect the freedom of change agents to fulfill their visionary vocations.

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.

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.

“Sombath is a trained educationist and agronomist. So he used his knowledge and skills in agronomy to work with poor rural farmers to improve their agriculture production and livelihoods. As an educator, he particularly stressed the importance of education for young people – especially focusing on getting the young to think critically and find solutions for their own problems in the family and community. He always said the current practice of learning just to get a certificate or a degree is the wrong kind of education. Education should focus on [the] holistic education of the Head, Heart and Hands.”

(Shui Meng Ng, 2018)

Introduction to the Sombath Somphone Public Lecture

by Shui Meng Ng, wife of Sombath Somphone and founder of Taiban Crafts

When Sombath, first started his work in community development focusing on agriculture in the 1980s, the terms like permaculture or organic agriculture were new. He actually went to the US to study agriculture because he had thought that the universities in the US would teach him new scientific knowledge and techniques to help poor farmers in Laos to increase food production and enhance food security. However, to his disappointment, he found that the new agricultural practices taught to him in the US in the 1970s were ideas based on the “green revolution” where modern agriculture dependent on high-yield varieties and heavy use of chemicals and insecticides was in vogue.

Sombath quickly saw that these new agriculture techniques were not relevant to the reality of the poor farming communities of Laos where most had little cash to buy chemicals and insecticides and heavy machinery. So he decided to focus on the study of the use of bio-fertilizers to improve crop yield – not a very popular topic among his fellow students.

After he returned to Laos, he spent the next 30 plus years working with rural farm communities. He once said, despite spending so many years studying agronomy in the university, it was nothing compared to learning from the farmers on the ground and knowing their real needs.

Through his working with the Lao farming communities and observing from their practices, he learned that the best way to increase yields and avoid natural infestation was what his grandparents had taught  – work closely with nature, observe and work with the soil, the rivers and lakes, forests, and whatever natural resources were out there, rather than working against nature.

In later years whenever he worked with young farmers, he always reminded them that nature knows best – and nature is our best teacher because nature is the mother of science and true knowledge. He said that in the past farmers were illiterate and they seldom wrote down what they knew. So he taught the young farmers to make notes on what worked well, and what did not work well – for example which kinds of seeds grew best under what circumstances; what soil types and what eco-systems worked best with which combination of crops. He told them that was what scientists do – observe, experiment, and take notes and use this knowledge in their practice. If they did that it would be better than to spend years studying in the laboratories of the universities. “Our natural environment and the eco-system we live in is our best laboratory”, he said.

Sombath’s life and work with rural farmers taught him how destructive big agro-industries and the practice of mono-culture dependent on genetically modified seeds and high applications of chemical fertilizers and insecticides have done to people and to the land. He said mono-culture and agro-industries only profited the industry-owners, and seldom the small rural farmers. He had learned from real life experiences of what happened to small farmers who shifted to mono-culture and buy into the ideas of the agro-industries. To adopt the new agro-techniques, and many had to mortgage their land and borrow money to buy the new seeds and other agro-inputs needed for the new crops. And if the crop fails, they would have to sell or handover their land to their creditors and end up as laborers on their own land. From landed farmers, they became landless labourers.

In his 30 years work on rural development, Sombath also observed how many governments in developing countries think they can get out of poverty by following the development models of the developed countries, using the catch phrase “transforming land to resources” meaning transforming natural resources of land, water and forests into capital for large development projects. Such strategies have worked by getting the rich and powerful richer, while leaving the poor and powerless poorer and more disenfranchised. This is clearly what happened in Laos, as well as to many countries all across Asia. Many poor farmers have sold or lost land, with many leaving farming completely to become poorly paid migrant workers in the cities or in other countries.

So is there a way out? I believe that organizations like TOA and many progressive development activists believe that there are alternative pathways, at least for those who don’t want to fall into that kind of debt-trap. That is why TOA has continued to use the Sombath Lecture format to showcase the work of people like Sombath whose ideas and legacies are people-centred, eco-friendly, and are actually economically and socially more sustainable than those promoted by the greedy politicians and agro-industrialists who are more interested in enriching themselves than to really empower the people.

Lastly I want to close by saying a few words about how the Covid-19 pandemic can actually be turned into an opportunity to make a quantum shift in our development thinking.

When we had the Sombath’s Lecture event last year through an on-line format, we had expected that in 2021 we could have this event as a Face-to-Face Meeting. Unfortunately, this proved not to be the case and we must still meet using zoom. The severity of the Covid-19 pandemic has not only not decreased but has turned out to be more virulent, and causing many more deaths on a daily basis in Asia and elsewhere. We are not sure that we can overcome this pandemic anytime soon. Last year we were hoping for a vaccine to halt the spread of the disease. Now we do have a number of vaccines, but the distribution of vaccines and vaccination rates are still patchy. Even in countries where vaccines have been rolled out and many people have been vaccinated, we are now told that the virus has kept mutating and the vaccines may not be as effective as we have hoped, especially against the new Delta variant. As the scientists and medical establishments try to play catch up with the Covid virus, people’s lives and work have all been badly disrupted. Many have lost jobs and businesses and countries have seen their economy shrink.

However, despite the devastating impact of Covid on people’s lives and on the economies across the world, it has actually led many to stop, think and reflect. Many  have become much more cognizant about the need to reflect more cautiously about our life-style, our economic models, and production systems. Even many mainstream economic and academic institutions have 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, including Covid. Now more and more people are advocating for moving towards a “green economy”, especially through sustainable agriculture and greater reliance of local food sources and less wasteful consumption. These kinds of re-think maybe just a small start – but hopefully it will gain momentum.

To build upon such a momentum, we will need the participation of young people like those who participate in this meeting to take meaningful and clear actions to chart out a course of action and build a social movement which takes a much more holistic view of societal development – the kind of development that would place a greater premium on caring more about each other, taking greater care of our natural environment, and become better guardians of our one and only planet that we call home.

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