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Thailand transformation -- Habitat for Humanity Int'l 1

Thailand transformation

The northern Thailand site of the Jimmy & Rosalynn Carter Work Project 2009 is a city ripe for change.



Nida Potongkanong shops for supplies in the market. Nida Potongkanong sits patiently on a wooden bench, her back to the muddy Mae Ping River flowing slowly behind her.

The shade of a painted canopy shields her from the bright Thai sun beating down on the city of Chiang Mai. She smiles to herself as she waits for her brother-in-law to emerge from the maze of market stalls sprawled before her.

Scooters and motorbikes rush along the busy street in between. On the sidewalk, a young boy holds a frozen treat at arm’s length, his fidgety friend eagerly peeling the paper wrapping from its icy blueness. The pair darts through the dusty current of traffic, joining a group of children crowding into a market stall with a small television set behind the counter.

They pay little heed to the swarm of shoppers they skip around, and even less to the colorful piles of produce and rows of freshly butchered meat all around. Endless rows of vendors hawk their variety: fried pumpkin, fresh pineapple, pig’s feet.

Nida has finished her daily shopping, striding purposefully along the market streets to find stalks of coriander, baskets of green peppers, and bunches of onions and garlic. She holds them now in her lap, along with bamboo sticks and plastic bags.

Once she is home, she will separate the coriander into smaller portions and skewer the peppers, onions and garlic on the thin bamboo. This afternoon, she will work alongside her sister and brother-in-law to sell these—along with grilled vegetables, fish and frogs—at a smaller market in another part of Chiang Mai.



Nida Potongkanong shops for supplies in the market


When the market closes, she and her neighboring vendors will trade whatever foods they have left to make an evening meal, and Nida and her family will head home. Nida’s sister and brother-in-law will enter a small but sturdy house built on a narrow spot of land they lease from the government; their family of five shares its two bedrooms.

Nida will join her frail 83-year-old aunt, Bang Comemoon, in a makeshift shack across the street from the rest of her family, a tilted tangle of materials scavenged from the nearby dump and fashioned into a one-room space without kitchen or toilet facilities.

Tonight, the rains will come. And as so often happens during the three-month rainy season, Nida’s home will be rendered almost instantly uninhabitable. Water will pour through holes in the rusting tin roof and walls of warped wood and plastic, soaking everything—and everyone—inside.

At 10 p.m. when the downpour becomes too much, Nida will grasp the hand of the aunt who raised her, as the two women wade together through a front yard awash in ankle-deep water. They will crowd in with her sister’s family for the night.

At times like these, Nida says, she really wants to have a house. “I don’t want any kind of a luxury house,” she explains. “Just a simple one we could stay in when it rains.”

Habitat for Humanity has worked in Thailand since 1998, partnering with families in 22 provinces throughout the country. That means nearly 3,500 families served nationwide. Chiang Mai, nestled against the Thanon Thongchai mountains, is the most developed city in Thailand after Bangkok and is considered the unofficial capital of northern Thailand.

From high above the city on nearby peak Doi Suthep, Chiang Mai appears calm and crowded all at the same time. Driving down the mountain toward the city, through lush green trees and small waterfalls, the road curves as gracefully as the softened corners of Thai script.

Once an important stop on an ancient Chinese trade route, modern-day Chiang Mai is now a magnet both for foreign tourists and the urban poor. Traditional industries dominate the local economy: umbrella makers, furniture makers and handicraft artisans ply their trades here. Tourism is also strong, given Chiang Mai’s deep history and its proximity to so much of Thailand’s natural wonder.

Families seeking a better life—some of them members of hill tribes from the surrounding area—migrate to the city in search of work and a more promising future. But with few services to meet the demand and incomes averaging US$150-400 a month, many families are forced to live in informal squatter communities such as the one where Nida Potongkanong resides: a line of ramshackle houses loosely clustered together off a side street on a long, skinny available plot of land.

Nida didn’t know who owned the land when she moved here three years ago, only that it was open and near her family. She is one of as many as 1,000 families living in similar circumstances in squatter communities sprinkled around the city. A thousand families, a thousand worries that today will be the day the landowner or bank or government reclaims the land and forces them to move.

As Chiang Mai continues to grow, land for purchase is hard to find and increasingly expensive. Local activist and community organizer Payoon Janmano has worked for 16 years to locate affordable land for her family and their neighbors. She has heard of small plots of land—400 square meters or so—selling for nearly US$30,000, an unreachable amount even for this 55-year-old grandmother who operates three businesses out of her home (laundry service, sewing and tailoring, and hair salon) while her husband works for the parks department of the local municipality. Their grown daughter works as a day laborer on a farm outside the city, planting vegetables.

For 22 years, Payoon and her family have lived in a wooden house built on stilts over a fast-moving canal. The local Treasury Department owns the land around them, so they would have to go if the government ever wanted the property back. She continues to actively seek land and save money for a future she still dreams of. “I hope to buy land and build a house one day,” she says, with determination. “But I also don’t want to leave my community behind.”

Current Habitat homeowner Patchanee Saengboon and her 24-year-old son Worakarn understand that sentiment. The sprightly mother and son live in a solid cement house built last March with the help of volunteers from Chiang Mai Ratchapat University.



Patchanee Saengboon welcomes visitors to the Habitat house that she and her son helped build


Before their Habitat house, they lived in a small one-bedroom structure of bamboo and old wood that Patchanee describes as temporary and “not so good.” Sometimes, the roof would leak.

When that happened, the curly-headed 60-year-old says with a shrug and a half-smile, “you’d just look for a dry spot to move to.” Still, when her husband died and relatives came to take her and her son back to the area where she had been born, Patchanee and Worakarn wanted to stay. “‘I was born here,’ my son said. ‘I want to stay here.’ Even in the small house, even in the rain,” Patchanee recalls.

And then Worakarn made a solemn promise: Someday, he said, he would build a better house for his mother.

The Saengboon family was fortunate in that they owned the land on which their house sat; Patchanee’s husband had inherited it from his family. So when a Habitat staffer who lives in the neighborhood introduced them to the idea of building a house with Habitat, they were eager to apply. Worakarn, who had studied construction in Bangkok, jumped at the chance to keep his promise.

He and his mother mixed cement and helped pour the foundation. Patchanee cooked for the volunteers who came out to help. “We were really happy to be a part of building our own house,” she says, sitting on a woven mat in the shade of her white house with orange trim. She points with pride. “This is my wall.”

Today, Worakarn installs satellite dishes for a living, while his mother does a little bit of everything. She wades into the area rice fields as a worker when harvest time comes. She fishes twice a week, tucking fish, crabs and snails into a small basket tied around her waist. She collects cardboard to sell at market. Three days a week, she cleans the Chiang Mai Habitat office, or Habitat Resource Center North, Worakarn taking her there on the back of his motorbike as he heads to his own job.

“I’m lucky,” she says. “I’m very proud of what we have done, very satisfied in my life now.”

Heading out of the Chiang Mai city center, the bustling storefronts slowly give way to green. The slightly narrowing road crosses a canal where men have waded up to their waists to fish with nets. In a small rice field just minutes outside of town, slim green stalks ripple in the slight breeze. A riot of flowers and shrubs line the street, mint and mimosa meeting hibiscus and bird of paradise.

It is here that the Jimmy & Rosalynn Carter Work Project 2009 will build with a new group of partner families in November. Previously, Habitat Resource Center North has worked with families like the Saengboons, who already own land.

The Carter Work Project, with its land acquisition and larger numbers of participants, represents a leap forward for this area, a leap forward for the Thailand program. “In the last two years,” says Habitat Thailand chief executive Panida Panyangarm, “Habitat Thailand has scaled up services, transforming houses, transforming lives, building holistic transformation into communities. Habitat’s new strategies have been cascading nationwide. To host a CWP build event will give us the opportunity to create awareness of Habitat, inviting partnership in the eradication of poverty housing.”

Here in northern Thailand, the main site of Carter Work Project 2009, Habitat will build on the site of a former orchard. The land that once produced mangoes and lychees waits impatiently for volunteers and families, waits impatiently to bear a different kind of fruit.