FULL CIRCLE

ROME – THAILAND - ROME

Florita Botts

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A summer evening in Rome, washing up after supper. I open the window above the sink for some air. I know what to expect. There they are, getting ready for their fix. Sitting on the steps of the house that faces mine, lifting their kits out of shopping bags. Mix the white powder, push up sleeve, tighten rubber band on upper arm, pat vein to test swelling. Syringe in hand. Every evening they come, sometimes in twos, threes, sometimes just one.

The lane separating us is so narrow I could have a conversation with them without having to raise my voice. We're at eye-level. They don't absorb my gaze. No one has ever shown the slightest interest when I'm there in my kitchen window. What would I say? "Hey, what's the feeling you get after that squirt in the vein? Do you feel the sap frothing and rising?... You own the world?.. are on top of it?.. Or on the bottom and don't care?.. Is it really worth what you go through to get it?" That's what I wonder while I look, while I scrub the pasta pot.

Sometimes they lounge around afterward, don't speak, don't touch. Or sometimes drift off right away. One lone woman I watched -- young, they're always young -- her preparations and the injection. Then she settles down with her back against the wall and opens a newspaper.

"All that just to read the newspaper?" I want to shout.

The pusher must be close by. Those steps in the alley on the other side of my kitchen window, inside a low wall separating them from the street and giving a little privacy, evidently are the nearest place where many head to squirt that stuff quickly in the vein. The street lamp, day-bright, is directly overhead but they don't care being spot-lit. Cars bump by on the uneven cobblestones, scooters zoom up and down. I've seen the house owners arrive, jingling their keys, lips tight, stepping over the indifferent junkies to get to their front door.

If these blighted youths caught in the heroin trap could see what I've seen at the fountainhead, would it shake them with remorse, with moral outrage, for completing the circle of the exploited? That's where they are: at the end of the circle. And it starts with the growers -- stunted, underfed growers of the opium poppy. Mountain dwellers scratching a miserable living on the eroded slopes of Southeast Asia. Living in black poverty, paid pittance for their harvest by the merchants who get rich as it passes from refiner to dealer to exporter to pusher.

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The rice-growing plains of Thailand suffer floods every year because its forests in the mountains of the north are disappearing. Rain washes down their bare slopes that were once the great teak forests. No vegetation is left to stop it.

Who cut those forests?

Big business-- teak furniture for the West-- and rice eaters/opium growers.

Was anyone doing anything to save the forests?

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In 1979 I was sent to Thailand to photograph what was being done by the U.N. development program.
The U.N. project: watershed management and forest conservation. The office: the Royal Forestry Department of the Kingdom of Thailand. Thailand needed to show that it was resolutely working on the problem of deforestation in its mountains. It requested international technical assistance to put up this facade. There could be no criticism of the forestry department for letting the forests disappear if they had an internationally assisted and funded Thailand government project, international experts side by side with Thai foresters up in the mountains of the north, in the fight to save the environment.

The project looked good on paper, and received good funding, good publicity.

How long did it take for me to detect counterfeit after I stepped into the Project offices in Chaing Mai?

I sensed instantly that I wasn't wanted with my cameras. After my years of landing in U.N.-F.A.O. development project offices from Ouagadougou to Katmandu, it was rare that I was welcomed. The bleak messages my antennae caught had become routine: You're an embarrassment, you're not wanted. You're going to rock their boat... There's nothing to show....There's too much of the wrong thing to show and you'll be kept away from it... (The excuses start. They've become a repertoire for me.) There's a gas shortage. We can't drive you to the project area… We're short of vehicles... We're short of drivers because they've been requisitioned by the Governor for a Minister's tour of the Region... It's Ramadan; work has practically stopped... It's the wrong season... The roads are impassable... The staff are fully occupied with their quarterly technical reports... There are problems that may delay... It'll take some time to get an official permit to take photographs...

I’d stopped saying long ago: But you knew I was coming, you've known it for X months. You received official notice from Headquarters.

I'd learned silence, taking in the contours of the set-up. Knowing that they know they will have to accept that I'm there, I've come from Headquarters -- their headquarters too -- official photographer, media producer; they'll have to invent something.

M. Matson, our F.A.O. man, chief project adviser he was called… I saw an old beached whale in rumpled khaki. Embarrassed, awkward, face scarlet, sweating. Who recruited him at headquarters? We exchanged non-recognition. His pudding-soft hand dropped back. I felt the space between us like a wet sandbag, too heavy to push aside and too heavy to shape.

I stared at his flushed face, evasive eyes aimed toward the floor as though he were searching for dropped paper clips. Tensed to scuttle under the desks and escape this unwanted intrusion.

He wheezed. Words so muffled I could barely distinguish his British accent as he introduced me to the Thai staff, could barely hear their unpronounceable names. My first thought was: Charles Laughton in the tropics. He was undoubtedly at the end of a long career, probably as a colonial officer in some British colony in Africa, or maybe Burma. He would never rock any Thai boat, I knew.

I focused on a buttonless buttonhole on his shirt front --- popped at the bulge, an oval of lard-white skin. What else to focus on in that office.

"If you come to us, we are stone." I was riveted to this baffling hand-written message tacked to the wall inside a forest-fire lookout station. The next day we had climbed up there, Matson waffling me around the Project perimeter dutifully in a Land Cruiser. That message was tacked to the wall like an inventory list or instructions on the use of a fire extinguisher. And in English: we are stone; surreal! But in retrospect it could have been the Project motto. We are stone was the message as I was introduced to the staff the day before in the Project office.

Thai officials, I learned, don't smile. Why should they? It's more sincere not to smile when you don't feel like it. Why smile at someone you don't want to meet, this female who is going to stick her camera lenses into your business? Who might just see that you're sucking international funds into your own funnels. That you're not lifting even one of your perfectly manicured fingers to save the forests of the Mae Nam Watershed.

Their eyes were black stones. S. Panawat, baked-clay face, the Thai director, hung me on a meathook with his obsidian glance before we both bowed slightly and our hands went into prayer position for the Thai greeting. Not a muscle moved under the pencil-streak of a mustache. Perfectly starched and pressed khaki uniform, epaulettes, Royal Forester, grade....Colonel perhaps? On his way to being a general, most certainly.

I raveled from clean desk to desk for the same greeting to his uniformed Royal Forestry underlings; brilliantine-slicked heads exchanged bows with my floppy fringe. With the bows my eyes widened on their manicured, polished fingernails clamped in prayer formation between our noses.

The international team -- under Matson -- consisted of three experts, but they were out where they should be: in the field.

I was prodded into an empty room where I could read reports for the rest of my first day. It made no difference that I had already studied most of them in Rome before leaving for this trip. It was a technique to stall for time, while Matson and the Thai manager decided what to do with me.

Integrated watershed management, aims, achievements: Conservation structures for hilly humid tropics. Runoff testing of 5 types of conservation structures. I was already wondering how I would photograph them. Coffee-growing and peach trees on terraces. Unknown terms like "taungya," "swiddening." Pasture improvement and cover-cropping with stylosanthes, lablab. I was beginning to wilt. Hilly humid unfriendly tropics and rumpled M. Matson and oligarchical S.Panawat and the paper-pushing Thais.

The reasons for the Project were dramatic. Mountain tribes -- the Meo -- growing meager crops of dryland rice on steep slopes, alternating with cultivation of the opium poppy.


After harvest, heavy rainfall washing away the topsoil in only a few seasons. Peasants abandoning their depleted plots, cutting and burning more pieces of forest to start the same cycle again, and so on.

Cultivation of the opium poppy illegal, but enforcement impossible.

Project offered new system of cultivation on slopes -- terraces to check the rainfall, planting permanent cash crops on them to keep the topsoil in place. To convince the mountain people to adopt new techniques, the Project set up a demonstration area, where new alternatives could be seen by the peasants. Peasants were transported from their villages for field days. Obviously I would be taken to the showplace.

The showplace, called the Demonstration Area, was a two-hour drive from Chaing Mai. It was a spectacular sight: a cascade of terraces, each one with a different crop, abundant, immaculate.


Flourishing plants, weeded, fertilized, disease-free, neatly labeled in Thai and English.


There I met Ken Chang from Taiwan in plaid dacron and a baseball cap, the Project's expert in conservation, supervising a Thai worker with her tank strapped to her back who was spraying rows of mung beans.


We did a tour. Ken Chang was crisp, professional, sure of himself and his work. I appreciated that.
"These we call bench terraces," he explained. He showed me how they were dug with enough inward-sloping indent to catch the rain so it filtered into them, with drains for any runoff. They were erosion-proof.


"How perfectly they break up the steep slope," I said.
The Demonstration was awesome, landscape architecture on a grand scale. A swirl of varying tones of green, of feathery grasses to hold the banks, and on the terraces swales of mung beans, tea and coffee bushes. Peanuts, cabbages, corn, tomatoes, peppers, peach and mango saplings. An interlay of gleaming lines, crescents of green breakers spilling into thick forest on all sides.


They could be a demonstration to every farmer of the world who planted on hills and mountain sides.

"Perfectly Chinese," I said.

"Perfectly Taiwanese," he answered. He was a proud Taiwanese and he let me know it right away. This terracing system he introduced was Taiwanese, everybody in Taiwan was making terraces like these.
Over warm Pepsi-Colas in a small shed he improvised as his field office, I proposed to Ken Chang that we work on a series of color slides and a video film of correct terrace construction and planting techniques, ending up with this cascade of greens. They could be a popular teaching tool for conservationists.

The Project directors were relieved that I'd be concentrating on that. It would keep me very busy for most of my proposed stay. Every day I was picked up at my guest house in Chaing Mai by Ken Chang, and we drove to his perfectly combed and cultivated demonstration gem on the mountainside. I would glorify his good work in film.

From the road-side stands on our way to the mountains we would stop to buy fried bananas and chicken for our lunch in the thatched building, designed for meetings with the peasants during their study tours of the demonstration site.

But where were the forest dwellers arriving for their lessons in conservation? And those sleek Thai foresters? They didn't show up.

Chang the expert was working by himself, I soon realized. His Thai counterpart was one of those foresters sitting at their desks in Chaing Mai. Chang was supervising a crew of paid workers (paid by F.A.O. project funds) to dig terraces, to plant, prune, weed, spray , trim the tough grass on the banks, keep the full tides of terraces in their glistening shapes.


I asked him: "Where are the peasants that your Project brings to the demonstration site? When are they coming?"

"It's the wrong season."

It didn't look like it to me. The mung beans were ripe, coffee berries were big rubies, chili peppers decorating their row, enticingly crimson; blue-green cabbages perfectly formed.

So I did what my profession often required: I photographed and filmed the paid workers. I fabricated them as the peasants having been transported from their mountain villages for demonstrations on how farming on steep slopes should be. Actually, they were peasants from the nearest village, lucky to find paid work at this forestry station, and I didn't have to disguise them. Had them examining the coffee plants,


watching a peach-tree-pruning demonstration. Being shown how Rhodes grass grips the soil on the terrace banks so the rain can't erode them.

We filmed the step-by-step construction of a terrace.


We brought one of the foresters -- Nopadon -- to the site. Reluctantly, he had to leave Chaing Mai, had to act his role of teacher, demonstrator, teaching farmers how to terrace their plots.


Motivating them to change their ways of farming. All staged. Making a success-story out of a counterfeit project.


There's Nopadon's chinese-teapot face, fluffy brilliantine-free (my instructions) hair; no uniform (my instructions). He's dressed in dark- blue Thai peasant shirt, jeans, trainers, in deep discussion with an interested peasant among mung-bean plants. He's saying (my script): "You'll get [x] kilos of beans per plant, and you'll earn [x] baht. You can plant [x] plants per rai; that makes [xxx] baht per rai. How much would you get with opium per rai? [X] at the most." While... what he was probably discussing was the Chaing Mai soccer team, with the bogus peasant looking engrossed as I moved around them with the cameras.

Every day that Ken Chang and I drove up through the mountains to his terraced showplace, on all sides were laid out the reasons why the Thai foresters and the FAO team of experts should be hard at work. Chang pointed out the slash-and-burn method of primitive farming in forests as our Land Cruiser crept up the rutted road. Not a terrace in sight on the steep slopes.


We would stop the car, and stumble across these disfigured mountainsides so that I could photograph blackened stumps of trees, dolmens in their cemeteries of thin rice plants.


The trees had been hand-axed; their stumps stood everywhere on the fields, many of the trees burned where they were chopped down, too heavy to be carried away.

Charred logs lay in capitulation on the battleground of axes and hoes.

Bright-green rice seedlings pushed up for mastery and possession among the black corpses.

Determined, but vulnerable. They were few and scattered, and would have a hard life, trapped at earth level on these wrinkled slopes. When these seedlings survived adversity to become the Meos' meager sustenance, opium poppies would take their place.


Where are the terraces, I kept asking. Why aren't the peasants being taught to build them?

Chang didn't hide his contempt for the Thai foresters. "They don't care about saving the forests. Helping, teaching the peasants hillside farming? It's a laugh. They despise the Meos. Don't even consider them Thai citizens. All they want out of this project are the super computers and fancy office equipment to make their desk jobs more prestigious. They especially want the new vehicles, the Land Cruisers, with extra money for gas, so they can drive around and do their own business."

"Their own business?"

He laughed, but it sounded like "Ugh."

"There's a good example of swiddening," he said, pointing to a wretchedly eroded field. "You could photograph that. Let's get up there before it starts to rain." And we plodded up and up, sweat-sticky in the hilly, humid tropics, and I received another good lesson on forest destruction, soil destruction, a wash- out, a whole world thrown away.

How could these slash-and-burn peasants know that they're killing their future? Creating their own punishment? They probably did know it. Of course they knew it, but their answer was: So? So what then? What can be done? If you know what, then give us help, they'd say, You Government: give us rice rations while we're building those terraces which you say must be constructed properly, rice which we know we shouldn't be planting on slopes, rice to eat while the saplings are becoming orchards and the coffee bushes are growing on our new terraces and the tough grasses to hold the terrace banks are growing. You in the Government: give us the technicians to help with the surveying and staking, give us the augers, dumpy levels, batters.

What would it have cost to provide daily rations of rice to every peasant family until their terraces produced incomes? What government made that kind of investment? I asked Chang the free-enterprise Taiwanese.

No reply.

I answered: "China. The People's Republic. The Chinese did that in the sixties and seventies, did just that. I saw it in Hunan and Hubei, photographed it. While eroded bare mountains were being terraced and millions of trees being planted, the peasants were given daily rations of rice while the trees were growing and until the population could become self-sufficient with forest industries. It was a political choice to save the environment and create mountain economies."

He didn't want to know about it, about what his enemies had done. [But now -- note to the reader -- it's all being undone, the Chinese forests that were so carefully planted and tended are being chopped down by free enterprise, so it didn't continue to work there, either.]

We didn't argue heatedly, though. He was cheerful, and intensely professional; we had a job to do together.

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One of my worst days with the Project at the Demonstration site. Ken Chang and I were working on the terrace-building sequence with a young worker I’d picked as our "actor." I was filming him on a newly constructed terrace as he compacted the bank with a batter. Suddenly the Thai foresters were all there up at the top of the hill. M. Matson and S. Panawat and the whole crew. They were calling the workers to unload their Land Cruisers, ordering them to carry baskets filled with food, thermo containers with iced beer, down to the meeting center. The Deputy Minister of Forests was due to arrive, announced only a few hours in advance.

A flurry to set up tables, spread table cloths. There was no time to collect some peasants in the nearest village to stage a fake demonstration. It would just be a conducted tour for the Deputy Minister and his entourage of the perfectly tended crescents with their neat labels in Thai and English, the Royal Foresters in charge of Chang's show as if it was all theirs.

The Deputy Minister arrived in gleaming Mercedes followed by the under-deputies and ministry officials in humbler vehicles more appropriate for the mountain road. I couldn't imagine how a Mercedes ever managed that stony rutted road from Chaing Mai. I had to line up with the immaculate Thais to greet the arrival, in my work shirt, red limp bandana tied around my throat to soak the sweat in the pre-monsoon damp, muddy tennis shoes. Even Matson was ironed and with all buttons sewed on.

After a stiff banquet/stiff conversation and a very short tiptoe tour in patent-leather city shoes of the terraces, the officials drove away. Matson and Banawat also drove away. But the foresters remained. Perhaps they intended to give the impression that they were getting on with their work. They remained inside the meeting center, played cards all afternoon, guzzling beer, guffawing, slapping the cards on the table, jiggling their legs, clapping their hands. While Ken Chang and I went back to our terrace-building sequence, we could hear them whinnying and banging as the endless supply of beer unlocked Oriental reserve.

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The lettuce was packed in metal crates. I photographed a Meo in his black shirt and black trousers trimmed with red and yellow embroidery and his black cap with a fuschia pompom as he eased a crate of iceberg lettuce onto the back of the F.A.O. truck.

Is lettuce-growing an alternative to opium? I still don't believe that it is, even though people like M. Matson and Ken Chang seemed to think so. Lettuce that the Meos don't eat, planted on those precipitous mountainsides. That was my photographic assignment in the only Meo village where the Project decided it was convenient for me to work in.

Chang had managed to get one Thai forester on the spot. Surapon, a kid in his early twenties, at the bottom of the hierarchical ladder and therefore obliged to do a stint with the peasants. His job was to entice them to construct bench terraces on their 80-degree slopes and grow cash crops. He told me he had thirteen farmers in his program. In exchange for growing lettuce on the bench terraces they were promised a steady income. Thai Airways had signed a contract to purchase thirty tons of lettuce per year from the Meos, publicizing this gesture as its active participation in drug prevention.

The lettuce was taken down the steep mountain roads by Project trucks (funds from our Organization) to the Chaing Mai airport.

When free transportation ceased, when the Project folded, how would the Meos continue to get those rapidly wilting heads down the mountains in tropical heat to faraway Chaing Mai? Not for me to ask.

Cameras on Surapon weighing lettuce crates being carried from the terraces. The little Meo peasants with their jaunty pompoms were so touching. Better publicity photographers than I had already taken their photos: passengers flying out of Bangkok, waiting for drinks, flicking through Thai Airways magazine, would have stopped for a second to look at the colorful costumes, those stunted montagnards weeding lettuce on their bench terraces, or holding the filled crates toward the camera and smiling, many gaps in their brown teeth. Thai International Airways assists in the war against drugs. "The lettuce being served on our flights comes from the mountains of Chaing Mai...the Golden Triangle..."
Surapon told me that his farmers were assured of receiving 2,000 baht per rai for their lettuce. It's twice as much as they'd get for opium. I couldn't understand it. How can lettuce be worth more than opium? I couldn't get an answer from Surapon, with his nose in the accounts ledger ticking off the crates as they piled up. I felt Ken Chang tugging on my sleeve, "Time to go now." Not to talk about opium, is what he meant.

"But why do the Meos get so little for their opium?" I asked Chang as we drove down the mountain. "Isn't it worth a hundred times more than any other crop?"

"They're cheated by everyone. First of all they have to pay bribes so they're not caught and arrested for growing the poppies. Then the buyers in Chaing Mai pay them little for the product. They know that the Meos can't complain to anyone because they'll be arrested if they do, so they've got them cornered. Either they accept whatever they're paid or they get nothing."

"Who do they pay bribes to?"

"I thought you understood by now. The foresters. Our foresters. They're the law enforcement officers in the forests."

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What I had seen every day as a fake project was much more than that. The facade that I penetrated only partially. Of course I never saw the foresters "at work". And I would never have found a way to capture them on film as they collected their cut.

Just as -- in the Rome alley below my kitchen window -- I would never capture in photos a junky paying a pusher for his quick fix.

The beginning and the end, full circle.

Note: All names are fictitious

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