Thailand’s economy has grown over the last few decades, but not without great social and ecological impacts. The demand for social services to address poverty, homelessness, and addiction is far outstripping the supply. Wat Suan Kaew, a temple north of Bangkok, decided to build up a series of strategies that capitalize on ”waste”–whether social or material–by mobilizing the skills of marginalized people in the service of organic farming and refurbishing donated furniture. In this way, Wat Suan Kaew simultaneously offers shelter and job training for marginalized people, diverts waste from the landfill, and grows fresh organic produce for its onsite market.
Nonthaburi Province lies northwest of Bangkok, about a 40-minute boat ride upriver from the capital.
Phra Pihisal Dhammaphadi, popularly known as Phra Payom Palayano, has been the abbot of Wat Suan Kaew for a quarter century. Born in the Bang-Yai district of Nonthaburi Province, he grew up in poverty, witnessing domestic violence (his father drank and assaulted his mother). He remembers: “I could have followed most of the boys in our community–growing up to be a labor worker, drinking and gambling. But fortunately, we had an old radio at home and my older brother tuned in a channel which had a Buddhist teaching program every day. I listened to it and absorbed those teachings. By the time I was a teenager, I knew that secular life was not my path. On top of that, I saw that monastic life did not have to be idle and isolated from society. I could be a monk who taught people and also do social work” (Keesiri, “Suan Kaew Foundation”). He was ordained as a monk at the age of 21. In 1980 he became the abbot of what was then called Wat Kaew.
Drawing on the example of Wat Suan Mok in southern Thailand, which was a “forest temple” —built in a remote area where students and novices would live intimately with nature and learn valuable lessons—Phra Payom Palayano began some reorganizing at the temple, including building a garden on the grounds so that people could have a tranquil environment to study Buddhist teachings. While traveling around the country giving Buddhist lectures to various types of people, he noticed how impoverished the poor in Thailand were. He also saw a range of social problems such as drug abuse, prostitution, gangs, corruption and poor health. This prompted him to organize several projects aimed at poverty alleviation. His strong interest in the environment led to programs which built on the earlier ones, addressing environmental rehabilitation while using the skills and labor of participants of social programs.
Today, there eighteen programs, many of which overlap and have a number of sub-activities. Roughly, they fall into three categories: non-income-generating projects, self-supporting projects, and income-generating projects. Some of the income-generating projects “subsidize” the non-profit projects, which allows them to be sustained. Projects include:
- (1978) The Summer Novice Program: Set up to give young boys the chance to be ordained as Buddhist monks during the one-and-a-half month long summer vacation. While many young boys undergo some short form of novice training at a temple before returning to lay life, it was aimed to give young boys some moral foundation in a rapidly changing Thai society.
- (1987) Moral Camp: An extension of the Summer Novice Program where Buddhist teachings are made available to girls and to adults.
- (1987) Rom Pho Kaew: Provides occupational training to unskilled and underprivileged adults (i.e., unemployed or homeless). Room, board, and job skills training is provided. The program is integrated with the various farming and supermarket programs (see below) through the Suan Kaew Foundation where labor is required.
- (1988) Training House: An extension of the popular Rom Pho Kaew program, a Training House was set up to offer additional, more intensive job training, where volunteer instructors from various disciplines offer training to the unemployed.
- (1989) Rehabilitation Shelter: This was set up specifically to provide recovering drug addicts with food, shelter and Buddhist teachings.
- (1989) Bamboo Piggy Bank Project: Created at the same time as the Shelter, this was aimed at encouraging recovering addicts to set aside money that would have been spent on drugs, alcohol or cigarettes and deposit it into a bamboo piggy bank, to be taken as a donation for the service or to be used as emergency funds.
- (1991) Self-Employed Small Business for Needy Youth: This provided an opportunity for youth from poor rural regions to earn money for their education by spending the summer on their own small business at the temple. For example, they could make their own products through other Foundation projects and have the space to sell them on the temple grounds.
- (1992) Scholarship for Disadvantaged Children: These scholarships were offered to orphans or homeless youth who would otherwise not have the chance to attend school.
- (1992) Emergency Relief Project: This was set up in cooperation with the Public Welfare Department to help victims of floods, fires, or other disasters. Most recently, a lot of resources went to relief for the 2004 tsunami.
- (1992) Elderly Care Unit: This is aimed at caring for elderly who had been abandoned by family, a growing problem in modernizing Thailand.
- (1993) Goodwill Project: A special foundation aimed at encouraging wealthier members of society to donate money or used goods for residents or low-income people outside Suan Kaew.
- (1994) Supermarket for the Poor: The Goodwill Project was so successful that there was a surplus of donations. Something had to be done, because the place was becoming a dumping site. A plan was badly needed to make the best use of the donations. They needed to be sorted, counted and distributed to needy people. This led to the creation of a large flea market that could sell all kinds of secondhand goods, including clothes, electronics, refurbished computers, books, furniture and food at low prices. Housewares include fans, blenders and rice cookers, TVs and stereos, glass and roof tiles. There is a service which repairs electronic goods. This service allows people to exchange their labor for goods. They register at the temple, which assigns them work and gives them vouchers to exchange for what they need at the supermarket. Each year, some 36,000 people visit the supermarket, and the average daily income is 36,000 baht. The Supermarket has become a famous flea market for Bangkok residents.
In the refurbishing program, used or broken computers are sorted through by volunteers. Those which function are sold, while others are taken apart with usable spare parts resold separately. Still others are repaired, refurbished and sold. This becomes a “free” training process for amateur technicians. Computers are also educational tools for children living at the temple, to learn computer skills. Other volunteers keep records, such as databases for donations and records of people in the Foundation community.
The Supermarket has been held in a decorated six-story building, with each floor holding a different category of goods. The elevator in the building was itself salvaged from an old building. Donations of any of these goods are accepted and pickup services are available for large-sized donations. The Foundation feels obligated to accept all forms of donated goods and doesn’t refuse anything. They also rent space to outside vendors who want to sell their goods, such as food or handicrafts, in the Supermarket. While the Supermarket has been aimed specifically at low-income people, it has attracted middle-class shoppers as well.
- (1995) Suan Kaew Nursery: This was established to accommodate the growing number of children of the adult beneficiaries of the program. It provides meals, education, supervision and medical care for the children living there as well as needy children from the nearby community.
- (1997) Environment and Agriculture Project: The growing demand for programs, and for more space, prompted a decision to buy more land near the temple. Most of this nearby land was disused farmland, on which gardens were set up, which provided new training opportunities. The total cultivated area covers 150 rai (1 acre=6.2 rai) and grows a variety of fruit (starfruit, oranges, mangos, rambutan, winter melons), vegetables (olives), herbs, seasonings and medicinals. The herb and medicinal plots began as a way for some residents who came from poor agricultural backgrounds to get experience growing produce for value-added products like soaps or shampoos. Some residents rotate duties, for example, working on the farms, collecting donations, and refurbishing goods.
The gardens are watered twice a day, at 5 am and dusk. The farm uses no chemical fertilizers or pesticides. Organic fertilizer is in the form of compost (including a human waste composting system), and its produce is sold in the market.
Four Other Projects Were Started Since 1997
- Street Children: Work on the foundation, care, and education of orphaned or street children.
- Stray Animal Shelter: The spaying, feed and care for feral animals, mostly dogs and cats.
- Kitchen Waste Composting and Human Waste Composting: Kitchen waste on the temple grounds is composted and used in the garden. As for the human waste, there is an arrangement with nearby neighborhoods whose septic beds or tanks are periodically vacuumed. The trucks go to these neighborhoods (generally the nearby areas as well as all the sanitation facilities on the Foundation and temple grounds), vacuum the septic beds and transport the raw sewage to the processing facility in the farmland. First, it is dumped into closed holding tanks and held for one month. Then the sewage is transferred to a second tank which is exposed to sunlight for an additional month (in total at least 55 days). Then the dried waste, which at this point has become hard and black, is broken down in a grinding machine and foreign objects such as paper, plastics or rocks, are removed by hand. This compost is then applied to the farms.
- Refurbishing: The refurbishing center has become a large-scale operation, but I could not get any numbers on weight, volume or rate of production. To give some idea of scale, the entire area of refurbishing of goods covers at least 100 square meters, with one area about 10 meters square containing just toilets and toilet tanks salvaged from demolished houses or donated. Another area similar in size is occupied by kitchen chairs, another by cabinets, and so on. Other goods include window or door frames, ticket booths, bookcases, antiques, lamps, dinner tables, sofas and more. Some of the refurbishing work requires great skill and craftsmanship. Each refurbished product is sold in the Supermarket. When I visited, I saw people refurbishing a variety of types of furniture. One person was sanding a wooden frame of a sofa. Someone else was putting new stain on a refurbished guitar. Another group of people was working to reconstruct a neighborhood “spirit house” or shrine. Every piece being transformed looked new, unique, beautiful, and durable. Training, especially for work requiring specialized skills, is given by outsiders invited to the Foundation, or sometimes by trained residents.
The Foundation Grounds
All over the grounds, on walkways, walls, buildings, there is evidence of creative use of what is normally considered “waste” that has been salvaged and reused. Fiber from coconuts, which Thai people used in mattresses, was taken out of old mattresses and spread as mulch over the soil in the farms. Old tires are used in walls as openings or windows. There is a building made of old wooden fruit crates. Porcelain and tiles salvaged from houses and housewares are reused in beautiful designs, traditional motifs and mosaics on walls and all buildings. (The Foundation secretary, Duangjai Thitayarak, says that Phra Payom did all of the decoration and design of all the buildings, though I’m not sure if I believe this.) Old clay pots are reused in gardens. Old industrial concrete tunnels and roof tiles are collected in piles here and there for their potential use in some way or another.
Some of the grounds are reserved pasture for cows. In the Thai tradition, some people in search of “merit” (tickets to a favorable rebirth) will buy cows in slaughterhouses in order to rescue them from an early death. These rescued cows are kept on this field.
The Temple Grounds
Like the rest of the grounds, the actual temple grounds are non-traditional. The design is simpler than most Thai temples which are normally very opulent and expensive. The ten resident monks live in tiny huts made of corrugated tin on stilts, which allow just over enough space for one bed.
There are various areas for ceremonies or events, including a “tree cathedral.” This is a 20-square-meter space reserved for special ceremonies. It has a tiled “floor” with trees planted intermittently between the tiles, creating a cathedral effect of pillars and a “roof” made by the canopy of trees. This beautiful and unique space is meant to symbolize human beings’ intimate connection with nature.
Another unique structure is the housing of the vice-abbot. It has two or three stories, with each story containing a wider floor area than the one below it, creating a gentle inverted pyramid effect.
Unlike most of the other cases documented on this website, this project appears to have little formal community involvement at the decision-making level. Phra Payom Palayano is a charismatic figure with most of the power and glamour in the organization, who spends most of his busy days on the road at various engagements, while Duangjai Thitayarak, the volunteer secretary, is the behind-the-scenes force behind the daily functioning of the center.
Part of the reason why this appears to be a top-down organization may be that this approach fits easily into Thai Buddhism and society, both of which are hierarchical and patriarchal in nature. Two other reasons were explained to me by Duangjai Thitayarak:
- Residents and participants of Wat Suan Kaew programs are people who need structure and must abide by firm rules. This includes migrant workers from impoverished rural areas, recovering addicts, street people, at-risk youth, people with physical or mental disabilities, or otherwise outside of the norms of conventional society.
- People working there are generally considered “needy” and therefore not ready for the responsibility of decision-making and organizing themselves. If they were ready, the reasoning goes, they would not need to be part of the Foundation; they could leave and start their own organization or business (which in fact is what some former Foundation members have done).
In terms of division or organization of labor, the work is rotated so that residents have a chance to develop a range of skills. More specialized work is done by people who have had training. Children are also involved with some jobs like cleaning the temple or gardening.
The Foundation’s projects as described by Duangjai Thitayarak, Secretary of the Suan Kaew Foundation:
Known as “Mama,” the brisk, humorous, and friendly Duangjai has had this volunteer position without salary for the past twenty years. A handful of short-term volunteers work with her. When she was a student in a missionary school, she was influenced by teachers who urged students to be socially involved, which inspired her become involved with this kind of work. Before coming to Suan Kaew, she managed a movie theater.
Whenever a new project is launched, she and Phra Payom Palayano sit and discuss it and map out a plan together. The Foundation’s projects currently run on sales of farm produce and refurbished goods as well as promotional items of the temple such as cassettes or books of Phra Payom Palayano lectures or other Buddhist teachings. Some for-profit programs “cross-subsidize” non-profit programs.
Duangjai says there is no other project of this kind in Thailand. It receives visitors from other temples, the government, and media from other districts, provinces and countries “to study” the work of the Foundation. Despite this interest, she doesn’t think other projects like this will be started. When I asked her why, she said others “could not do it,” or at least, they would not want to invest the effort into such a difficult project. She says setting up these programs is hard work and “if you aren’t strong enough, you can’t do it.” She is critical of the government, saying that not even they are capable of such initiatives. Government agencies don’t support Suan Kaew but they sometimes send needy people there. It is Suan Kaew’s “duty” to take care of anyone who is sent there.
She says that even though Phra Payom Palayano might think he is wasting his time sometimes, he says he is satisfied, because someone outside the temple “can sleep well.”
Although there is some turnover in numbers of residents, with some members leaving and new or veteran ones arriving or returning, generally there are over 600 residents who work on one or more of the projects. Residents normally receive room, board and health care, and sometimes wages. Duangjai explains that many of the residents are not specialized into certain roles, but rotate on certain projects to give them a wide variety of experience both on the farm and in the Supermarket.
She estimates that about half of the residents are able to “change,” or “recover” from their specific problems through these programs. It is a “learning by doing” exercise to assist people until they are strong enough to leave. She says sometimes there are problems among residents, such as drinking, fighting, or promiscuity. Normally there are no meetings among residents unless there is a serious problem. Approximately 50% of program members who leave will return. Another volunteer added that residents are changed because they regain a sense of motivation, confidence and security. He says the condition of the soil has also improved because of the style of farming which is being done on it now. The farming project has won an award from the Thai Department of Health for its success in composting.
What can this case offer us?
While the level of direct community involvement in decision-making at Suan Kaew is low, it highlights several elements of an ETP in a unique and original way:
- Simultaneously turning two critical forms of “waste”–people and goods–into resources instead of treating them as a liability on an already overburdened system. As Phra Payom says, “both people and materials can be brought back into use and we need to make the best use of what we have” (Keesiri, “Suan Kaew Foundation”).
- Marginalized people are provided with the security of having basic necessities at the same time as opportunities to develop new skills, confidence and creativity, as well as satisfy needs for contribution, accomplishment, etc.
- The idea of success “breeding” success, with the continual creation and evolution of new projects.
- The planting of seeds: The media attention Suan Kaew has received has prompted visits by people from around the country who are in positions to do something similar.
- Phra Payom Palayano, “Suan Kaew Foundation.”
- Keesiri, Sutannee. “Suan Kaew Foundation.” (Asian Development Bank. “Investing in Ourselves: Giving and Fund Raising in Thailand.”), 2005. Online link
- Meesanga, Ariya. “A Monk With A Message.” NJ Magazine, 2003