Humanity and Nature: Traditional, Cultural & Alternative Perspectives

Humanity & Nature Publication CoverAn economy is often defined as “the wealth and resources of a country or region”. Few would contest that the greatest wealth and most fundamental resource for humanity is the earth on which we live; yet most do not see our environment as an economy in itself.  Conversely, nearly all contemporary economic and development models see the natural economy as a resource to be exploited (or at best managed) to serve the needs of the monetized economy.

While this perspective is certainly predominant, it is neither intrinsic nor universal. It is also increasingly proving to be unsustainable.

Focus on the Global South and The Sombath Initiative, in cooperation with the Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung, held the Sombath Symposium on February 15-17, 2016, to present and discuss knowledge and practice drawn from different cultures and traditions that can serve as an alternative foundation to the predominant growth-driven development model.

This publication, “Humanity and Nature: Traditional, Cultural and Alternative Perspectives”, compiles essays discussing these perspectives, as well as syntheses of the different parts of the symposium.  The Sombath Initiative and Focus on the Global South hope that this publication will serve as resource material, as well as a guide document for the ongoing and future work on alternative perspectives on humanity’s relationship with nature.

A short video of the symposium and videos of each presentation are available to view at The Sombath Initiative YouTube channel.

For more information about The Sombath Initiative and Sombath Somphone, please visit

Humanity & Nature: Traditional, Cultural & Alternative Perspectives

Sombath Symposium-2016-02Public Forum

February 17, 2016, 9.30 am–12.30 pm

Ruan Chula Narumit, Chulalongkorn University

This public forum will share the key lessons and conclusions from the Sombath Symposium, a three day event which aims to exchange and explore various traditional, cultural and alternative perspectives on how humans value and interact with nature.

Participants of symposium will come from Vietnam, Laos, Thailand, The Philippines, Indonesia, and India, and represent a wide range of ethnic, cultural, religious and vocational backgrounds and perspectives.

The forum will also be joined by local community and activists from Thailand to contribute to the discussion on their struggles to protect the nature and livelihood.

Organised by Focus on the Global South and the Sombath Initiative, in cooperation with the Heinrich Böll Foundation

English-Thai-English translation will be provided

Lunch will be served at 12:30 at SASA International House

For more information about this event and to confirm attendance please contact Hamdee Tohming at [email protected] or 089-004-4117.

Laos in 2016: Sustainable Development and the Work of Sombath Somphone

By Kearrin Sims


Logo Please-return-Sombath-SafelyIn 2016 it will be 20 years since the Government of Laos (GoL) first announced its goal to graduate from Least Developed Country (LDC) status by 2020.1 During this time, much has changed. With the exception of a few years following the 1997 Asian financial crisis, economic growth has remained strong and in 2011 the World Bank raised Laos’ income categorization from a low-income economy to a lower-middle income economy.2 Foreign Direct Investment has also growing rapidly and strong progress has been made on a number of the country’s Millennium Development Goal (MDG) targets. This has led the UNDP to categorize Laos as the 6th most successful country for improved human development over the past 40 years.3

Yet alongside these markers of progress, there is another story to be told about ‘development’ in Laos. This is a story of widening inequality, severe environmental degradation, human rights abuses, state and private sector corruption, persistently high maternal mortality and malnutrition rates, land grabbing and forced resettlement as well as tensions with fellow ASEAN countries over controversial Mekong hydropower projects.4 These widespread and often interrelated challenges have led to new forms of poverty and damaged the country’s international reputation. Continue reading “Laos in 2016: Sustainable Development and the Work of Sombath Somphone”

Dear Sombath…from Anne-Sophie Gindroz (4)

This is a letter written to contribute to mark the sad third anniversary of Sombath Somphone disappearance:

Dear Sombath,

Tomorrow will be three years already, three years that we have not heard of you… But memories don’t die. I remember the first time I met you: it was during an official reception held in a hotel in Vientiane. I had heard about you before that night: you were referred to by many as one of the most respected community leaders, a passionate educator, a fervent defender of sustainable development and the founder of the first non governmental education institution in Laos. So I was a bit intimidated when a friend grabbed my arm and pulled me among the guests, saying “Come, I am going to introduce you to Sombath, he is here!”. I am not sure whom I was expected, but I recall feeling impressed talking to a smiling man, dressed in traditional cotton shirt, speaking with a soft voice. I remember this deep impression of standing in front of a wise, very modest and so gentle person.

Later I met you again at your organization: open door, natural cotton curtains, bamboo mats, and this calm attitude and gentle smile on your face. When we visited you on your farm, you shared with generosity and enthusiasm your experience developing organic agriculture, and you took the kids for a walk to a nearby fish pond. With any interlocutor, you keep this extraordinary capacity – that many people start losing when they become “important” – to listen to others. Even in official meetings, you were showing the same serene and confident attitude of a man who knows where he goes, but is always ready to enrich his journey through mutual learning with others.

I feel grateful for the few privileged moments we spent discussing without agenda, sharing without expectations, dreaming with passion and joking with joy!

I am wondering, what would you say or do today for those who cowered in fear? Would you bring them on your farm and create a friendly environment? Would you divert the tensions by focusing on simple but meaningful little things? Would you rebuild trust through a joint and reachable endeavor? Would you fight fear with humor?

Dear Sombath, we miss you and will continue to ask for your return. But as we sadly mark this third anniversary of your disappearance, I am guessing  that wherever you are, you would certainly not like to witness us all stuck in the past, and would encourage your dearest family, friends, students and partners to carry on what you have started. You remain such an inspiration!

The journey is never finished as long as there are people to take few more steps. And I trust they are many and they know where to go.

In solidarity,


Disappearance: Mystery of Laos

A commemoration on the third year of Sombath’s Enforced Disappearance


Bridi Banomyong International College, Thammasart University, Bangkok

15 December 2015

  • 14:00-14:45: Exhibition on enforced disappearance
  • 14:45-15:00: Talk about Sombath
  • 15:00-16:00: Music for Peace
  • 16:00-17:00: Ted Talk by Mekong Youth
  • 17:00-18:00: “Laos Today” with video clips
  • 18:00-18:30: Open Letter from Amnesty International Thailand
  • 18:30-19:00: Message from Thai to Lao Friends by SSBP
  • 19:00-19:30: Drama for peace

The Man, His Work and His Dream for Laos

2015-12-11-PADETC-02The Participatory Development and Training Center (PADETC), founded by Sombath, held its 2015 fair under the banner of “The Man, HIs Work, and His Dream for Laos,” on Friday, December 11th.

Approximatley one hundred friends, colleagues, CSO staff and diplomats attended the event, which included Buddhist prayers for Sombath, and comments from his spouse and colleagues.

2015-12-11-PADETC-01Some likened Sombath to a farmer nurturing a fruit tree. But rather than keeping the fruit for himself, he would spread it around so more trees would grow, and produce more fruit.

May the fruits of his vision continue to grow.

A Thai PBS report on the event.

Community-oriented learning: A view from Laos

BBC_coverage_of_Sombath_disappearanceAs Somphone’s abduction highlights, attempts to redistribute power away from national governments towards community-identified needs is a highly politicised endeavour that can result in severe, and often violent, suppression. This is particularly so in non-democratic states. Yet it is not an unachievable shift. Indeed, while the post-2015 agenda has displayed a number of weaknesses in its attempts to encourage disparate viewpoints within the agenda-setting process, it nonetheless makes an explicit call for the advancement of such participatory approaches.

For this to occur, however, national governments, global development institutions and bilateral aid donors need to relax their current stature as the privileged interlocutors of development and become more supportive of community-oriented development agendas. It is not uniformity but diversity that holds the key to culturally sensitive development…

Kearrin Sims, in “Culture, community-oriented learning and the post-2015 development agenda: a view from Laos,” in Third World Quarterly, September, 2015.

CURLS participants learn about Sombath

curls-2015On Monday, July 27th, participants of the 2015 Chulalongkorn University Right Livelihood Summer School (CURLS) had an opportunity to learn about Sombath, his work, and his enforced disappearance.

The film Happy Laos was shown, along with presentations and discussion about Right Livelihoods, Buen Vivr, and Gross National Happiness. The course includes 25 participants from across the globe and will run until August 7th.

A video summary of the course can be found here.

NGO Approach to Shifting Cultivation

SB-Water JarWe put a lot of emphasis on social preparation. It is done through training activities, both formal and non-formal. We normally start with participatory problem identification, followed by an analysis of causes and effects before we discuss strategies on how to go about solving those problems communally. It is important that villagers understand that there is no long term effective remedy to their problems without them taking an active role.

From “Summary of NGO Approach to Shifting Cultivation,” by Sombath Somphone, 1993.