By Susan Munro
An expert in sustainable building techniques, Jon Jandai is the co-founder of the Pun Pun Centre for Self-Reliance, located in Chiang Mai province. The centre is a hub for those interested in building in harmony with Earth’s natural systems, and offers short courses, workshops and long-term internship opportunities for learning. New Life was proud to host Mr. Jandai for our Winter Solstice Festival. In this post, Mr. Jandai chats with New Life volunteer Susan Munro about his projects.
You founded the Pun Pun Centre for Self-Reliance in Chiang Mai Province 10 years ago. I think its a great concept to educate people a little more about their environment, organic farming and seed-saving. Tell me a little about what you do at the centre.
With this centre is everything is an experiment, we experiment to be together, we experiment to be more self-reliant, to use less materials in our life, as little as we can, to be more sustainable – we started 10 years ago, people came, and it turned into a community after that – now we have about 20 people, staying together, including 5 kids. Many families live together. We do home-schooling, because we want to take kids out of the system, and we grow food, we use appropriate technology. We make our own filter water, and solar-heated water.
Try and stay off the grid.
Not totally, we do as much as we can, but not too rough.
So how did the centre come about?
Actually, in the beginning we did not think about creating a centre, but to have a place to grow vegetables and save seeds. To have a place for my family to live together. But then people came often and many people wanted to stay with us longer, so it became a community after that. Then people kept coming, and it kept growing and growing, and it just became non-stop. It started to be a little bit too big, so now we encourage people to start new projects somewhere else. Now there is a new place next to us called The Panya Project, they attend workshops with us, they do permaculture, similar to us – it’s growing well.
So what brought you to this style of building?
At the beginning I did not think much about the building, but to have a house. In the beginning I have a bamboo house. It’s good, bamboo house is easy, and I made it small. Then, I had a chance to visit Taos Pueblo in Mexico. I want to have a house like this – it’s so cool inside. At home I started to build a house as an experiment, it’s so easy, I didn’t work too hard and I built the most stable house in my life.
In 3 months, right?
Yes – I just keep building, keep building, now I have more than 10 houses!
Are they your houses?
In my home town (in Isaan Province) I have four houses there. Now I move to Chiang Mai to start Pun Pun, I have more there.
How do you think this style of building would benefit the community?
It’s good, because it empowers people a lot. Because, in our education system, we try to make people as stupid as we can because then they rely upon the system more. They don’t want us to be able to do anything, but now, when you start to build a house, you find you can do this. Usually, to buy a house, you need to do years of saving, and you need to hire an architect, engineer, builder to do it, but now even kids can build it. My son, 9 years old, is starting to build now. So, it empowers people a lot, especially women.
Women are taught that they cannot build a house, it’s a man’s job. Women are weak, no energy.
Out in the sun, and carrying heavy bricks.
70% of people who build earthen houses in Thailand are women. It changes their life, because they never feel like they can do anything in this life. But, after they build a house, they feel they can do anything.
It’s very empowering. I think it’s amazing a community could come together to do something like this.
It’s great for community, because when people use the brain and thinking, talking, you have a lot of problems. But, whenever people start to use the physical body together, you have less conflict in communities, and people learn a lot, they enjoy being together again.
So you are actually bringing a town together again – through building housing you are literally building a community.
Yes. We built a school for kids, for kids around 10 years old, 30 kids – they don’t have anything, just a bamboo roof, and we built one building, and one month later, they built one building together. So, something like that is very powerful.
It’s such a simple thing, really, isn’t it – being able to house yourself… and we’ve just made it this incredibly complicated process, where you cant do it any more, suddenly you need all these people who’ve been to university and have years of experience to learn how to build… it’s like we’ve outsourced our ability to look after ourselves.
I think earthen building helps people to get back to being normal again.
Absolutely, stomp some mud, and get in touch with your nature. It’s very healthy! What are the challenges of building in this manner in Thailand?
The main challenge is the thinking of people, because Thai people grew up with a lot of rain – so they know the rain and soil don’t get along well. Water always melts the dirt.
Turns it back into mud.
Yes. They haven’t seen the earthen house before, so they cannot imagine how it looks. They worry that when it rains, it’s going to melt – but, If there’s a good roof, there’s no problem. That’s the hardest thing to communicate to people. So now, earthen building in Thailand is spreading very fast.
It seems organic farming and earth-building are still pretty new in Thailand. How do you get the community/local communities/locals interested?
Organic farming started about 30 years ago in Thailand. It’s not very big compared to the population, but it’ s growing fast compared to other countries. Maybe 1 million out of 70 million take part but it’s growing fast.
How do you get people interested?
Mainly we do training with farmers. We work together, we are not just talking, they come and see, and they like it, then they go home and experiment to compare organic and chemical farming. They then start to see it (organic methods) benefits them more.
You engage with the local communities.
Yes, we work with farmers and city people too. I think it’s very important to do organic farming with the city people, because in the past a lot of NGOs, a lot of people point at villagers, and say ‘You need to do organic farming’, but when they grow it, who buys from them? Everyone goes to the big mall. Nobody buys, how can they survive? So they do training with a lot of city people too. City people need to be organised to start a shop or co-op or whatever, then connect with the organic farmer, and then we can send the produce to you without a middle-person, then we (the consumer) can buy it cheaper.
I was very inspired by your TEDx talk. I’m sure this is why you have so many people wanting to come and see you and train with you. I was interested by the idea we have made things complicated for ourselves because we can. It is hard for a lot of people to let go of their iPhones, cars and Facebook however. What would you say to people looking to bring simplicity into their lives?
I think right now, we do not refuse anything, we do not refuse technology. We need to use our consciousness, that’s the main thing. If we spend our life following our emotion or feeling, we suffer a lot, that’s not sustainable – if we follow our consciousness that is sustainable. For example – if we buy something because we like it, that is following a feeling. Because, feeling is something not stable, it’s come and go, come and go, but if we follow consciousness, it is based on truth, based on reason. For example, if I want an iPhone, well right now I’m just a farmer, so I don’t need to take a picture like some people, I don’t need to play game, I have a lot of fun in the garden. I don’t need to do Facebook like some people. So if I buy an iPhone it is because I need it, not because I am following my emotional feeling. But if one day I have a lot of things to do, check the stock market or stuff like that, its okay. So it’s whether we buy it because it’s important, it’s necessary, or because we want or like it.
Jon Jandai works and lives in Chiang Mai Province at the Pun Pun Centre for Self-Reliance. He is involved in many earth-building, organic farming and seed-saving programmes in Thailand and Burma.