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  • Writer's pictureRick Burnette

The Immokalee Way

The Thai-Myanmar border and Immokalee, Florida are half a world away from each other, but both locations have a strong pull.

In 1994, Ellen and I accepted positions as field personnel with the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship to work with migrant hill tribe communities in northern Thailand that had fled conflict in neighboring Myanmar (Burma). These mountain farmers left everything behind to find few resources in Thailand to support their agrarian livelihoods. To survive, many worked as day laborers for meager wages on plantations. As migrants living on the margins of Thai society, they were restricted from travel and had limited access to education and health care.

Ellen and I established the Upland Holistic Development Project in 1996 in response to the felt needs of these communities. For the next 13 years, we directed the UHDP team’s efforts related to improving food security through sustainable agriculture, agroforestry, home gardening and small-scale livestock production as well as improved access to water and sanitation in addition to assisting individuals in attaining proper documentation and citizenship. Today the project’s efforts continue under Thai hill tribe leadership.

Beginning in 2009, we worked for an international development agency setting up its regional office in Chiang Mai, Thailand. Moving to southwest Florida in 2013 to work at the agency’s headquarters, we continued to engage in international efforts as well as church and non-profit activities to mitigate local food insecurity.

It was during this time that we were introduced to the Immokalee community. We observed that the displacement of farmworkers from their homes in Guatemala, southern Mexico and Haiti due to economic and political upheaval was not unlike the situation of the Myanmar migrants. The poverty, discrimination and food insecurity that the Immokalee farmworkers faced in the US was similar to what we witnessed in northern Thailand.

Seeking to engage, we sought opportunities to assist Mision Peniel, the Peace River Presbytery’s outreach ministry in Immokalee, as well as the Coalition of Immokalee Workers. While in Immokalee, we began to develop a vision for serving farmworker households, leading to the establishment of Cultivate Abundance.

Specifically, Cultivate Abundance promotes small-scale food production in and around Immokalee, including household container gardens and community gardening. We have begun to mobilize area gardeners to share surplus produce for distribution through Immokalee-based organizations. Cultivate Abundance is also exploring potential household income-generating opportunities for Immokalee residents such as the production and sale of heritage handicrafts that reflect the local Mayan and Haitian cultures.

Additionally, we are offering consulting and advisory services related to church/community gardening for congregations and other organizations that support Cultivate Abundance. Similar services also extend to partnering development and mission agencies serving small-scale food producing communities in Central America and the Caribbean where most of the farmworkers originate.

As in northern Thailand, we have much to learn in Immokalee including language, ethnic food crop preferences and small-scale gardening techniques. Our education will come from the residents and together we will determine the Immokalee way of improving household and community food security.

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