WILL Thai farmers be better off selling their land and moving to the cities?
That has been a view favored by many Western corporations. Industrial Japan in the Eighties bought into this thinking: Peasants were a drag on progress and their becoming part of the urban workforce was clearly the solution.
Fast forward to present day in Asia. It doesn’t look like such a good idea now does it? The culture of the salary man in Japan is all but dead.
The lifetime employee with dreamy pension benefits are but a thing of the past. Past 50, and you’ll be targeted as someone to get rid off.
They use terms like redundancy and human resource departments are glorified executioners.
Thailand, with more than 70 per cent of the population in agriculture, has never bought into this twisted logic. The corporate world with hidden agendas was viewed as a much bigger threat. After all they brought on the 1997 Crash in Thailand and the 2007-2008 Crash in the US.
In fact, the late His Majesty King Bhumibol Adulyadej, was a strong defender of the farmers. He was a strong advocate of agriculture as the backbone of Thai society. It was their welfare he most cared about.
His ‘sufficiency’ economy was based on the idea of independent farming communities that was tough enough to survive any challenge. Having full control of the means of production and never subjected to the threat of famine, instability and exploitation of influential groups, they would keep the nation free.
But the past few years have seen difficult times for Thai rice farmers. Many are forced to sell their land to repay debt as their harvest, while ample, fetched poor prices.
Western companies remain sanguine about gaining greater control of the food markets by squeezing out small, independent farmers who are not beholden to them.
Their super supply chain is as formidable as their supplies of cash.
Yet most Thais remain convinced farmers will be better off in the rice fields that have fed the Kingdom for centuries.
Archaeologists have found rice seeds in the Ban Chiang excavation site that dates back to the Bronze Age more than 5,000 years ago.
On a recent visit to the heartland of Thai khao hom mali (jasmine rice), I was again forced to review the burning question of whether it was time farmers quit their farms and move to the city.
At ground level in rural locations, it was easier to assess what is perception and what is reality.
The Western stereotype of Asian rice farmers is depressed elderly folk toiling the land. In reality, as we witnessed, they are neither so old nor sad.
In fact, many were much younger and they brimmed with hope. Their optimism would in fact put any urban visitor to shame. It was us who were the depressed and forlorn.
At one village in Ubon Ratchathani, we meet a young single women raising two children. Pannipa Sungkasorn, 41, is raising her young girls on her own without much fuss. She’s always active and eager to do better. There’s urgency in her speech and actions, she’s confident she’ll make it.
She is happy growing jasmine rice on a 30-rai farm. To keep her company she keeps a white pup, a mixed-terrier of sorts.
The farm also has some dragon fruit plants as well as other cash crops. She may not be classified as rich but her children will never starve. The fact is she can live off the land indefinitely, way after retirement for most city folk.
She is not under the thumb of slick bankers and money-lenders who can’t wait to seize her land. In the past many rural folk were taken in because they lacked knowledge about the law and debt obligations. But they have seen the dangers finance companies bring and the immorality of debt promotion.
Now if Pannipa were to sell her land and moved to the city, it is likely she would have to endure greater hardships than working on her farm.
City accommodations and food are expensive. It will not be long before the money runs out. Education for her girls in the city will not come cheap either.
Urban migration is risky and for people like Pannipa. The farm offers a safer environment.
If the industrial class champions the demise of small shareholders, in the name of progress, who is to defend these poor pockets of agrarian villages? Who is to give them hope?
Thankfully, there are some state-sponsored assistance programs such as the Better Rice Initiative Asia (BRIA) that understands the key to progress in developing countries has much to do with the welfare of its farmers, who often form the bulk of the population.
Thriving farming societies seldom become boat people or illegal migrants now swamping the shores of Europe. They bring peace, prosperity and stability to any country they reside.
The BRIA project was initiated under the German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ). It aims to promote regional rice security, sustainable rice production, better market linkages and enhanced nutritional status in Thailand, Indonesia, Vietnam and the Philippines.
BRIA, in collaboration with Thailand’s Rice Department and Bayer, recently organized a monitoring team to measure the success of the BRIA project in the Northeastern province.
Four Esarn provinces that include Roi-Et, Sisaket, Ubon Ratchatani and Surin are taking part in BRIA.
They constitute much of the Northeast heartland of jasmine rice.
BRIA offered some new ways to monitor farms using a drone that can scan 1,000 rai of rice fields in just 15 minutes. It could further save cost and time by alerting farmers when it is time to harvest or where there is an outbreak of plant disease.
To be sure, too much help can also be bad.
Local rice support schemes like a rice pledging plan to buy rice above market price have been become controversial and disappointing because of abuse by politicians and greedy merchants.
Many Thai farmers actually never obtain any assistance from these multi-billion-dollar fiascos.
As for foreign-sponsored schemes, many were prone to failure because of preconceived notions about consumers.
For decades the experiments with ‘super rice’ that can yield more was tried with spectacular disastrous results.
“While it was true, farmers enjoyed higher yields and the rice was more nutritious, no one wanted to eat it. They complain it was tasteless,” admitted one rice expert during the excursion.
After such schemes proved embarrassingly impotent, it fell to the duty of rice specialists to address what doesn’t work as well as what does work.
Suriyan Vichitlekarn, BRIA regional project director, says they can learn from the success of Thai jasmine rice. The local grain has a commanding lead among regional produces.
“Thai rice is the preferred grain among many Asian consumers,” he says. “In Hong Kong, Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines and even China, people who can afford to pay more for rice will choose Thai rice.”
Top: A rice farmer harvests her crop.
First inset: Pannipa, single mother of two young girls, is happy toiling her 30-rai farm in Ubon Ratchathani.
Second inset: The German-Thai Better Rice Initiative Asia (BRIA) team demonstrates a drone that can help supervise 1,000 rai of rice fields in 15 minutes.
By Cimi Suchontan