THE NATION December 21, 2015 1:00 am
Activists say structural changes and political will needed to end cycle of debt and poverty
IT'S AN ENDLESS cycle. Year after year, the story of Thai farmers generally goes like this. First, farmers are uneducated and getting older. They know nothing about anything except growing rice so they grow rice and sell it without any knowledge or controls over the market.
As the price of their rice keeps falling, they make less profits. And when they get less profits, they become more indebted. Over time, their debts do not decrease at all because investment costs keep increasing.
As their debts keep increasing, farmers desperately try to pay off their debts. The easiest and most popular way to do this is to mortgage their land with loan sharks. But as they still cannot pay off their debts, their land is seized. Without land, farmers are plunged deeper into debt. Life becomes less secure and more futile, and some decide to end it all.
"We have interviewed four farmers who tooked loans provided by loan sharks, and all of them have attempted to kill themselves," said Pongtip Samranjit, director of Local Action Links, a non-profit research think tank on the plight of Thai farmers.
Her latest study on the farm debt trend last year revealed that Thai farmers generally bear debts on their shoulders and this has become heavier over time because of increasing farm investment costs. They have also lost their farmland following their inability to pay off debts, increasing insecurity in life.
As a farm advocate who has been monitoring the plight of Thai farmers for many years, Pongtip has tried to sum up this endless cycle in order to address its causes and present them to policy makers.
Pongtip believes these are structural problems that need a serious political will to address. For instance, she said, most farm materials are in the hands of giant companies, and farmers have no choice but to buy these items at the set price.
Surprisingly, the government has failed to address this problem seriously despite the fact that it is so obvious and blatant, even to ordinary people.
Pongtip wondered if this was because some companies have connections to political parties or have made donations that could encourage political leaders to turn a blind eye to the plight of the farmers.
Instead, she said, they tend to go for increasing yield policies or come up with price guarantees offered, which are often seen as tools to win votes.
"I personally believe that they can think of all these as they have a lot of officials with doctorate degrees. The question is why they don't do it. Is this because it would affect their political bases? If they do, it would change everything and help lift farmers' incomes and quality of life," said Pongtip.
Pongtip sees no difference between these and the controversial rice-pledging scheme, which was exciting at first but did not change anything fundamentally. She said the military-installed government seems on the surface to be addressing the farmers' plight and its causes, but so far no concrete actions have been taken.
For instance, she said, Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha keeps talking about reducing farm investment costs, which appears to be a step in the right direction. However, it is not enough to just ask for cooperation from companies.
The reality is that farmers are still facing high farm production costs, which unreasonably went up after the launch of the rice-pledging scheme.
Pongtip urged Prayut to immediately to help farmers by lifting the burden of debt off their shoulders because most of their debtors are under the government's directives.
The government should also help control the cost of farm materials in the market so that farmers would not be additionally loaded with farm investment costs.
In the long run, Pongtip said, the government must address the loss of farmland issue as this is directly linked with the insecurities of farm life. And last but not least, it must also address farmers' education and learning, so that farmers can be empowered and become more self-reliant.
"In the end, it's down to addressing the right policy, what kind of farming we are going to proceed with," said Pongtip. "But I must tell you that it's not all about farm production and yields. We must also take care of the farmers' lives. The question is, what kind of life do we and farmers want to see in the future?"
Krissana Kaudlim, leader of the Photharam Agri-Nature Learning Group in Ratchaburi's Photharam district, urged the government to focus on empowering farmers.
Krissana views farmers' learning and establishing groups to increase their bargaining power as an effective approach to break the cycle.
However, based on his own experiences during the last few years, government policies such as the rice pledging scheme have killed the farmers' learning process.
Local leaders, he said, are particularly influential in addressing government policies in local areas and they are still in favour of quick gains from policies.
To make farmers' empowerment successful, Krissana said, we must make these leaders understand the point, but he acknowledged that it won't be easy.
"When it comes to money-driven policies, it's very highly politically charged," Krissana said.
Agriculture and Cooperatives Minister General Chatchai Sarikulya on Thursday explained to the National Legislative Assembly's meeting about the ministry's latest agenda to address the farmers' plight.
He said to increase farmers' incomes and quality of life, the ministry has come up with four main approaches. The ministry is working in collaboration with the Commerce Ministry to reduce farm production costs, he said, without elaborating on the details.
He said the ministry has also instructed its own agencies to integrate their work to improve farmers' fundamental materials such as quality of soil as well as quality of seeds in the hope of increasing production yields.
In addition, it has come up with over 200 pilot farm plots, under which integrated and modern farm management will be implemented. In 2009, he expects to see at least one such farm plot in every province.
The ministry conceded that farmers involved in single crop production cannot stand on their own feet easily anymore because they earn only a narrow profit from the same old farm practice while their living expenses keep increasing.
So, the ministry is trying to come up with integrated farming practices to increase farmers' chances of survival.
"We will look at farmers' life with a new and different vision," said the agriculture minister. "We will not focus only on high farm prices. We will rather see how to help farmers earn enough income, while being able to stand on their own two feet."
This is the last part of a series on rice-pledging scheme.