Every year, Thai rice farmers produce as much as 20 million tons of milled rice. Of this amount, we keep 11 million tons for domestic consumption and export 9 million tons. With China, India and Vietnam halting rice exports, many rice importing countries are turning to look at the Thai rice market. Of course, rice exporters might feel that this is Thailand’s golden opportunity to increase the amount of rice it exports and sells. But because of the situation in countries where the price of rice is rising, and because of the news of riots and protests abroad against expensive rice, it is unavoidable that domestic rice consumers are worried about the situation in Thailand
The advance of plants for energy and industrial estates
Thailand is no different from other countries in the same region, in which the industrial and service sectors are growing rapidly, while the agricultural sector is shrinking due to the fact that the occupation of farmer is insecure and doing farming alone is unable to raise enough income for farmers to look after their families anymore.
Over the past several years, the price of rubber has risen tremendously. Large amounts of land where rice and food were planted in many regions of Thailand have been transformed instead into land for planting rubber trees, which produce attractively priced rubber.
It has also been many years that eucalyptus has seized the beachhead of land used to plant food crops in the northeastern region of Thailand. The expansion and growing demand of the paper industry has advanced into both the plains that used to be land for planting food crops, as well as the highlands that used to be community forests in several provinces, especially the lower northeast, Roi Et, Surin, Sri Saket and Ubon Ratchathani, as well as the east, in Chachoengsao Province.
At the same time, there is the rapid advance of planting crops for renewable energy, including sugarcane, corn, cassava, and the gigantic boom of oil palm in the last year. As a result, in the last production season, many rice farmers converted their rice fields to plant oil palm instead and responded to the policymakers, who set a target to expand the area under oil palm production in Thailand to 1,6000,000 hectares in the next 5 years.
The growth of industrial estates, heavy industry areas, and the petrochemical industry in various regions is most clearly visible in the northeast and the east, namely the industrial estate in Rayong Province and the gigantic salt industry in Udon Thani and Sakhon Nakhon. At the same time, the southern region is turning into mountains of rubber trees, forests of oil palm, and tourist industry and service zones.
Surveys by a network of NGOs of rice cultivation areas and areas that produce food in 13 provinces around the country reveal that the rice cultivation areas in several provinces are gradually decreasing in size.
If it were not for the situation of rice becoming expensive due to other countries reducing the amount of rice they plant, Thailand might have the opportunity to come across the crisis of land used for rice and food crop cultivation silently decreasing. This problem should help call to attention the issue of protecting land for food crop cultivation, or Thai people’s food security.
Land isn’t in the hands of the rice farmers
Twenty years ago, the Philippines and Indonesia were rice exporters like Thailand. But when the Philippines and Indonesia were booming, they transformed rice cultivation land into land primarily for cultivating energy crops and export crops to gain income for the country. Now, the Philippines and Indonesia have to become countries that import rice, which is the staple food for people in these countries. One important reason why the Philippines and Indonesia do not plant a sufficient amount of rice for domestic consumption is that most of the land in the country is not in the hands of rice farmers, but rather mainly in the hands of big agribusinesses, politicians, industrial areas, and capitalists who are hoarding land for speculative purposes. Actually, this situation is not so different from the situation being faced today by Thailand.
In Thailand, there are as many as 3.2 million farming households who registered themselves as being poor when the government of Police Lt. Col. Thaksin Shinawatra opened up opportunities to register as farmers facing hardship because of insufficient land for production. At present, these names are probably still the same, because no assistance was provided other than registering names. Out of these 3.2 million households, 1.3 million farming households specified that they had no land, 1.6 million had some land but not enough to survive, and 300,000 asked to rent state land.
The situation of rice becoming more expensive has made society receive more information and learn that there is a large number of rice farmers in the central region who want to rent other land to cultivate rice. Interviews conducted by Local Action Links with rice farmers in Chainat Province, Central part of Thailand, reveal that as many as 70% of rice farmers in the area have to rent the land of others to do rice farming. Rice farmers in this area have planted rice for sale for a long time, but the longer they plant rice, the more they are unable to recover their production costs, go into debt, and have to sell off their rice fields piece by piece until they have no more left and must rent them instead, whereby for the most part, the rice fields they rent are those they themselves used to own.
If the land is not in the hands of rice farmers, the food security of the Thai people depends on how much longer the owners of rice fields in Thailand will preserve this land for planting rice.
Less choices for rice farmers in Thailand
Over the last several decades, the price of rice has never been as high as now. The present situation is an abnormal one, in which the supply of rice on the world market is speculative until it is insufficient for consumption needs, so the price is extremely going up. But the situation in Thailand over the last several decades has not been like this. In selling rice in the past, it has been a buyer’s market. Thailand’s rice production is high to the point of exceeding demand and there is as much as 45% surplus that must be exported. When the demand for rice is lower than the supply, the buyers are middlemen who are able to push down the price of rice paid to the farmers. This is one reason why we always hear that rice farmers may plant rice, but the price of rice is set by the middlemen.
An interesting question is if there is too much rice in Thailand, why not reduce the amount of rice that is produced so that rice farmers can have a better life. The problem comes at the policy level. As rice farmers have been encouraged to produce rice for export for no less than 40 years now. At present, there is almost as much as 16 million hectares of land under rice cultivation in Thailand. There are no less than 20 million farmers, who are attached to a livelihood with the rice fields. Significantly, farmers’ excess rice production has played a part in creating profits for the middlemen and rice exporters, and has made the rice trade and rice export economy of Thailand grow up to this day. This is related to the structural level, and the state must adopt a clear policy to solve this problem.
In addition, rice farmers still have limitations in terms of not being able to rely on their own factors of production, whether because they are used to the system of production that emphasizes technology, or perhaps as a consequence of having been encouraged to plant a large amount of rice and using seeds that were developed to respond to the application of chemical fertilizer. At present, Thai rice farmers are hooked on chemical fertilizer and agricultural chemicals. Consequently, their production costs are high, and if the price of rice that is dictated by the merchants is not high enough in any given year, rice farmers have to face the problem of not being able to recover their capital used in production. In this case, they have to borrow money to pay for family expenses for the year. When rice farmers have a lot of debt, then there are not many alternatives to selling rice. Even if the price of rice fetched from the merchants is low, selling rice to them still gives the farmers some money that they can circulate for use in the family.
In a nutshell, Thai people will always have enough rice to eat or not will probably depend on whether we protect small-scale farmers whose occupation is rice farming for a long time or not. The state should lay out a serious plan to solve the problems of land for production and the indebtedness of rice farmers in order to create incentives for rice farmers. Guaranteeing the price of rice at a high level like the current price should happen every year and cover the whole country. This would be a way of ensuring that we, as Thai consumers, would always have food security, and farmers, who produce rice, would continue to have food and livelihood security as well.
Article by Pongtip Samranjit
Local Act Links