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Posts from the ‘Agriculture’ Category

Isaan Under Contract – A Push For Stronger Regulation of Contract Farming

2015 December 24

Contract farming is a common choice amongst farmers in the Northeast due to its low start-up costs and potential financial advantages. But farmers report that the system is ridden with problems and many producers involved find themselves to be in severe debt and feel controlled by the companies they work for. A recently proposed contract farming protection act pushes for more regulation and is supposed to be reviewed in January 2016.

GUEST CONTRIBUTION by Elyssa Eull, Kaori Nagase, Lindsay Palmisano and Annie Sadler

The Khammi family started contract fish farming in 1998 when a representative from Charoen Pokphand Foods (CPF) came to their village and offered them to contract fish farm. Pictured are their fish baskets, roped off along the Chi River in Mahasarakham Province.

The Khammi family started contract fish farming in 1998 when a representative from Charoen Pokphand Foods (CPF) came to their village and offered them to contract fish farm. Pictured are their fish baskets, roped off along the Chi River in Mahasarakham Province.

MAHA SARAKHAM – Shortly after the sun settled deep into the horizon on the other side of the Chi River, the sky turned to an inky black and the structures of fish baskets, corrugated tin shacks, and wooden walkways became shadows on the water. A pickup truck backed down to the river’s edge with two large water tanks filled with baby fish. Every family member quickly took up their position and the fish were scooped out of the tanks, weighed, and poured into baskets in the river all by the beam of a giant flashlight.

Wilaiwan Khammi, a second generation fish farmer, operates an independent fish farm with her extended family. For three years, they have been successfully selling their fish to an independent market vendor at the local market in their hometown, Baan Din Dum in Maha Sarakham Province.

But this independence is newfound. Ms. Wilaiwan and her family used to be contract fish farmers for Charoen Pokphand Foods (CPF).

Contract Farming – A Broken Promise?

Contract farming is a system in which agricultural production is based on an agreement between a farmer and an agribusiness company. Large firms, such as CPF, outsource their production to individual farmers, supposedly sharing both the risks and responsibilities associated with agricultural production.

Although contract farming is a common choice amongst farmers, the system seems to be ridden with problems.

It became popular in Thailand in the early 1980’s when CPF first began contracting outside farmers. All across the country, contract farmers are producing anything from vegetables and rice to cash crops and livestock. CPF claims on their website that there are 200,000 contract farmers nationwide, however other data suggests that this number is much larger.

A CPF broker visited Ms. Wilaiwan’s village years ago promoted contract fish farming as a profitable future. The company offered to cover the initial start-up costs including the fish, feed, and infrastructures in return for the producers to provide a certain quality and quantity of fish throughout the four month harvesting period.

This promise of a consistent buyer was appealing for the 300 – 400 people in the village who leapt at the chance to create a stable form of income.

For the first few years, low start-up costs and an increase in family income had the villagers under CPF’s spell. However, reality struck when the fish started dying. The cause of death remains unknown but many affected farmers claim that CPF sold them fingerlings (baby fish) of sub-par quality.

As the company refused to claim responsibility, farmers were uncompensated for these losses, and were unable to sell the entirety of the fish that they had paid for at the beginning of the season.

Ms. Wilaiwan paid 130,000 baht on average for 10,000 fish, which would last her a season. But the price of fish feed from CPF was consistently more expensive than other companies. CPF charged her 600 baht for one sack of fish feed, while other companies would sell one sack for just 400 baht, Ms. Wilaiwan claimed.

Contract fish farmers are often tempted to sell to other contractors, who offer higher prices. But many felt restricted by the contract that kept them from making their own business decisions.

Farmers report that they were verbally threatened that if they are caught breaking contractual regulations, the company can refuse to supply them another shipment of fingerlings.

Despite this, Ms. Wilaiwan said that she and her fellow producers “were not afraid, but frustrated. We felt sad because there was this option to make more profits for our families, but we couldn’t choose it. You have to sell to CPF even though you’re not happy or satisfied.”

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After growing nil and tap tim fish under contract with CP for several years, Wilaiwan Khammi found a fish seller that did not require a contractual agreement, which prompted her to begin preparations to start her own fish farming business.

Fish farmers, who had not signed a contract but had only a verbal agreement with the contractor, were able to leave the contracting system once they stopped experiencing success. Today, of the once 300 – 400 contract fish farmers, only five or six producers remain in Baan Din Dum village.

Ms. Wilaiwan was able to end her contract with CPF and pay off her debt of 1 million baht by seeking out financial assistance from her extended family. This help also provided her the funds to start her independent fish farming business.

As the average debt of contract fish farmers is 300,000 baht ($8,400 USD), this ability to have an immediate, full financial release is unusual. Many other producers in the village had to return to rice and vegetable farming to pay of their debt and cut their ties with CPF.

Push for Regulation

Ubon Yuwah, a coordinator of the Alternative Agriculture Network (AAN), is leading efforts to create more protection for contract farmers, as the current lack of governmental regulation leaves much room for farmers to be exploited, he said.

Earlier this year, he submitted a proposal to the government for a contract farming protection act that was drafted in partnership with several organizations. The act is supposed to increase government regulation, which would in turn boost fairness for all parties involved in the system.

But passing such a law faces many difficulties as there are different types of contract farming systems and varying levels of exploitation that the farmers are subjected to, Mr Ubon said.

The proposed legislation will require written contracts – verbal agreements are common in the contract farming business – and a registration with a local government office. The binding nature of the contract is supposed to help strengthen compliance on both sides of the agreement while clearly outlining farmers’ rights and consequences for breaching the contract.

Passing the Burden to Their Children

In Khon Kaen Province, contract chicken farmer Phikul Rongbutsri pulled back the blue tarp tucked around the doorway of a tin building that extends to the far end of her property. Within the darkness of the building, rows of metal cages slowly come into sight, lit by light bulbs hanging from the ceiling. The sound of 25,000 chickens ruffling their feathers fills the room, as the chickens packed tightly in each cage come into sight.

After signing a contract with Sriviroj Farm (SF), a large agribusiness corporation that works in partnership with CPF, Ms. Phikul’s father started contract chicken farming by taking out a 700,000 baht (over $19,400 USD) loan from the state Bank for Agriculture and Agricultural Cooperatives (BAAC). It covered the construction of open-air chicken barns and the first shipment of chickens and chicken feed from SF.

The operation seemed to run smoothly and its profits allowed Ms. Phikul to slowly chipped away at the debt from her father’s original investment. But after a few years, her business turned into an endless source of debt.

Ms. Phikul was told to upgrade her chicken barns into closed buildings with a cooling system and new cages, an investment of four million baht ($112,000 USD). SF threatened to not send her new chicks if she would not upgrade her barns at costs that would have spiralled her debt out of control, she said.

“Farmers here don’t dare to speak up for themselves because they’re afraid of the company,” says Suwit Innamma, AAN representative and Coordinator of the Nongbua Subdistrict Chicken Farmers. Mr. Suwit educates farmers of their rights, and collects data from farmers to present to policy-makers.

Ms. Phikul did speak up herself but now “the company now sees her as a radical and a violent person because she’s asking for her rights,” Mr. Suwit said.

Lacking the money to pay for the system, Ms. Phikul claimed she was forced to offer her land title as collateral, which the company used to take out a loan on her behalf and construct the new building in her backyard.

“I know that they are taking advantage of us, but at this point, I just cannot do anything” she said. “Once you step on a tiger’s back, you cannot get down.”

In their 2014 Sustainability Report, CPF states that seven percent of their contract farms were “successfully transferred to the successive generations.” On their website the company advertises that the contract farming system provides farmers with increased stability and a chance to build a farming business worthy of passing on to their children.

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Phikul Rongbutsri, raises 50,000 chickens every season in two identical barns on her property in Khon Kaen Province.

Indeed, Ms. Phikul’s farm will be passed on into the hands of her children. But rather than passing down a proud family business, she is passing down the burden of debt to her children.They have few other options but to work as chicken farmers in order to pay off the family’s debt, she said.

“I’ll have to train them. After school, I’ll have to ask them to help me to farm so they learn how to do it,” she shared with an air of heavy disappointment.

Ms. Phikul blames her dire financial situation on the lack of transparency about the contract and the loans she was forced to take out. She claimed that SF manages her loans and deducts payments from her profit whenever they buy her chickens, without specifying how much.

“I have no idea. They come, pick up the chickens, they carry them and transport them to weigh somewhere else,” she said when asked how much profit she had made from selling a day’s worth of chickens.

This was not always the case; employees who came to pick up her chickens used to weigh them right in front of her eyes. Once she started to notice that the numbers on the receipt did not match up with her notes, the company abruptly stopped weighing them in front of her, she claimed.

There is a host of literature written by NGO’s and academics that make recommendations on how to improve the contract farming system. Multiple reports state that farmers should have the right to be present at the time of weighing.

Ms. Phikul was also not given a formal agreement with protection clauses because the company is “afraid that farmers will have the rights and check on each part,” claimed Mr. Suwit.

Unmentioned Risks

Contracting companies also seem to have mislead fish farmers by failing to mention the difficulties farmers might encounter in the contract farming scheme.

Uthai Chaihan, a past fish farmer in Maha Sarakham, raised fish on a contractual basis with CPF for just one year, and claimed that, “the salesmen just promoted contract fish farming, and the company didn’t say anything about the risks.”

He invested 200,000 baht ($5,600 USD) but after three months all of his fish died, he claimed. “I still have debt and still worry,” he said advising anyone who intends to invest in fish farming to “be independent and invest on your own.”

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It takes about 57 days for the chicks to mature to selling size, and Phikul Rongbutsri receives a load of them from Sriviroj Farm, a large agribusiness corporation, four times per year. This barn holds 21,000 to 23,000 chickens in the hot season and 25,000 chickens in the cool season.

“The company and farmers could share the risk and responsibility, if there’s any loss or damage,” Mr. Uthai said adding that a formal contract with clearly laid out terms would be beneficial to farmers.

Mr. Ubon from the Alternative Agriculture Network (AAN) puts his hopes on the contract farming protection act that is expected to be reviewed in January 2016. If the new legislation passes, the contract farming system may be regulated in a way to provide farmers with sufficient information about their rights and prevent companies from taking advantage of misinformed producers.

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GUEST EDITORIAL: What Mushrooms Tell Us About Isaan’s Ecological Future

2015 December 7

What do mushrooms and Isaan people have in common? They both flourish in difficult places, and are resilient enough to make those places home. Both have been affected by changes in recent decades that were as much economic as ecological: exploitation of labor and forest lands, migration of working people and the disappearance of mushroom habitats.

By Peera Songkünnatham

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Freshly picked het ko which belong to the diverse fungi family of russulaceae, with over 1,900 known species worldwide.

One thing has remained constant, though – Isaan people’s love for picking edible wild mushrooms. This article is a celebration of the joys of picking mushrooms, but also a warning, as the places one found mushrooms before might no longer be there.

Isaan was where I first learned to pick mushrooms, last year during my ethnographic fieldwork. Somewhere in Khueang Nai District, Ubon Ratchathani Province, some way in from a two-lane asphalt road beyond a temple and some rice paddies and rubber fields, stood a eucalyptus forest. Tall, equally spaced, in orderly rows, left and right.

On one side, a sign read “Forest Industry Organization | 1983 Plot,” and on the other “1984 Plot.” A monopolistic state enterprise, the Forest Industry Organization started introducing eucalyptus plantations in 1975 to rehabilitate national reserve forestlands as well as to accommodate fast-growing demands for fuel wood. In effect, plantations like this one were saved from being cleared, yet at the same time they were slated for logging for state revenue. Thirty years of monopoly, however, did enable thirty years of flourishing of forest undergrowth.

At first glance, you wouldn’t expect a bounty of edible mushrooms in a eucalyptus forest. How could they grow on land devoted to a single species? Yet, there they were – in groups or alone, by termite hills, hidden under a bush or dry leaves, or barely above ground. I would learn to appreciate mushrooms in all their distinct varieties – some aromatic, some more phallic than others, mushrooms of all the tints of the rainbow plus white, grey, and black. There were even het phoeng yu-ka, bitter and crunchy purple mushrooms growing on eucalyptus bark.

We were there as casual pickers, our end goal was to cook a big spicy pot of mushrooms that day to share with our families. It was like an adventure game with our team as tutorial, our eyes as skill, our shovel as equipment, our long sleeves and pants as armor, and a lot of luck as a fun variable.

Het ra-ngok sell for about 120 baht per kilo in the city market.

We were not “professional” mushroom pickers who go in the wee hours hunting for mushrooms in specific spots, walking for hours on end with only brief pauses for rest. By the time we went there, the professionals were already sitting under thatched stands by the main road, showcasing their pricey picks. Het pluak – whose long roots grow from termite hills – were the most coveted, some years fetching 300 baht per kilo. Then there were het ra-ngok, their white shells and orange tips glistening like salted egg. These sold for about 120 baht per kilo in the city market, but half that price or less by the roadside. The friend who took me there estimated that the monetary value of the mushrooms from this forest alone – less than 200 rai –  is about one million baht per year.

Several decades ago, forests stood right next to many villages in Isaan and villagers relied on the forest for food. Whenever they went in the forests surrounding their village, they would come out with baskets so full of mushrooms that they didn’t care when they spilled.

Once home, a couple of elderly villagers would sit and look at the pick and hold them up one by one, shaking their head and throwing away suspicious ones, keeping only those they knew were edible and tasty. Few kinds were “trusted” back then – a large majority was tossed out to rot.

Not so anymore – those forests virtually no longer exist. During the 1980s, many of the remaining forests in Isaan were declared degraded and villagers could then legally clear the land for crops and obtain land titles.

As the region’s population leaped from 6.8 million in 1952 to 12 million in 1970, and to 19 million in 1989, forests were cleared for farming. Northeastern Thailand’s sprawling forests covered 102,667 square kilometers in 1952, but by 1973 the number was halved, and almost halved again by 1982. All this time, despite the deforestation, there was less land to farm per person: the ratio decreased from 1.88 rai per person in 1952 to 1.57 in 1989.

What this decrease in number does not account for is the fact that most Isaan people by then had turned to seasonal labor, often in faraway places, or started up small businesses, sometimes replacing their rice agriculture.

With forests cleared, mushrooms still thrived on the edges of irrigated rows of crops and in the extant forests preserved by monks. Due to the scarcity of forestlands, more people flocked to the remaining forests farther away, ultimately leading to increased local knowledge of mushrooms and local competition in these areas.

The morning we went mushroom picking, we had arrived about 6 a.m. – later than many other groups. Villagers within an hour‘s radius in all directions came here, with license plates from Ubon Ratchathani, Sisaket, Yasothon, and Amnat Charoen provinces.

Sometimes we walked for ten minutes without spotting anything but poisonous mushrooms. Once I came upon a big red mushroom, so big it was falling apart. But my friend’s uncle told me it was already too old I should leave it on the soil so it could spread again.

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The author’s first pick of the morning.

After a couple of hours, we returned to the pickup truck. The most popular question was “man bo? (were you lucky?).” It was a little like discussing the lottery. We showed one another our picks, ate some pork floss sandwiches, and prepared to return home.

This was in mid-2014. When mushroom season came again in 2015, I returned to the forest only to find all the eucalyptus trees logged, felled to feed a burgeoning industry. Minor branches were discarded where they were cut, blocking most walking paths. Only a small portion of the forest was left intact. Most mushroom pickers have now gone elsewhere.

What lies ahead? This uprooted eucalyptus forest will probably be overtaken by nearby villagers in order to cultivate cash crops. But things may turn out differently. A growing number of Thais embrace the cause of forest conservation. Many times, however, conservation is framed as a struggle between non-human nature and (urban) human greed, a frame which excludes foraging and other indigenous uses of forests. If picking mushrooms becomes a “cool” hobby like it has in the U.S., how would young Thais’ imagination of forest conservation be reconfigured? I hope that young conservationists cultivate a nuanced kind of understanding of forests, one where humans are neither greedy encroachers or scrupulous conservers.

Foragers’ relationship to forests will still remain strong. Picking mushrooms is still very much associated with the traditional, rural way of life in Thailand. This year, Matichon Online reported on luk thung star Pai Pongsathorn’s mushroom picking trip with his mother, indicating a loyalty to his cultural origins.

This sense of rootedness is not only good for nostalgia, but also food for imagining a future. Conservationists, for example, could translate their cause in ways that resonates with this sense of rootedness in order to develop better demands of environmental protection policy.

Maybe one of the traits Isaan people possess that mushrooms lack could help us both flourish, and that is memory. Villagers told me that many ecological resources might soon become things of the past: tasty marsh-dependent bullfrogs, lowland buffers for seasonal floods, precious hardwood now being stolen overnight to meet Chinese demand.

But there is hope. Villagers I met have made local agreements to not disturb the village’s san pu ta (ancestral shrine) forest area, and to not smoke out one particular kind of wasp nest, for example. Memory, inherent in these initiatives, forms the basis for reaching community solutions to upcoming ecological scarcity. When we realize that the places we found mushrooms before are no longer there, we may mourn. But we may also remind ourselves to make a place – or rather leave a place – for the mushrooms to flourish.

Peera Songkünnatham was born and raised in Sisaket City. After studying Anthropology and Sociology at Swarthmore College, Pennsylvania, Peera is now striking out a path as a freelance writer and translator based in their hometown.

 

GUEST EDITORIAL: A Long Way from Home – Isaan Villagers’ Experience of Farmwork in Israel

2015 October 15
by The Isaan Record

Since the early 1990s, tens of thousands of Northeastern Thais have left their farms at home to work as agricultural laborers in Israel, often facing exploitation by manpower agencies and employers. Despite a recent push to improve the working conditions of Thai farmworkers in Israel, their situation often remains precarious.

By Matan Kaminer

A Thai farmworker sits in his bed room in the residential area of a farm in Moshav Yavetz, Israel. Photo credit: Shiraz Grinbaum for Activestill.org

A Thai farmworker sits in his bedroom in the residential area of a farm in Moshav Yavetz in central Israel. Photo credit: Shiraz Grinbaum / Activestills.org

Over 22,000 migrant workers, mostly from Isaan, are at work on farms in Israel. Although they are but a small percentage of the total number of Isaan villagers who migrate to work abroad, the Israeli agricultural sector has become completely dependent on their labor.

In some rural settlements, Thais now outnumber Israelis, and in modern Hebrew tailandi has become almost a synonym for “farmworker.” Though wages in Israel are much higher than those in Thailand, workers’ labor rights are often violated and living conditions are sometimes atrocious, as has been documented by Israeli NGO “Workers’ Hotline” and the international organization Human Rights Watch.

I interviewed three Isaan villagers who have worked in Israel about their migrant experience. Though the durations of their stays in Israel are spread over two decades, the picture they present is in some ways very similar: the work is hard and one pays a personal price for going abroad for so long. At the same time, working in Israel has enabled our interviewees to achieve financial goals that would have been impossible otherwise.

However, my three interviewees differed greatly in some aspects of their experience – demonstrating that much depends on the particular farm on which one happens to be employed when in Israel.

Thai labourers on a cabbage field on a farm at the Israel-Gaza border. Photo credit: Oren Ziv for Activestill.org

Thai laborers on a cabbage field on a farm at the Israel-Gaza border. Photo credit: Oren Ziv / Activestills.org

Large-scale labor migration from Thailand to Israel began around 1993, when the Israeli government took steps to end the massive participation of Palestinian workers in the labor market. These workers, coming from the occupied territories of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, were judged to be too rebellious following the Palestinian Intifada (uprising) of 1987-1991, and plans were made to replace them with workers from developing countries. The government began allowing farmers to recruit workers from Thailand, and they quickly became the majority of workers employed on Israeli farms.

Until 2012, in order to obtain work in Israel a Thai laborer would have to contract with a local manpower agency in Thailand. This agency would connect with a manpower agency in Israel , and the worker would then be eligible to receive a visa for a five-year work contract. Careful to prevent the possibility of workers settling in Israel permanently, Israeli authorities limited each worker to one five-year work period, and disallowed married couples from being in the country at the same time.

Manpower agencies charged workers exorbitant fees, ranging up to 370,000 baht. Workers would often spend their first year in Israel working off the debts incurred in order to pay this fee.

In 2012, the Israeli and Thai governments signed a bilateral agreement aimed at cutting out the middlemen who were charging migrants these exorbitant fees, replacing Thai manpower agencies with the International Organization for Migration, a non-profit intergovernmental group. Today the problem of exorbitant fees has been become less severe and migrants pay around 75,000 baht, which go to the IOM and manpower agencies on the Israeli side.

A residential structure used by Thai farmworkers in Sde Nitzan at the Israeli border to Egypt. Photo credit: Shiraz Grinbaum / Activestill.org

A residential structure used by Thai farmworkers in Sde Nitzan at the Israeli border to Egypt. Photo credit: Shiraz Grinbaum / Activestills.org

However, many other problems associated with migrant life continue. A report recently released by Human Rights Watch found that workers are subject to dangerous and unhygienic living conditions, extremely long working hours, and substandard medical care.

Officially, Thai migrants in Israel are protected by Israeli labor laws, including those regulating the minimum wage and overtime hours. However, a study conducted by myself and Noa Shauer of the Israeli non-governmental organization Kav La’oved (Workers Hotline) found that in 2013, none of the migrants who reported their work conditions to the organization were paid according to the law. Their average wage for regular hours stood at around 70% of the legal minimum. Overtime for work of more than ten hours a day, which is quite common in the agricultural sector, was paid at only 55% of the legal requirement. Human Rights Watch reached similar conclusions.

A Thai agricultural worker  in his residency in Moshav Yavetz, Israel. The small caravan holds eight beds, separated by curtains and closets. Photo credit: Shiraz Grinbaum for Activestill.org

A Thai agricultural worker in his residency in Moshav Yavetz, Israel. The small caravan holds eight beds, separated by curtains and closets. Photo credit: Shiraz Grinbaum / Activestills.org

Thai migrant workers’ weak negotiation position in Israel is in part due to the “bound” nature of their employment. Clauses in their contracts, as well as their linguistic isolation and lack of acquaintance with the country, make it very difficult for workers to change employers’ behavior.

Thus, even when migrant workers are aware of the substandard nature of the conditions of their employment, there is little they can do to improve their situation. Many migrants say that the working conditions, together with the long hours and sadness of missing home and family, are behind the prevalence of alcohol and drug abuse among workers.

Some point to drug and alcohol abuse as a possible factor behind the nocturnal deaths of workers, known in Thai as lai tai. These mysterious deaths are also known in Isaan, and some consider them to be caused by evil spirits such as phi mae mai or “widow ghosts.”

Between 2008 and 2013, 43 Thai men perished this way in Israel, yet there has been no systematic investigation into their cause of death. The lack of interest displayed by the Israeli authorities in this case is symptomatic of the general lack of public or state concern for migrant workers’ welfare.

While the workers I spoke to corroborated many of the findings mentioned above, they spoke of the experience of working in Israel as a generally positive one. They said the work enabled them to acquire property and make other monetary gains in life that otherwise they could not have achieved.

The first of my interviewees, Joe – a pseudonym – in his forties, lives in a village near Chumphae in Khon Kaen province. He received us on the ceramic-tile floor of his two-story house and later took us to a field where he grows sugarcane – a field bought with money he earned while working in Israel in the 1990s.

Joe’s distant relatives, Maew and Jaey (also pseudonyms), live in a village in Udon Thani province that has sent many workers to Israel over the years. Their stories exemplify the wide variety of working conditions found in Israel.

A Thai farmworker shows a small notebook displaying his working hours in Moshav Ahituv in central Israel. Thai farmworkers are advised to keep track of their working time and the hourly wage paid by their employers. Photo credit: Shiraz Grinbaum /Activestill.org

A Thai farmworker shows a small notebook displaying his working hours in Moshav Ahituv. Thai farmworkers are advised to keep track of their working time and the payments received from their employers. Photo credit: Shiraz Grinbaum / Activestills.org

Maew, also in her forties, worked on a farm in the hyper-arid Jordan Valley, near Jericho in the occupied Palestinian territories. She worked up to 14 hours a day tending vegetables in greenhouses and made between 35,000 and 45,000 baht a month, of which she was able to save about 25,000 to send home to her family. In employing her for such long hours for such low pay (by Israeli standards), her employers violated the local minimum wage law and possibly other laws as well.

Maew’s younger relative Jaey made the same wages, but working only six hours a day milking cows near Acre in Israel’s north, in proximity to urban centers and in a much milder climate zone.

One cause for the difference may be the fact that Maew worked on a moshav or collective settlement, and Jaey on a kibbutz or communal settlement; the latter tend to be both wealthier and more committed to the historic humanistic values of the Israeli “labor settlement” movement.

The co-existence of such huge disparities in labor and wage conditions is clearly an effect of the “bound” employment regime. If workers could freely choose whom to work for, conditions would undoubtedly equalize, with better results for workers like Maew.

A female Thai farmworker picks pomegranates on a farm in Sde Nitzan,Israel. Photo credit: Shiraz Grinbaum for Activestill.org

A female Thai farmworker picks pomegranates on a farm in Sde Nitzan,Israel. Photo credit: Shiraz Grinbaum for Activestills.org

Although she is aware of these disparities, Maew did not react to them with anger or indignation. She told me that she was glad of the opportunity to work long hours and make as much money as possible to send home, and did not see the fact that her relative Jaey had made the same amount of money working about half the hours as unjust.

Maew and Jaey also touched upon another interesting and troubling issue. They told me that villagers in the area who had worked in Israel were approached by lawyers claiming that they could get access to Israeli “tax refunds” for them.

According to Maew, hundreds of locals had signed papers for these lawyers but none had seen any money. Their story corroborates reports of Israeli lawyers representing Thai workers to sue the employers for severance pay – another legal requirement that is often unheeded.

The NGOs are worried that these lawyers may be engaged in unscrupulous practices vis-à-vis their clients – a concern that Maew’s story seems to strengthen, as villagers signed up and never heard anything back or received any money, and as they may have been misinformed as to the nature of the legal proceedings.

Thai workers on a tractor on the way to start their working day in the early morning. Photo credit: Shiraz Grinbaum / Activestill.org

Thai workers on a tractor on the way to start their working day in the early morning. Photo credit: Shiraz Grinbaum / Activestills.org

Labor migration is a global phenomenon, linking countries across the world in a chain of human movement that embodies both opportunity and exploitation. The workers I spoke to – who did not know me well and may have hesitated to be completely forthright – spoke of working in Israel as, overall, a positive experience.

Yet even this must be understood against the background of the alternative – either going to work elsewhere in Thailand or abroad, where conditions and pay are often worse, or being mired in unemployment and poverty back home in Isaan.

Compared to some of their neighbors, those villagers who are given the opportunity to do backbreaking work for below-minimum pay, thousands of kilometers from home, for years on end, may be the lucky ones.

Matan Kaminer is a Ph.D student in anthropology at the University of Michigan. His research is on Thai migrant farmworkers in Israel. Additional reporting and translation by Disaraporn Phalapree.

NEWS IN BRIEF: Khon Kaen Green Market to Open November 7

2014 November 4
by The Isaan Record

Khon Kaen will open a green market this Friday, November 7, from 3 – 7 p.m. at Bueng Kaen Nakhon near the Bua Luang Restaurant. Teerasuk Teekayupun, the mayor of Khon Kaen, is set to speak at the opening of the market.

Government and public health officials, NGOs, farmers, and other interested parties have spent the last two months planning for the Khon Kaen Green Market.

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The idea for opening a green market came from members of the Khon Kaen Expat Association (KKEA), a public group of foreigners based in Khon Kaen. Josh Macknick, 34, a local business owner, says of the market’s origins that KKEA wanted to be “an active organization rather than reactive, and a green market is something that can be a joint project with Thais.”

Despite being one of the ‘Big 4 Cities of Isaan,’ Khon Kaen is still lagging far behind its smaller counterparts in other Northeastern provinces when it comes to providing people with fresh organic produce.

Until now, local organic produce has only been available through small independent sellers, at TOPS Supermarket, and at green markets in nearby provinces. The market will contain several zones, including an education zone, a fresh produce zone, and a ready-made food zone. Currently, there are 67 booths registered to sell; vendors will be coming from Khon Kaen and surroundings areas, as well as Mahasarakham and Phetchabun.

 

See the Facebook page for directions to the market.

Guest contribution to The Isaan Record by Jenny Vainberg

 

Isaan Farmers Rally in Support of Government’s Rice Policy

2014 February 18
by Sally Mairs

Rice farmers at Khon Kaen's pro-government rally on Monday.
Rice farmers at Khon Kaen’s pro-government rally on Monday.

KHON KAEN— Rice farmers are taking center stage in the political battle wreaking havoc in Thailand, as the debate shifts to the government’s controversial rice-pledging policy. In Bangkok, hundreds of farmers on Monday besieged Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra’s temporary headquarters, demanding their long overdue payments for last year’s rice crops. Meanwhile, in the Northeast, rice farmers gathered in the city of Khon Kaen to stage a counter-demonstration in support of the caretaker government and its rice subsidy program.

“We are not protesting about not getting money,” said Charoensab Jampathong, a 65-year-old farmer from Ban Phai district who participated in Monday’s pro-government demonstration. “We came here to support all the government officials who are working really hard to get money for us.”

An estimated 400 farmers gathered in front of Khon Kaen’s provincial hall on Monday morning and marched to nearby branches of the Bank for Agriculture and Agricultural Cooperatives (BAAC), Krungthai Bank, and the Government Savings Bank (GSB) to voice their support for the government and its rice-pledging scheme over loud speakers.

“They came here to say thank you to us,” the Director of BAAC’s Khon Kaen province branch, Thanoo Tosajja, said. “This is the first time that has happened.”

Leaders of the pro-government demonstration also met with the provincial governor in Khon Kaen on Monday.

“We told the governor that we support him as a government official, and would like him to communicate to the government that we like the rice-pledging program,” said Bhutdhipong Khanhaengpon, a radio DJ in Khon Kaen who participated in Monday’s rally.

The demonstration of support from farmers in Khon Kaen stands in stark contrast to the activity of farmers in Bangkok, who over the past month have blockaded major highways in several parts of the country, filed a court complaint to claim compensation from the government for delayed rice payments, and on Monday, breached barricades to Prime Minister Yingluck’s temporary headquarters.

The divergent reaction of the Central Thai farmers protesting in Bangkok and their upcountry counterparts is symbolic of larger political rifts dividing the country. Whereas Bangkokians have taken to the streets over the past four months to protest against the government, their Northern and Northeastern neighbors have, for the most part, remained loyal to Prime Minister Yingluck and her social policies.

Both demonstrations by farmers, in Bangkok and Khon Kaen, are in response to the government’s delay in paying 130 billion baht to an estimated one million farmers for last year’s rice crops. The payments have been stalled in part by the caretaker government’s limited borrowing-powers, but are also the result of accumulated losses from the government’s ill-fated rice subsidy scheme.

In 2011, Prime Minister Yingluck’s government implemented a rice-pledging policy under which it purchased rice from Thai farmers at almost 50 percent above the market rate, and reduced exports to the rest of the world in an attempt to spike global prices. The plan backfired when other countries boosted their production to fill the void and unseated Thailand as the world’s number one rice exporter. Now, the government is struggling to sell its premium rice on the market without facing big losses.

A survey from the University of Thai Chamber of Commerce shows farmers earning, on average, almost three times as much money from rice sales as they did before the pledging policy was implemented. According to data from the BAAC, approximately 70 percent of farmers in Khon Kaen province have not been paid for last year’s rice sales. Yet many farmers still applaud the scheme for the tangible benefits it has brought to their lives.

“We don’t have to worry about money anymore,” said Kongsri Matsombat, a 56-year-old rice farmer from Nong Bua Kham Mun Village. “We never thought that rice farming could make us happy like this.”

“I was able to build and repair my house because of the rice-pledging program,” said 46-year-old rice farmer Banjob Chaisaenta.

Waraphon Buapin, 39, said she would still like the policy even if the government lowered its purchasing price.

“If 15,000 baht per ton is too much for the government to handle, we will still be happy even if the price is a bit lower,” said Mrs. Waraphon.

Academics, economists, and global agencies like the International Monetary Fund have voiced concern over the rice policy since its induction in 2011.

Khon Kaen University Professor of Agricultural Economics Nongluck Suphanchaimat says the policy has benefited farmers financially, but the overall program is fiscally unsustainable and has been gravely mismanaged. Instead of interfering with the market, Dr. Nongluck suggests the government end the rice-pledging scheme and focus on subsidizing technological advances for farmers.

“The government should set different strategies to assist  farmers in each region, mainly to reduce costs and focus on rice quality,” said Dr. Nongluck. “For example, the Northeastern farmers need improvements in water resources, farm equipment, good seeds, and quality fertilizer.”

The rice-pledging policy is due to expire on February 28th because the caretaker government does not have the power to extend it.

Looking ahead, the caretaker government hopes to pay farmers through a series of bank loans and a gradual sale of the 17 million tons of rice stockpiled in state warehouses.

Yet between investigations of the subsidy program by Thailand’s anti-corruption agency, the recent collapse of a trade deal with China, and a serious struggle to secure loans from Thai banks, the prospect of repaying farmers any time soon looks grim.

Although a five billion baht loan was secured from GSB on Sunday, this is only a fraction of the money owed to farmers, and the bank has already received a backlash from its labor union and customers.

Yet for the time being, Isaan farmers remain patient.

“I believe that no matter what the Constitutional Court, or any other body against Yingluck’s government tries to do, Yingluck’s government is still going to get formed and then we will get our money,” said Prasit Charoensuk, 66, from Nong Bua Kham Mun Village. “I don’t agree that we should try to protest because it’s only going to put Yingluck’s government in a worse situation.”

Cashing Out: A Return to Organic Practices

2012 March 15
by The Isaan Record

YouTube Version

MAHASARAKHAM – In 1996, a group of government officers from the Agricultural Land Reform Office (ALRO) proposed an alternative to the reigning model of chemical farming. Buoyed by their idealism and Japanese funding, they initiated a pilot program that trained and established a small network of organic farmers. The result is a community of 900 farmers in four Isaan provinces who now farm a far greater diversity of crops, reject agrochemicals altogether, and are equipped with the skills to package and market their organic goods locally.

In the last few decades, Thailand has implemented a series of government policies that incentivize farmers to produce cash crops like rice, cassava, rubber, and sugarcane. Now an international leading exporter of rice and rubber, Thailand has successfully stimulated its agricultural sector, helping reduce the national level of poverty dramatically. But with this increase in cash crop farming has come a heavy dependence on chemical fertilizers and pesticides – agrochemicals continue pouring into the country and Thailand’s fertile soil is slowly drying out.

High levels of agrochemicals found in Thailand’s crops last year have also brought international attention to Thailand’s farming habits. Last year, the EU threatened to ban Thai exports on many vegetables, citing dangerous levels of pesticides. In the last ten years, imports of pesticides have more than tripled in Thailand and many worry that without an official monitoring system in place, farmers are likely overusing agrochemicals in attempts to increase their yields and fill their pockets. Concerns for consumers’ health and Thailand’s environment are rapidly rising.

Making a switch back to organic practices in Thailand, however, is far from simple. For one, agribusinesses can offer high prices for exportable goods and farmers are easily enticed by the promise of a greater income. In addition, the government protects its cash crop farmers far better than its organic farmers who diversify the crops in their fields. According to the Bank for Agriculture and Agricultural Cooperatives, every administration since 1995 has implemented policies that offer insurance to cash crop farmers and price guarantees for their crops. Farmers who opt to farm a variety of crops, on the other hand, are left with far more risk in a country prone to natural disasters.

With these concerns in mind, the Agricultural Land Reform Office (ALRO) contacted farmers in Sakon Nakhon, Mukdahan, Mahasarakham, and Khon Kaen. Over many years, the ALRO succeeded in teaching former cash crop farmers the benefits of going organic. Though Japanese funding has now run out, these farmers are nearly self-sustainable. They share tasks with one another in co-ops, work together to standardize suitable prices, and sell their goods at local green markets.  And they have found that with farms as diverse as the local supermarkets, debt is no longer a concern nor income a worry. The current administration, however, has shown no intention of expanding the program further.

To learn more about the program, the Isaan Record met with farmers who had worked with the ALRO to return to organic practices. Sakhon Thabthimsai, an organic farmer in Borabue district of Mahasarakham province, tells his story in the video above.

The ALRO’s project is just one of many efforts in Northeastern Thailand to rethink and reform the kinds of agriculture being practiced in this part of the country. For more information, visit the Alternative Agriculture Network’s website here.

Organic Farmers Get Raw Deal

2012 February 7
by The Isaan Record

KHON KAEN – The floodwaters have receded, the fields are cleared, and Udom Phanprasri spends his week transplanting his new rice stalks in straight lines across his muddy plot. Neighbors drop by and watch quietly as he sinks the stalks one by one.

In Yangyong village, Mr. Udom is well known for his mastery of farming and villagers often ask to learn his techniques. But while his neighbors are eager to learn his tricks, none have followed suit in his most important decision. Unlike the rest of his village, Mr. Udom embraces organic practices in his farming. The remaining 60 farming families still prefer a far more popular method that relies heavily on agrochemicals.

Mr. Udom transplants his rice with his wife.

“It’s difficult to convince the villagers to switch to organic substances,” says Mr. Udom. “Even though I tell them not to use chemicals, they don’t listen because their method is easier. Many farmers try to use bio-fertilizer but then, one month later, they resort to chemicals again.”

Since the 1960s, the use of agrochemicals in Thailand’s agriculture sector has skyrocketed. According to Greenpeace International, an organization that campaigns on environmental issues, Thailand’s farmers have increased their use of chemical fertilizers by a multiple of 94, from only 18,000 tons in 1961 to nearly 1,700,000 tons annually in 2003.  The nationwide yield of rice has barely doubled.

This staggering increase in chemical fertilizer coupled with a relatively low gain in crops has led many to worry about possible impacts of chemical waste but has convinced very few farmers to go organic. Excessive or misused chemical fertilizers can threaten farmers’ health and often deplete the quality of the land.

Farmers and experts agree that organic farming remains unpopular mainly because there is no international market for organic produce from Thailand.

“The government focuses on exports so it doesn’t offer organic farmers a rice price guarantee,” explains Professor Wichian Saengchoti of the Research Development Institute at Khon Kaen University. “The government isn’t interested in supporting an alternative production process.”

While the popularly exported jasmine rice can be sold to the government for 20,000 baht per ton, a price nearly double market value, other rice strains that are used in organic farming are not supported by government insurance schemes.

Organic farmers like Mr. Udom are left with little choice but to sell their rice to private millers who often undervalue the product. “The local government officers tell us not to use chemical fertilizers. But when we try to sell to the government, they prefer to buy rice that has been chemically treated,” Mr. Udom complains.

Enticing farmers to turn organic is yet another obstacle. With chemical fertilizer, farmers can see positive results of higher yields and healthier plants within the same season the fertilizer is used. With bio-fertilizers, it can take two to three years to see results.

The Ministry of Agriculture initiated a project to tackle over-dependency on agrochemicals about fifteen years ago. The ministry employs officers in every province to teach Good Agricultural Practices (GAP), a set of farming standards that encourages a mixture of agrochemicals and bio-fertilizers.

“In the past, farmers used only agrochemicals. It’s our duty to reduce the use of chemicals and encourage bio-fertilizers. The results show that a mixture is better than just one or the other,” says Amphon Sirikham, an agricultural specialist for the Ministry of Agriculture.

Nevertheless, in recent years, imports of pesticides have surged from 42,000 tons in 1997 to 137,000 tons in 2009.

Mr. Amphon estimates that in Mr. Udom’s sub-district, Kok Si, about half of the farmers use only agrochemicals and the other half now use a mixture of chemical and bio-products. The switch to organic farming is very rare.

“If Udom is the only organic farmer in his village, he might face difficulties in selling his rice for an appropriate price,” says Dr. Patcharee Saenjan, a professor at KKU’s Faculty of Agriculture. “He needs to join a group of organic farmers or persuade his neighbors to join him. If he is alone, he can’t do anything.”

Networks of organic farmers are sparse in Northeast Thailand. The largest network, the Alternative Agriculture Network, is in Yasothorn and Surin and smaller co-ops are scattered throughout other provinces.

Fishing Without a Net: Fish Farms and the 2011 Floods

2011 December 16
by The Isaan Record

YouTube Version

KHON KAEN – This year’s floods ravaged much of Thailand, leaving over 600 dead and millions displaced. In the Northeast, farmers everywhere are beginning to clean up destroyed crops and prepare for the next harvest season. But while millions of rice farmers await their flood insurance from the government, 2,200 baht per rai of rice field, the hundreds of thousands of fish farmers in the region are not as lucky. With little support from government agencies, only modest discounts offered to them by corporate distributors, and no organizations that offer fish farming insurance, fish farmers are faced with the task of rebuilding their small farms and repurchasing fish on their own. Here in Khon Kaen province, nearly 9,000 fish farms claimed flood damages. None can collect on insurance.

The video above takes a look at the flooding of Tawatchai Farm in Khon Kaen, just one of half a million freshwater fish farms in the country. To learn more about its story, click play.

Yingluck’s Rice Policy Discourages Local Corruption, Farmers Say

2011 October 7
by The Isaan Record

KHON KAEN – As the Pheu Thai government launches its rice mortgage scheme today in 31 provinces, experts fear that the new policy will offer little benefit to small-scale farmers and instead invite increased graft and corruption among millers and national politicians. Many of Thailand’s rural rice farmers, on the other hand, commend the policy as one that actually helps discourage corruption at the village level.

Today, these farmers welcome not only a promised salary increase, but also a pro-business policy that they believe better rewards hardworking farmers and enables informal laborers to reap increased benefits.

“Abhisit’s rice price guarantee policy—it’s the same as teaching farmers how to be corrupt,” said Mr. Udom Phanphrasee, a jasmine and sticky rice farmer in Ban Yan Yong village in Khon Kaen Province. “I sometimes only planted five rai on my 18 rai of land, and I would get the price guarantee for all 18 rai,” he said with a smirk. (One rai is roughly equivalent to two-fifths of an acre.)

The campaign promise of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra won the hearts and votes of the rural constituency much as it had for former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, Ms. Yingluck’s older brother. Ms. Yingluck’s policy raises the price of rice nearly 50 percent, offering farmers mortgages of 20,000 baht for one ton of unmilled jasmine rice and 15,000 baht for one ton of unmilled white and sticky rice.

Under Abhisit’s price guarantee policy, landowning farmers could register with the Bank of Agriculture and Agricultural Cooperatives (BAAC) as soon as they had planted their rice. Government representatives from the bank would calculate the landowners’ expected rice production and later pay the landowners the difference between the market value and the government-guaranteed price.

Though representatives of the BAAC claim that farmers’ paddies were frequently monitored, the farmers of Ban Yan Yong village in Khon Kaen talk openly about how trickery and corruption at the village level were par for the course.

Ms. Jongkolrat Kanruensri, the manager of the Khon Kaen branch of the BAAC, recognized this tendency, as well. “Under Abhisit’s plan, people with mortgages often didn’t have as much rice as they claimed they did,” she said.

Many villagers complain that landowners would bribe or beg neighbors to falsely vouch for how much rice they had planted. With signatures of witnesses, the landowners could trick government representatives by under-planting on their fields, poorly tending to their rice plants, or claiming floods ruined land that had never even been seeded. Ultimately, landowners were often rewarded for the number of rai they owned and not for the amount of rice they actually harvested.

“I thought Abhisit’s policy was good because the government subsidized us just for being rice farmers. But it was bad when people started taking advantage of that,” said Mrs. Nongyao Reuthaphrom, a 27-year-old sticky rice farmer.

Under Pheu Thai’s new mortgage policy, farmers are rewarded with a loan only after they have harvested their rice. This way, villagers argue, landowners cannot lie about how much rice they are producing.

Somporn Isvilanonda of the Knowledge Network Institute of Thailand (KNIT) explained in an e-mail interview that he, like most academics, is more concerned with the opportunities for corruption in Ms. Yingluck’s plan than he was in Mr. Abhisit’s.

“Under Abhisit, there could be minor corruption at the cultivated-area registration process,” wrote Prof. Somporn. “But I consider it to be very small.”

Instead, Mr. Somporn believes that poorly regulated rice millers now have a greater incentive to replace good quality rice with poor quality rice.

In the new policy, national politicians who are assigned to specific mills are each asked to meet a certain quota of rice. This mandated relationship between the millers and the politicians, the National Rice Committee member argues, can also lead to increased corruption.

Ban Yan Yong farmers, however, are less concerned about corruption that occurs at the mills and more concerned with the ways in which this policy brings fairer pay to its community members, most of whom farm on rented plots from wealthy landowners.

According to a 2011 World Bank report, Thailand’s informal agriculture workforce stands at 14.4 million people. Under Abhisit’s price guarantee policy, landlords could exploit millions of these farmers because it was the landlords, and not their tenants, who directly received the price difference between the market value and the guaranteed price. Now, it is hoped that the renters will have more leverage.

One farmer from Ban Nong Ngu Leuam village said that in her community most landowners with over 20 rai of land typically have renters. “Those who are renting the land will pay the landowner a rental fee and then try to sell their harvested rice commercially. But under Abhisit, the landowner received the price difference and never had to pay it over to the renter.”

“If people were honest all of the time, Abhisit’s policy would work. But people aren’t honest,” said Mr. Somjai Reuthaphrom who rents five rai of land from one of his neighbors in Ban Yan Yong village.

Mr. Somjai has seen many of his renter friends weather plummeting incomes under Abhisit’s administration. Greedy landlords chose not to pay their renters the difference between the market price and the guaranteed price that they had received from the government.

With Pheu Thai’s policy in place, Mr. Somjai and others believe that the informal agriculture sector will see far greater rewards. As the guaranteed price of rice rises, land renters’ salaries should increase as well.

Pheu Thai’s rice mortgage policy is scheduled to run through February 29, 2012.

Protest Village Celebrates Second Anniversary

2011 July 20
by The Isaan Record

Sunday's forum brought together NGOs, activists, and politicians to discuss Baw Kaew's future.Baw Kaew's greenhouse is one of many sustainability efforts.Their seed bank carries 122 seed varieties of rice, vegetables, and fruit trees.Villagers now sell goods made from locally grown cotton.
BawKaewForum

Sunday's forum brought together NGOs, activists, and politicians to discuss Baw Kaew's future.

BawKaewGreenhouse

Baw Kaew's greenhouse is one of many sustainability efforts.

BawKaewSeedBank2

Their seed bank carries 122 seed varieties of rice, vegetables, and fruit trees.

BawKaewCotton

Villagers now sell goods made from locally grown cotton.

CHAIYAPHUM – The sound of mor lam music, traditional to Northeast Thailand, filled the air last Saturday evening as Khon San villagers and friends gathered to celebrate the second anniversary of the founding of Baw Kaew village.

In the past two years, Baw Kaew villagers have developed their community, seen success in their battle for a legal land lease, and established sustainable agricultural practices, all amidst a eucalyptus plantation owned by the Forest Industry Organization (FIO). The celebration weekend culminated on Sunday in a forum for various NGOs, activists, and politicians to speak to the challenges of addressing land reform disputes.

Baw Kaew was established on July 17th, 2009, 31 years after the state-owned FIO evicted more than 1,000 villagers from 4,401 rai of land to begin the Khon San Forest Project. By the late 1980s, the FIO had cleared the land in order to plant a eucalyptus plantation.

After decades of unsuccessful protests for the right to return to their former land in Khon San, 169 displaced families decided to take a new approach. Aided by the Land Reform Network of Thailand (LRNT), these families illegally resettled in Khon San Forest, founding Baw Kaew as a protest village. Rather than only spend their time in front of government buildings, villagers believed they could also stage their protest directly on the land they used to call home.

Their efforts have been met with both new obstacles and successes. One month after they founded the village, 31 residents were charged with trespassing on state-owned land. By April 2010, the court had ruled that villagers needed to move out.

However, this past fall, Baw Kaew villagers began to see progress. The Working Committee on Community Land Deeds, set up under the Abhisit administration, approved 35 villages to pursue community land deeds, including Baw Kaew. So far, only two communities have been granted deeds, which leaves Baw Kaew and 32 other villages still on the slow path to gaining legal access to the land they currently occupy.

In Sunday’s forum, Prayong Doklamyai of the Northern Development Foundation emphasized the gravity of land rights disputes in forests across Thailand. “There are about 10 million Thais in state forests that cover around 20 million rai of land. This is a time bomb waiting to explode,” he said. Mr Prayong believes that while there has been an improvement in the policy of the last government, implementation has not followed suit.

In response, Secretary to the Prime Minister’s office Phubet Jantanimi insisted that the government is doing the best it can. “The government has already agreed to give the land to the people [of Baw Kaew]. But the government can only ask for the cooperation [of the FIO], it cannot give a direct order,” he said.

This has led to confusion and frustration among Baw Kaew villagers. While the Working Committee on Community Land Deeds has encouraged villagers and the FIO to resolve their problems, the central government says it does not have the authority to enforce state-owned agencies to follow its mandate. This year, the committee ordered the FIO and the government to survey the land that Baw Kaew has requested. But until the FIO agrees to relinquish the land, villagers are left waiting with little control over the timeline or outcome.

Mr. Pramote of the Isaan Land Reform Network, however, does not believe the government is powerless to end FIO projects. He claims the government pays the FIO approximately 1.2 billion baht, or about $40 million per year. “If the government is sincere and has the courage, it can force the eucalyptus forest to be abolished. It has already happened in other areas,” he stated.

As community members wait for the FIO to cede the land, villagers have moved away from only fighting for legal tenure and are now developing the sustainability of their community.

According to Mr. Pramote, the current eucalyptus plantation is not sustainable.  “Since the eucalyptus trees grow really fast, they draw a lot of nutrients from the soil,” he explained.

In order to combat the negative environmental impacts and restore the soil, farmers have been planting local vegetables and herbs between the uniform rows of eucalyptus trees. In May of this year, the community also established a local seed bank in their village. They hope that it will help preserve their local knowledge and prepare them to cultivate the land once a land deed is granted.

Though Baw Kaew villagers’ strategy now focuses on developing  a sustainable community, their options are limited without a concession from the FIO. Until the eucalyptus trees come down, villagers will continue to live in protest for their former land.