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Posts from the ‘Rice’ Category

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.”

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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.

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.