Weaning farmers off rice
Rice is out, beans are in as Thailand’s farmers return to school.
RICE farmer Prapatpon Rungsatien perches on a plastic chair in a classroom in rural Thailand. Ceiling fans stir the humid air as she and 49 of her neighbours hunker down for a talk on South- East Asian economics.
Prapatpon, 48, returned to school last month for a state- funded training programme designed to wean farmers off water- intensive rice and teach them how to grow other crops. With lessons spanning everything from accounting to chicken husbandry, the government is trying to reduce a record stockpile of the cereal at a time when farmers are facing the worst drought in two decades.
The government in Thailand, typically the world's largest rice exporter, has advised farmers on producing alternatives to the crop for a decade. Now, in the face of diminishing water and plunging prices, it's getting more serious. A banner at the front of the classroom in a village in Sangkaburi district, Chai Nat province, says, “Use Water Wisely.” Outside, an irrigation canal opposite the building is bone dry, like the surrounding farmland.
“With the problem of drought, these people are going to suffer,” Finance Minister Apisak Tantivorawong said. “What we are trying to do is to inject some money into this sector to help them, by teaching them how to survive in this difficult period.”
The El Nino- induced drought will drain about 84bil baht ( RM10bil) from the economy. Agriculture accounts for 8% of Thailand's GDP.
Going back to school was meant to give farmer Prapatpon fresh ideas and new strategies for survival on her farm in Chai Nat province, about 190km north of Bangkok. Instead, she said: “I can’t apply any of this.” A fourth- generation rice farmer, she’d harvested three crops a year for 15 years until the drought began in late 2014. Her last harvest was a 10th of the usual yield and mostly eaten by rats. “I thought about growing green beans, but there's not even enough water for that,” Prapatpon said. “My land is dry and cracked. How can I grow anything? I can’t even get water from the ground.”
Prapatpon’s struggle exemplifies the difficulty in finding viable solutions to drought, even after the military government approved 11.2bil baht ( RM1.34bil) of measures last year to help farmers, including encouraging them to plant crops that need less water and giving them longer periods to repay loans. Rice is being targeted because flood- irrigated paddy uses a lot of water – sometimes two and a half times the amount needed to grow a crop of wheat or maize.
With the Bhumibol and Sirikit dams – the main water sources for the country's central plain – at the lowest since 1994, the government wants to reduce the country's rice production to 27 million tonnes in the planting season starting May, a quarter less than the five- year average.
For more than a decade, Thai rice farmers were cushioned by subsidies. The support won rural votes for former Prime Ministers Thaksin Shinawatra and his sister Yingluck.
It also led to a 20% jump in rice production and a record 17.8 million tonne stockpile that the current government is struggling to sell. Cutting output will reverse a global oversupply that has depressed international prices, but coaxing farmers to plant less rice requires careful diplomacy.
Rice farmers have played a central role in Thailand's last decade of political unrest, turning out en mass to support the Shinawatra family, whose allied governments have twice been ousted in coups despite winning every national election since 2001.
Junta leader and now Prime Minister Prayuth Chan- Ocha has taken to the airwaves repeatedly to urge farmers to plant less rice. With maximum temperatures typically peaking in April and the monsoon not due for months, the military government is luring farmers back to school to speed up change. The government earmarked enough money for 250 farmers to attend 15 days of training over three months in Sangkaburi, a district with 8,000 farming families. Because there were four times as many applicants, participants – who are paid 200 baht ( RM24) a day to attend – were selected randomly in a lucky draw.
“We have a limited budget,” Apisak said. “They need to help themselves as well. Not just survive on government money.”
For farmer- turned- student Chaiyapoj Phak- on, the past two years have been a harsh contrast to the heady days of the previous government’s income- propping rice- buying programme, which he called “the best time of my life.”
While he’d still prefer to grow rice, the 50- year- old said the government's training has offered him encouragement. “There are other ways to make a living,” he said. “There is hope.” – Bloomberg
rice farmers at a training programme on growing other crops in the sangkaburi district of Chainat province. — Bloomberg
An almost dried up irrigation canal in Chachoengsao province, Thailand. — EPA