Thinking local: Sufficiency economy principles are clearly visible in agriculture

Agriculture has a special place in the history of sustainability in Thailand. It was in this field that King Bhumibol Adulyadej first assembled the ideas behind sufficiency economy. From early in his reign, the king began to experiment with agricultural projects on the grounds of the Chitlada Palace in Bangkok. These included dairy schemes, developing new crop varieties and fish farming. In 1953, the king also initiated the Khao Tao project, which saw the construction of a dam under his supervision that turned a tidal marsh into a lake that could be used by locals for fish rearing, irrigation and drinking water.

New Projects

As his reign continued, the king brought further projects to fruition around the country. Irrigation schemes remained a major focus, via small-scale, local dam and reservoir projects that made a significant impact on community development. The King also supported programmes to introduce new crops and cultivation techniques that were appropriate for local use. Environmental conservation was another priority, with natural, organic techniques and low-tech machinery used to raise local harvests while preserving the ecology vital to rural life and human well-being.

In 1969, the Royal Project Foundation was established, which first helped farmers switch from opium cultivation to fruit and vegetables, In 1988, the Chai Pattana Foundation then began funding projects that ranged from sinking new wells to scientific field research. By the mid-2000s, the portfolio of “royal initiative projects” contained over 4000 different schemes, many of them now internationally recognised as good examples of sustainable development.

The king’s approach to self-reliant agriculture crystallised in New Theory Agriculture, a land and water management system that aims to provide small farmers – those with around 15 rai, or six acres – with at least enough rice to feed themselves for a whole year, via community cooperation and effective, small-scale irrigation techniques. The latter, thanks to the use of small ponds, can also provide the farmer with fish.

It was from meditating on this rural experience, too, that the king arrived at the basic principles of sufficiency economy. As a result, the agricultural sector in Thailand today is perhaps the most advanced in terms of the application of this model, as well as in other varieties of sustainable development.

Rural Challenge

According to the most recent data from the National Statistical Office, in December 2015 approximately 13.63m Thais worked in the agricultural sector. This was around 35% of the total workforce, with no other single sector coming close in terms of numbers employed – manufacturing, for example, accounted for around 16%. In terms of contribution to GDP, however, the agriculture sector accounted for only about 10.7% of the total in the fourth quarter of 2015, while manufacturing accounted for 26.3%. Agriculture’s proportion of both these measures has been falling over the years.

In 1966, for example, some 76% of the workforce was employed in the sector, while data for the fourth quarter of 2015 from the National Economic and Social Development Board noted a decline in the sector’s contribution to GDP, of 4.2% year-on-year.

For many years, the key crop has been rice, and Thailand has been a global centre for its production and export. According to the Thai Rice Exporters Association, in 2015 the country exported around 9.8m tonnes of the stuff, down from 10.97m tonnes in 2014, when Thailand was the world’s largest rice exporter after India. Other key crops include sugar cane, cassava, tropical fruits and rubber.

Historically, Thai farmers have faced a number of major challenges with all of these crops. Unlike neighbouring Vietnam, where the Mekong River delta gives farmers riverine irrigation, about 80% of Thai rice lands rely on rain. This limits the harvest to once a year in many areas, around the monsoon season. Productivity therefore remains low in comparison to the country’s regional peers.

Climate change is seeing annual rainfall decline, too, and as urban areas expand, competition for water and land puts pressure on available water resources. Indeed, 2014 and 2015 saw below-normal levels of rainfall, which also impacted water collection in the reservoirs on which the majority of rice farmers depend for irrigation. Climate change has also sometimes meant increased flooding, an event exacerbated by poor land use and deforestation.

Finance Issues

At the same time, farmers have historically been burdened with high levels of debt. Some of this has been accumulated via widespread use of mainly imported chemical fertilisers and pest sprays, which boost yields in the short term but cost farmers dearly, not to mention their harm to the environment. Indeed, DDT, a pesticide banned in many countries, is still widely used in Thailand.

For many, debt also comes from purchasing seed, equipment and other vital elements using money obtained from loan sharks. Many farmers over-extended themselves during recent rice subsidy programmes in 2013-14, leaving many unpaid. Depressed prices in commodities such as rubber have also not helped farmers’ balance sheets. This in turn has led to a low rate of mechanisation, further impacting competitiveness, as rival suppliers in Vietnam, India and elsewhere gain market share on lower cost bases.

Environmental degradation through improper land use has meanwhile left the country with about 60% of its land – or some 190m rais – suffering from soil deterioration. The latest data available shows that, as of 2012, this total was rising at a rate of 1m rais a year.

Given these hardships, many Thais head for the cities in search of better financial rewards. This leaves the rural population in decline and increasingly ageing, creating the additional difficulty of local labour shortages. These shortages are sometimes overcome in ways that have led to the exploitation of unregistered foreign labourers.

Rising To The Challenge

Addressing these issues has been a major task of successive governments, while it has also been a major objective for sufficiency economy projects and for many corporate social responsibility (CSR) programmes.

Of the former, one of the most successful has been the Inpaeng Network, in north-east Thailand. Starting in 1987, villagers from this region began to shift away from planting a cash crop – cassava – and towards planting rice for their own consumption. This had several positive effects. The previous “monoculture” of cassava had led to accelerating soil deterioration, leading in turn to over-use of expensive fertilisers which then caused more long-term damage to the environment. At the same time, global cassava prices plummeted, sending farmers’ incomes into freefall and adding to a growing mountain of debt.

Switching to a sufficiency economy approach changed all that. Farmers began growing the food they needed to sustain themselves instead, selling any surpluses in local markets. They also grew rice and vegetables that were suited to the local area, thus cutting the need for fertilisers. With some financial help from an NGO called the Village Foundation, the communities were able to start growing rattan – which they could use instead of wood cut from vanishing local forests, helping to arrest deforestation.

In a final stage, with the number of villages in the network mushrooming, a wide variety of products began to be made from forest and other local plants identified by the villagers.

These included natural dyes, medicines and organic insecticides, all of which helped the locals to prosper. The network then began to reach out around Thailand, exchanging information and expertise with similar networks that then began to spring up. Learning by doing and sharing – also a significant part of sufficiency economy – was thus a substantial underpinning of this network.

Among the more notable networks that sprang up, in this case in 2000, is the Panopon Network. Based in the country’s central region, this organisation acts as a facilitator for work on the production of high-quality rice seed, as well as promoting integrated pest management, forest conservation and the reduced use of imported chemicals and fertilisers. It has a moral and ethical dimension as well, calling on its members to follow a good diet, get regular exercise and abstain from drinking alcohol and gambling. The community also now runs its own radio station.

The success of Inpaeng was not due to a complete withdrawal from the global marketplace. The villagers remained connected to the outside world and, indeed, networked greatly with NGOs, government agencies and, later on, universities and other institutions, all the while continuing to sell outside the community when surpluses allowed. Input from the outside was thus important, although the community itself became more self-reliant. These are important points to bear in mind when evaluating the CSR initiatives of corporates and other businesses today.

CSR Efforts

Many of Thailand’s largest businesses contribute to agricultural and rural development via CSR schemes. Some of these may not have a direct role in the sector; they may instead support schemes to mitigate the impact of their work on the local environment, thus helping farmers, or they assist with rural development projects such as schools and health care centres or fresh water facilities.

Oil and gas sector company PTT Exploration and Production (PTTEP), for example, allocated some $44.5m to community and social development projects in 2014, with this divided into four areas – basic needs, education, environment, and culture and sports. In basic needs, it launched a project to train fishermen in Songkhla province to set up crab hatcheries. In education, it established a smart centre in the same province, along with a scholarship programme to help children get higher education, both in Thailand and abroad. PTTEP was also involved in reforestation projects that year, restoring green areas in the Bang Krachao area near Bangkok.

Elsewhere, Siam Cement Group (SCG) has been working on reviving community forests in Lampang. Reviving these has led to the development of a variety of local products such as mushrooms and honey, showing the value of the diverse ecosphere of the forest. Another project is soil desalination in Ratchasima province. Both this and the forest revival projects have led to the establishment of local learning centres to pass on the knowledge gained to others. The Power of Wisdom project also grew out of the desalination scheme, imparting to local leaders the ability to train others and build local skills.

Another major corporate in the field is Charoen Pokphand Foods (CPF), one of the largest agro-industrial and food conglomerates in the Asia-Pacific. Operating in livestock and aquaculture, it tries to source feedstock from local farmers where possible. A sustainable fishmeal supply chain management system is in place that trains suppliers in safe and environmentally sound ways to produce this resource. The firm also supported fishmeal producers in implementing IFFO RS chain-of-custody standards and has been working with state agencies and seafood associations to develop the Fishery Improvement Plan for the Gulf of Thailand and the Andaman Sea.

On land, CPF has pioneered the “self-reliant farmers, sustainable corn” project piloted in Nakhon Ratchasima province. Some 271 farmers participate in this, attending training courses on improving production, technological innovations, and monitoring their environmental footprint.

Although the project has not eliminated chemical fertilisers and plant treatments, it has led to improvements in waste management. This reflects a move in Thailand since the early years of the century towards cleaner production. This concept, which was originally aimed at not only agriculture but also finance, education, tourism and local administration, looks to implement a system of waste management through more efficient use of resources and the elimination of unnecessary waste.

Small Business

Smaller-scale agriculture and agriculture-based enterprises have also been implementing sustainable methods and sufficiency economy principles. One of these is the Tham Singh Coffee Community Enterprise (TSCCE). This has been reviving the Robusta coffee bean – the traditional crop of the Tham Sing region of Chumphon.

The TSCCE first started by growing the bean on land within durian farms. Combining the coffee plants with durian and later other fruit trees gives the soil around them the benefit of natural plant fertilisers, provided by the fallen leaves and branches. This reduces the necessity for chemicals, while improving the quality of the beans.

The TSCCE also contributes to the self-reliance of the local community by giving them an extra crop to fall back on, thus spreading risk. The enterprise shares its profits with the community – distributing around 60% of profits in this way – also handing out seedlings for free and passing on its knowledge and expertise. The TSCCE is progressing slowly and prudently, and is gradually building up outside market commitments only when its local communities have sufficient resources themselves. It is already popular within the wider region and with an increasing number of tourists.

Agriculture thus continues to be one of the main areas within Thailand were principles of sustainability and sufficiency economy can be observed. Regrettably, however, so can the opposite, and many farmers and communities have yet to see the benefits of such an approach. Agriculture in Thailand is also a political issue in many areas, which can both help and hinder the development of the sector. Nonetheless, the examples are clearly there – as is the determination of many to see others join the sustainability parade.