His Majesty's 'New Theory' -- outlining
how farmers may achieve self-sufficiency -- is not only a treatise on
farm management technique, but more importantly a succinct analysis of
the cause of, and the way to end, the current economic crisis. If followed
in true form and spirit, the royal proposal could lead to a more sustainable
Farmer Jantaphoon Sipamai has one complaint about His Majesty's New Theory: His first opportunity to try out the royal idea only came to him when he was approaching his 50s!
In 1994, the middle-aged villager signed up for an "experiment" that would eventually transform his whole life and world view. The "Big Change" started with a complete overhaul of his 12-rai plot in Khao Wong district, Kalasin province.
Here, a large pond was dug to be filled with water for most of the year. Over there, part of the rice field was converted into a now-lush orchard of mangoes, guavas, bananas and a variety of other fruit trees, and there are also plots of vegetables. The remaining rice plot, though much smaller than before, is green with flourishing crops, a reassuring sight to the northeastern farmer.
Not far from the house is a medium-sized sty, with chubby pigs brushing neck against neck as they munch scrumptious-looking bran.
"That is my bank," Mr Jantaphoon said with a smile. "I have been raising those pigs for four months. The market price is not good right now, so I will keep them for a while longer.
"After all, I can say I've got 13 'savings accounts' that I can fall back on anytime I want."
Such a carefree attitude would have been unimaginable a few years ago. Then Mr Jantaphoon was struggling tooth and nail just to feed his wife and two children from one day to the next.
Every year, after finishing work in the rice fields, Mr Jantaphoon would head up the hill, encroaching on national reserve land, to toil in his cassava field.
"It's illegal and we had to play hide-and-seek with officers," recalled the farmer. "But I had no other choice. And the cassava prices kept going up and down all the time. The only thing that helped us stay afloat through those years was some money my wife earned from her weaving. Now I have fewer expenses, since most of what I eat comes from my own farm. I have to buy fish sauce, salt and a couple of other things I can't make myself, but that is all."
These days Mr Jantaphoon is as busy as ever. The farmer explains that even though he has subsequently obtained a legal Sor Por Kor entitlement to his former cassava stake -- thanks to the land reform scheme -- he finds it extremely difficult to spare time to go back there.
In some respects, Mr Jantaphoon's farm could be considered a laboratory for testing farming techniques. In addition to experiments with mushroom cultivation, the Kalasin native is trying out some ideas of his own on natural pesticides to see whether or not they will work.
"Aphids plaguing the long beans cause farmers lots of headache," he said. "But I've noticed that beans growing near custard apple trees are unusually healthy. Maybe the plant emits some fragrance that the bugs don't like. So I'm going to pound up some custard apple leaves, mix them with water, and spray the liquid on my bean plants. Then we can wait and see if it keeps the aphids away."
Enriching both the land and its people
The abundance of food on Mr Jantaphoon's farm and his ingenuity in adapting nature to serve his purposes are probably the best indicators of His Majesty's success. Through his care and vision, the monarch has not only brought back fertility to the land, but also enriched the minds of its people.
In Mr Jantaphoon's community, almost all of the villagers belong to an ethnic minority group called the Phu Tai, who have traditionally lived under continuous hardship caused by drought, price fluctuations, and neglect and mistrust on the part of the government. During the 1970s, Khao Wong district was widely known as one of the major communist strongholds in Thailand.
A royal visit in 1992, however, opened a new chapter in the Isan farmers' lives, and also perhaps for other farmers nationwide. While in Khao Wong, His Majesty saw some rice stalks that some of the local people presented to him.
Watered only by the morning dew, each stalk yielded only a grain or two of rice.
But this unhappy sight led to a happy change of circumstance. Determined to end such tribulations, the King began a search for methods that would enable Thai farmers to stand on their own feet.
Based on his extensive travels throughout the country and from experiments run on royal-initiated demonstration farms (notably at the Mongkolchaipattana Temple in Saraburi province), he formulated his "New Theory" -- a three-step agricultural method designed to serve as a guideline on attaining self-sufficiency for farmers.
The first stage operates at the individual level. Here, His Majesty stresses diversification of farmers' income by proposing each plot be divided up to support different economic activities. A formula of 30:30:30:10 roughly represents the relative proportion of land that should be allocated for each function, namely, a pond, a rice field, fruit and vegetable patches, and housing, animals' quarters and other purposes, respectively.
The nature of this numeric recipe shows His Majesty's inventiveness. Rather than being an inflexible set of instructions to follow verbatim, the 30:30:30:10 prescription takes the form of an adaptable strategy for farm and household management. Whereas cash crop farmers generally get paid only once or at most twice a year when they sell their produce to the market, farmers applying the New Theory can draw on diverse sources of income, with money coming in more frequently as different crops mature. They can grow vegetables and fruits for daily consumption to cut household expenses, some cash crops for seasonal sale, and perennial trees for longer-term uses. The money earned or saved may seem to be little, but it trickles in steadily.
His Majesty's major concern is water supply. Water is the source of life, as he has stressed on several occasions. Therefore, in the New Theory scheme, he proposes a three-tiered irrigation system that utilises individual ponds, a community reservoir, and a larger basin.
These small- and medium-scale water storage facilities, His Majesty notes, will act as "rain water regulators", meaning the reserves will complement the use of natural water supply during the dry seasons or in times of drought. Moreover, when the water level drops too low in one of the water collection facilities, it will be replenished, through extensive pipeline systems, from the next one up.
This royal-designed blueprint differs from typical large-scale irrigation projects, which tend to focus on cash crop agriculture and city areas. The King stresses that New Theory farmers must be very economical with water, and to take this economy into account in choosing which types of crops to grow, and when to grow them. It also implies refraining from monoculture.
This emphasis that His Majesty places on water diversion systems for small farmers sends a signal to policy makers not to neglect the needs of the low-income agricultural sector, which makes up the largest part of the Thai population.
The next two stages of the New Theory scheme reflect His Majesty's holistic approach. After each individual is empowered, the focus shifts to the strengthening of the entire community, and then to collaboration with the outside sectors. The second phase proposes that farmers form themselves into groups or cooperatives to help one another in the areas of production, marketing, education, social welfare and development, and religion. The third and last stage envisions fair and equal partnerships between the private sector and the community. The King is hopeful that farmers, with their collective bargaining power, will no longer suffer from price manipulation when selling their produce or buying the consumer products they need.
To implement such a concept, however, requires time, understanding, and perseverance. The New Theory is not at all easy to put into practice, as the King himself often admits, and when implementing it, a flexible approach is essential.
Outside parties, in particular the official bureaucracy, could play valuable supporting roles. But first, the King says, they must be willing to listen to what the people have to say, take into account the diversity of local environments, and avoid imposing their own preconceptions, as so often happens in state-sponsored development projects.
The Hidden Message
Small-scale, rain-dependent farmers should not be the only group who can benefit from the King's advice, however. The New Theory extends far beyond a simple outline of farming and irrigation techniques. Nor should His Majesty's proposal for a self-sufficient economy be regarded as pertinent only to the rural sector.
When the King first unveiled the comprehensive New Theory during his birthday speeches in 1994 and 1995, most listeners tended to interpret it superficially as a presentation of the royal ideas to assist backward farmers.
This limited view is understandable: The country was then in a jubilant mood, buoyed by an intense optimism that saw Thailand becoming the region's next tiger. The wider implications of the new concept were largely ignored.
Ironically, in the midst of the ongoing economic crisis, His Majesty's concepts seem to be getting wider publicity, but not necessarily understanding.
Both the New Theory and self-sufficiency became instant buzzwords following his royal speeches in 1997 and 1998. Demonstration plots, adorned with ponds that were precisely uniform in size and shape, materialised nationwide as showcases of royal-devised farming techniques.
Millions of baht in funding, much of it borrowed from overseas, were poured in an attempt to translate the King's ideas into action.
Politicians immediately introduced the terms onto their platforms. In academic and business circles there was avid talk about a self-sufficient economy at seminars and meetings. Advertising campaigns on television and radio blared messages about the new approach to farming and managing the economy. How long would the fad last?
In an article entitled "Self-sufficiency and Sustainable Development", Professor Saneh Chamarik emphasises the need to evaluate the concept of self-sufficiency from a holistic and integrated perspective.
"Shall we think about this self-sufficient economy as just another technique -- an ad hoc measure for the times of currency devaluation, financial bankruptcy, soaring unemployment, poverty, and a host of other social problems -- while waiting in belief that the economy will pick up and resume along the same path it followed the well-respected scholar asked.
"Or should we seriously carry out this concept as the principle of a genuine reform toward sustainability? ... In fact, underlying the economic wars we are witnessing now is a battle of ideologies."
In retrospect, His Majesty's concise but insightful proposals contain a succinct critique of the dominant mode of development strategies. Taking a Buddhist perspective, the royal vision provides a fresh and intriguing diagnosis of what it was that brought Thailand to its current sorry state. And embedded in the analyses is a tacit set of solutions that can help to alleviate the mass suffering that has afflicted much of our society.
"I have repeatedly said that striving to become a 'tiger' is not our main concern," said His Majesty on December 4, 1997. "What's important for us is to have a decent standard of living and sufficient food to eat, as well as to maintain a self-sufficient economy. The key word, 'sufficient', here implies that one should aim at becoming self-reliant."
Basically, the New Theory with its philosophy of self-sufficiency differs from the mainstream thinking in three fundamental ways. First, His Majesty points out the root cause has more to do with world-view than with economic factors. Second, the monarch's public stress on the small-scale farmers implies that restoring and maintaining the strength of the agricultural sector is a necessary condition for reversing the current economic downturn. And, finally, the idea of self-sufficiency indicates that the local community must attain a certain degree of financial autonomy before they enter the market economy.
Counterproductively, however, the government continues to pay more attention to the big-money sectors of banking and finance. Heavy-duty borrowing, especially from overseas, remains at the top of their crisis management strategies. And policy makers still embrace the philosophy of "free" trade and investment, thinking that opening up the national economy to external players will draw in more foreign exchange and bring back the good old days.
But aren't His Majesty's suggestions, with their central requirement for spiritual transformation, a little too lofty? Taking into account the skyrocketing debts we are facing, how could helping those "little" farmers benefit the country as a whole? And does his proposal for a self-sufficient economy mean we have to shut ourselves off from the rest of the world and live in deprivation forever? Given the current trend toward liberalisation among the international community, doesn't the King's advice appear too much against-the-tide, too parochial, and thus impracticable?
In the context of Thai history, His Majesty's proposals are not entirely new. Professor Saneh has pointed out that concerns over the adverse impact of free market and external domination date back to King Rama III's reign over a century ago.
During the '80s and early '90s, a few non-mainstream movements appeared professing such principles as "back to basics", "the answer is in the village," "appropriate technology," "self-reliance", and Buddhist forest agriculture, to name a few.
These schools of thought, although marginal, criticised the mainstream ideology of Neo-liberalism for cherishing rapid economic growth through market-oriented monoculture and industrialisation while communities were disintegrating, natural resources being depleted, and the gap widening between the rich and the poor.
To begin with, His Majesty's address on the water supply issue could be considered a symbolic statement of how one needs to strengthen an individual unit in order to achieve a sustainable whole. It shows that the King is fully aware that no one can enjoy the feeling of having enough without first attaining some degree of economic and financial independence. This applies equally at both the individual and community levels. A well-known Isan saying puts it succinctly: "When deprivation is quenched, so is desire (for things)."
Moreover, the emphasis on growing produce first to satisfy household needs, and only later to sell on the market, reveals His Majesty's use of psychology in bringing about a change of emphasis in the way farmers think about what they are doing. When implementing the New Theory in the proper spirit, they will think less about cash and more about what they actually need in life.
Wiboon Khemchalerm, who turned his back on cash cropping over a decade ago, describes learning how much is enough as the discovery of a new form of wealth. Interestingly, one experience that has been common among New Theory farmers is finding out that they have more money left than they formerly did, thanks to reduced living expenses.
But self-sufficiency is not just a matter of having enough to eat. Mr Wiboon says when farmers become clear-headed, they often acquire a better insight into their lives. He describes this process as "right understanding" (sammaditthi), which is a key element of the road toward the end of the suffering called the Eightfold Noble Path in Buddhism.
"I think the obstacle in the way of 'development' is that we run after desires all the time," Mr Wiboon said. "We've been led to believe that life will become perfect if only we possess this and that, but in reality, it's never so."
Those who attain such a realisation will also learn to live with nature and respect other beings. Sawai Panyoyai, a Chiang Mai farmer who has switched to growing pesticide-free vegetables, explains that he may be making less money than before, but his family and community now enjoy better health and a more peaceful way of life.
"Before, my wife had to see the doctor every year," said Mr Sawai. "Now things are much better, and our community no longer suffers from the effects of toxic residues. Our lives are much happier and more secure."
Mr Wiboon thinks that consumers in the cities could also learn from His Majesty's idea on self-sufficiency. For years, patterns of behaviour based on excessive consumption have contributed to the depletion of natural resources and disruption of the locals' livelihood. Reckless use of electricity in the cities leading to constructions of more dams and power plants is a case in point.
Another more mundane example is how consumers' demands for out-of-season fruits and vegetables encourage farmers to use more chemicals to force crops.
As things are now, Thais still have time to learn how to know when they have enough, because nature still provides for us in abundance, Mr Wiboon points out. But that time is running out.
Decha Siriphat, a leader of a grassroots coalition to promote alternative agriculture, sees farmers who turn away from cash-oriented monoculture being spared the "three steps of exploitation" in the market. The social activist said cash crop farmers have always been at the losing end, for they lack control over the prices of agricultural inputs (seedlings, fertilisers, pesticides), of the crops they sell after each harvesting season, and of the foods and consumer products they have to use on a daily basis.
He suggests that farmers fortify their collective power prior to undertaking buy-and-sell transactions. The mainstream individualistic approach in capitalism, he perceives, has only perpetuated inequality in favour of those with more capital. His Majesty's advice that trade of agricultural commodities take into account transportation costs displays not only good business sense but also environmental awareness.
Moreover, the joint activities outlined in the second-phase of the New Theory may bring about a rediscovery of the cultural capital of local communities. Pittaya Wongkul, another activist who has been promoting the concept of "community economy", cited a few successful examples of villages which have adapted their traditional knowledge, of herbal medicine, for example, to manufacture products both for local consumption and for the outside market.
In other words making money, according to the royal scheme, is not bad in itself. His Majesty's main caution is simply that any sustainable venture must be based on a firm ground. In his royal speech in 1997, he cited several examples of enterprises that started bigger only to go broke faster.
"If everybody can simply break even, our country will not go bankrupt," the King said. "Keep in mind that a sufficient economy does not only mean having enough to eat, but also enough to carry out the business of daily living in general.
In some cases, one can easily become rich," suggested the monarch.
In fact, all the three stages proposed in the New Theory reveal His Majesty's lucid understanding of the law of interrelatedness. Farmers who live a life of moderation will not squeeze too much out of their land, thus will be able to enjoy more sustainable resources in the long run. In turn, a community whose members are self-reliant tends to have less trouble with crime, drug addiction, indebtedness, disintegrated families, migration and other poverty-based symptoms.
The stronger each community is in terms of its economy, the greater purchasing power the entire nation will attain. Besides, a self-sufficient local economy will be able to withstand fluctuations in the world market. Politically, a more secure and independent community may be less prone to vote-buying and other corrupt practices, of which the rural people are often accused. Socially and culturally, His Majesty's proposal for collective activities is a shrewd effort to revive and reinforce the strength and spirit of cooperation within the community.
Unfortunately, the prevailing development dogma continues to encourage concentration of power in the centralised regime, and wealth in the hands of the few. Such an unbalanced structure, suggesting an inverted pyramid, will eventually lead to disaster, as the King has repeatedly warned. Sadly, it seems few have taken His Majesty's advice to heart.
The Royal Revolution
Curiously, the King's public insistence on the importance of food security to the nation's prosperity is in stark contrast to the government's continual policies aimed at reducing the proportion of the population engaging in the agricultural sector.
Even the current promotion of the King's New Theory and self-sufficiency by the government ironically follows the same mentality of the-bigger-and-the-faster-the-better, critics charge. Pittaya Wongkul is worried about the pouring of money into development projects under the new guise, which may encourage another dependency syndrome.
For Mr Wiboon, at the initial stage of the New Theory material give-aways are not at all necessary, and may even backfire. Rather, understanding and innovation are the two key elements when translating the King's vision.
And one fundamental requirement to implement the New Theory -- a genuine and comprehensive land reform -- continues to pose a great barrier. Recent official statistics reveal about half of farmers nationwide continue to cultivate on rented farms. Dr Sangsidh Piriyarangsan, an academic advisor to the Ministry of Interior's self-sufficiency programme, noted that the government's approach to the issue has only achieved a cosmetic effect.
"To rent land from the rich and redistribute it to the poor is not practical over time. Considering potential opposition, more effective financial measures will be needed, such as progressive land taxes," Dr Sangsidh said, and it was a view with which Mr Decha agreed.
Fundamentally, His Majesty's philosophy and methodology integrate perfectly: Stable units join to form a strong whole, and to put it in action requires bottom-up participation rather than the top-down imposition.
Mr Pittaya pointed out several examples of communities which have successfully devised their own techniques to confront economic crises, and have attained some level of self-sufficiency.
According to Mr Wiboon, putting the King's concept into effect is, in other words, a life-long educational process. The most difficult and important stage remains attaining spiritual liberalisation so that one can distinguish what is real from what is illusory.
The farmer admitted most people in his generations have been more or less brainwashed -- having been conditioned to look down on the agricultural sector and associate it with poverty and backwardness. In the process, they have lost touch with their own cultural roots.
Professor Saneh urged a revival of forms of traditional local knowledge that transcend conventional thinking. To effectively carry out the New Theory thus requires a radical education reform.
Such an enormous undertaking will definitely take time to achieve. As His Majesty says, the road is far from smooth.
But as farmer Jantaphoon has discovered, to follow it now, rather than later, is to tap into a new wealth -- for each and all.