Breathing new life into the South's abandoned paddies
A state-sponsored programme providing machinery and training to farmers to make rice crops more profitable hopes to reverse the trend toward the cultivation of rubber and palm oil in the restive region
At a training centre at the Buffalo Conservation Village in Suphan Buri province, some 120 villagers from Pattani province _ both Muslims and Buddhists _ are learning new farming methods, part of a government initiative aimed at revitalising rice production in the South.
GUARDING THE GROWERS: soldiers provide protection for farmers in Pattani province, where three trainers for the government’s rice growing scheme were killed by insurgents early this month.
Some of the villagers, having long-since abandoned their traditional paddies, are now growing rice again.
Chalerm Chandeang, a villager from Pattani's Panare district, said that the problem of abandoned rice paddies is far from new. The main reason is that other crops, such as rubber trees and fruit, generate more income for less labour.
"Rice farming requires a lot of hard work and takes time. It takes at least five or six months to get cash from rice, and with poor soil quality, it's not worthwhile," he said.
Since January, more than 300 villagers from Pattani have undergone training as part of a Southern Border Provinces Administrative Centre (SBPAC) project that aims to bring 30,000 rai (11,860 hectares) of abandoned paddies in Pattani, Yala and Narathiwat back under cultivation. The project also ships in farming instructors from the Central Plains to teach more productive harvesting techniques.
During the 10-day training course, villagers learn about different rice varieties, how to have their soil tested and improve its condition, how to make organic fertiliser and other practices intended to increase yields and profits, and decrease costs.
But after two instructors were shot dead and 11 others injured in Pattani at the beginning of the month, the future of the project looked in doubt.
Pattani villager Chalerm Chandeang.
The farming instructors from the Central Plains, however, refused to back down. They decided to continue with the project, inspired in part by the 350 villagers who contacted the SBPAC about taking part in the project.
Mr Chalerm believes the insurgency is not the real reason people have abandoned their paddies, although he concedes it may obstruct government officials from working closely with farmers out of safety concerns.
"As a local, I know that the insurgency and violence affects only certain areas, such as Khok Pho and Nong Chick districts. It rarely happens in Panare," he said.
The real reason for the abandoned paddies is financial.
Mr Chalerm has rubber plantations in Pattani and Songkhla, and grows little rice _ four rai of paddy fields is enough for his family's needs, leaving another six rai unused.
Many villagers without their own rubber trees work as tappers, which can earn them a higher income than growing rice, and young people prefer to work in factories or go to work in Malaysia, leading to a lack of family members to help in the rice fields.
In addition to the growth of rubber plantations on land that once grew rice, during the energy crisis about seven years ago, the government initiated a project to turn abandoned rice fields into palm oil plantations.
"I used to think of turning my land into a palm oil plantation. But agricultural officials suggested that the soil quality is inadequate, so I gave up," he said.
But growing rice was always a problem. "Like other farmers, we have very low yields of about 400kg per rai. In the case of severe drought, we just leave the fields unplanted," he said. His abandoned paddies were now full of trees and weeds, he said. "They'll need a lot of work to restore to rice production, but it might be worth it."
But Mr Chalerm admits that the training course has inspired local farmers to start growing rice again _ especially if they can manage to produce yields as high as farmers in the Central Plains, who haul in an average of 900kg to 1,000kg per rai.
Muslim women present roses to trainers from Suphan Buri province.
With heavy machinery to help them clear their land and also with help from the Central Plains rice farmers to improve their soil, they are optimistic.
However, Mr Chalerm and other rice farmers in the area agree that the efficiency of irrigation systems plays an important role. In some parts of Pattani, high dykes alongside irrigation canals obstruct the flow of water, leading to the flooding of paddies during the rainy season and droughts in the dry season.
In 2011, SBPAC allocated one million baht for the building of small canals to drain floodwater from abandoned rice fields. Now some 400 rai of a total 1,000 rai of abandoned paddies in Mayo district are ready for planting rice, and the farmers from the Central Plains are ready to assist in the endeavour.
Local farmers are also interested in having their soil tested. Villagers from tambon Tha Rue in Khok Pho district learned that the soil in their fields was saline because the villages are located close to mangrove. Those in Khok Pho's tambon Pa Bon face problems with acidic soil.
"Our yields are only 400kg per rai or less," said one villager from tambon Tha Rue.
Pairoj Prasitnok, an agriculture expert and instructor, said that the villagers must have their soil tested so they know the steps they need to take to improve its quality. He said the villagers know the basics of how to improve their soil, "for example they plant mung beans to give the soil nutrients.
However, when it comes to problems such as acidic soil or saline soil, they need some help.
"Because the farmers here grow only one crop of rice a year, there is plenty of time to improve the soil," Mr Pairoj said. Organic nutrients from paddy stubble left behind after harvesting, crop residue, plant biomass, green manure and farmyard manure would reduce expenditure on chemical fertilisers and improve soil quality.
The use of traditional tools such as krae (a hand-held cutting blade) to harvest rice is also time- and labour-consuming, according to Mr Pairoj.
One villager said that most farmers use the traditional tools and it takes a few days just to harvest one rai.
"However, once rice farming becomes successful in terms of quality and quantity, rice farmers will develop and apply new techniques and equipment," he said.
KEEPING WITH TRADITION: Farmers tend their rice in a paddy in Yala province.
About the author
- Writer: Tunya Sukpanich