Buzzing with entrepreneurship
Smallholders in Thailand are choosing sustainable practices that retain soil biodiversity and improve food security. By Arlene Chang in Hat Yai
published : 5 Sep 2019 at 04:00
newspaper section: Business
Sanya Thongphoem is a rubber plantation owner and farmer. However, these days he is better known as the beekeeper of Rattaphum, a district in the southern province of Songkhla.
Like many children born into farming homes, Mr Sanya grew up on plantations. Tapping rubber was as natural to him as play.
"I have been tapping latex since I was a young boy. On days when I didn't have school, I helped my parents in the plantations," he says.
After completing high school, Mr Sanya chose to continue working as a farmer, choosing self-determination over subordination.
"I didn't want to become someone's employee, so I decided to stick to rubber tapping," he says.
Today he owns 2.5 hectares of Forest Stewardship Council (FSC)-certified rubber plantations, mostly inherited from his father-in-law.
Mr Sanya's plantation is one of 1,632 smallholder members of Panel Plus, a company certified by the FSC, which represents almost 5,000 hectares of smallholder farms in Thailand. Panel Plus manufactures wood-substitute products including eco-friendly particle board and medium-density fibreboard (MDF) used to make furniture.
Until 2017 Mr Sanya practised traditional plantation farming -- tapping latex from his trees until they were old enough to cut and sell for their wood. For supplementary income, he grew fruits and vegetables to sell in local markets. But he was looking for more options.
A beekeeping workshop conducted by Panel Plus in August 2017 caught his attention. He enrolled in the hope of boosting his income while he waited for the next latex harvest.
Mr Sanya, 46, earns about 150,000 baht a year from latex collected on his plantation. This is much lower than the average national monthly household income of 20,378 baht for farm operators who own land, and almost half of the national average monthly household income of 23,236 baht.
The economic opportunity that beekeeping presents is potentially huge for Mr Sanya. He has raised tens of thousands of bees and now owns 110 hive boxes: 104 boxes of stingless bees (meliponines) and six boxes of common honeybees (apis).
Each beehive with stingless bees can produce one litre of honey per year, which sells for 350 baht per 200ml bottle, according to Mr Sanya.
A hive box with common honeybees produces eight litres in the same period, selling at 150 baht per 200ml bottle.
All told, he has a production capacity of 760 bottles of honey which, if all are sold, would bring him an additional 18,200 baht a month, equal to 130% of what he now earns from latex.
It's no wonder he hopes to eventually make apiculture, as beekeeping is also known, his main source of income.
"As I see it, beekeeping has boundless prospects," he says. "The bees help in the pollination of plants, they produce honey which farmers and beekeepers like me can sell, and they maintain the balance of nature. This helps us improve our avenues for income, but is also good for the environment."
Mr Sanya is not the only farmer who has benefited from being a member of Panel Plus. Somjit Yunu says she has learned better management practices for her 1.2-hectare plantation and a more positive way to nourish her land.
Before becoming FSC-certified, her farmland was mostly monoculture. After learning about how her land can support multiple crops, she now also grows mahogany and durian on it.
Promoting intercropping retains soil diversity and is characterised by higher overall yields. This has brought about very visible benefits to Ms Somjit -- both economically and environmentally.
"I now use the organic garbage I earlier threw away as fertiliser for my land," she says.
"The soil is better and less likely to degrade. The biggest reward for me is I have started noticing the soil has more earthworms and the quality of the fruit is better, which boosts its retail value."
Another rubber plantation smallholder, Somjit Aphairat, is an inspiration in agroforestry for many others in his village.
The 67-year-old plantation owner bought 1.5 hectares of deforested land 30 years ago and nurtured it into an oasis of rubber trees and salak fruit. He has been a pioneer in multi-crop practices and has helped many others convert their monoculture lands to healthy multi-crop farms.
Becoming an FSC smallholder has further advanced his knowledge of managing his plantation.
"I have learned better waste, data and record management since becoming a member. Diseases on my plants have decreased considerably, I make better use of my land and monitoring them is now much more convenient thanks to the constant knowledge the FSC group manager imparts," Mr Somjit says.
Growing multiple crops also provides farmers with a form of insurance. If one crop fails, they still have the other to rely on.
Mr Somjit earns more income from the salak he sells each year (100,000 baht) than from latex, which brings in 91,000 baht. But money is not the only important factor, he says.
"FSC's standard for forest management is very good because it benefits people and is environmentally sustainable," says Mr Somjit.
For Mr Sanya, what he learned as an FSC smallholder was more valuable than just making more money -- he learned better living.
"Honey bees are an indicator of the health of our food and our own health," he says. "They don't survive in areas with excessive use of pesticides and chemical fertilisers. When highly adaptable insects like bees die, it is a warning to us that our own well-being is in danger."
Mr Sanya's attitude towards work and life has also changed.
"Money is not everything. A healthy planet that we can leave for our children and their children is," he says.
Arlene Chang is media manager for the Forest Stewardship Council.