Father's Day has a special significance

Father's Day has a special significance

For Thais, today is not just another day. Over the past seven decades, Dec 5 had been a day when the entire nation celebrated the birthday of His Majesty the late King Bhumibol Adulyadej. This year is different, as the passing of King Bhumibol turns this ceremonial occasion into a collective reminiscence.

Yet the day still bears a significance in relation to the late King.

Since 2013, the United Nations has declared Dec 5 as World Soil Day to honour the late King's contribution to soil conservation. In 2012, the International Union of Soil Sciences (IUSS) gave its first Humanitarian Soil Scientist award to King Bhumibol.

The King was concerned about soil quality as he saw it as a major issue for the agriculture sector. His devotion to soil conservation started during his visit to a poverty-stricken farm village in Hoop Krapong in Phetchaburi's Cha-am district. The arid land there made farming less productive. In his response, the King set up a project to create water resources and promote the use of natural fertilisers to make deteriorated land more viable.

Anchalee Kongrut writes about the environment in the Life section, Bangkok Post.

He ran many other pilot projects in different regions, promoting the use of both nature and science to improve soil conditions. For instance, vetiver grass was used to prevent soil erosion.

Yet his hard work could not keep pace with degradation of soil quality. Man-made problems -- soil erosion caused by deforestation, heavy use of chemicals in mass agriculture and misuse of soil -- were too big for one man to bear, no matter how committed he was.

Thais might hold the belief that our country is fertile by invoking the adage "Nai Nam Mee Pla Nai Na Mee Kao" (there is fish in the waters, rice in the fields) to connote our natural abundance. It gives us a sense of delusion about the abundance of our soil.

A study by the Land Development Department (LDD) in 2012 found that 54% of Thailand's soil was not good enough for farming, and one-third of the land faced erosion as a result of deforestation, especially on mountainous areas. Most farm land was affected by chemicals, from pesticides to fertilisers.

The question is, what do we do to alleviate the problems? Should we honour the late King by following in his footsteps on soil conservation?

I believe the country needs a more concerted effort to improve soil conditions. The state needs to better enforce the land use laws and regulations, such as the Town Planning Act under the authority of the Ministry of Interior. The law classifies land use for different purposes, mostly for development. No matter what the law aspires for, it is not much enforced.

So, we have seen countless arable plots of land being converted into real estate developments. Our development plans overlook the importance of soil. For example, large dams built on rivers have obstructed the flow of sediment which provides nutrients essential for growing crops to downstream areas. Farm policies that centre on profit-making have resulted in the mass cultivation of forests for growing rubber trees and corn.

Despite our soil condition worsening, there is no good news. Recently, the LDD completed an on-line map known as the "Agri-Map", which details nationwide soil profiles along with other agricultural information. It indicates geographic land areas where soil conditions are good for farming. This is the first comprehensive soil map. Hopefully, the state will apply it as part of its land use and farm policies to improve soil quality.

On the education side, the LDD has trained 80,000 volunteers, called "Soil Doctors", and sent them to over 80,000 localities across the country to provide knowledge about soil conservation.

The department launched the project in 1980 with the aim of promoting soil conservation in line with the late King's projects. It also promotes organic farming and discourages the use of chemical pesticides.

All these efforts additionally require the government's commitment and support to cut chemical use in farming which has increased by 50% during the past five years. Thailand, according to the World Bank, is the world's 5th biggest user of farm chemicals.

The aspiration for chemical-free farming should not just be wishful thinking. At least, the Ministry of Cooperatives and Agriculture today will hand out soil collected from royal projects to Thai people as a gift. Needless to say, the soil will be taken as auspicious gifts.

Despite welcoming this idea, I worry that this effort will lead to a frenzy, and we might see people removing soil from royal projects! So, beware.

Anchalee Kongrut

Editorial pages editor

Anchalee Kongrut is Bangkok Post's editorial pages editor.

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