The forests are rapidly dwindling. But the people living in forest areas need to live off the land. Supporting them to practise sustainable or green farming saves both the forests and the locals' livelihoods. Why then is this win-win solution only applied to some local areas, and not yet scaled up to a wider scale?
One of the reasons is the lack of understanding of how sustainable agriculture benefits farmers' livelihoods, the environment and public health. Meanwhile, decades of intensive chemical farming have produced ample evidence of how harmful it is to the environment and public well-being.
Apart from severely affecting farmers' health, toxic from chemicals lead to soil degradation, kill living organisms in the soil, contaminate the waterways, and persist in the food chain, causing consumers a variety of illnesses.
In the face of severe environmental degradation and climate change, it is urgent to rejuvenate the ecological system by restoring the soil, forests and waterways. It is urgent to turn to chemical-free agroforestry practices, which are widely recognised as a sustainable farming method, to restore degraded forests from monoculture. It should no longer be considered mere "alternative" farming. Instead, the government should make it mainstream agriculture in the highlands -- if we want the planet and humanity to survive climate change.
So far, the benefits of chemical-free farming and its role in restoring degraded forests have been limited to exchanges of experiential knowledge among farmers. The lack of assessment of social, environmental and economic impacts may make policymakers doubt its cost-effectiveness. Hence, the lack of policy support.
To fill the gap, the Thailand Research Development Institute (TDRI) has conducted research in Chiang Mai's Mae Chaem district to assess the social and environmental impacts of the locals' agroforestry farming to restore the denuded mountains.
Entitled "Assessment of Social Return on Investment (SROI) in Forest Landscape Restoration and Sustainable Agriculture", the research aims to assess the social return on investment in sustainable agriculture beyond monetary gains with support from Thailand Science Research and Innovation (TSRI).
Nestled in a mountainous area, Mae Chaem has suffered massive deforestation because of maize plantations for the animal feed industry. Burning of residues from maize production also gives off toxic haze which gravely affects people in Mae Chaem and beyond.
But the situation is fast improving as the locals are turning to sustainable and agroforestry agriculture. They do so by growing indigenous trees, bamboo, vegetables, herbs, and cash crops that thrive under thick shade to help the forests regenerate.
The locals' efforts to save Mae Chaem's forests and their livelihoods have received support from state authorities, businesses and civil society.
Under the SROI method, TDRI assesses the impacts of sustainable and chemical-free agroforestry in Mae Chaem through in-depth interviews with all stakeholders concerned, ranging from farmers, local government, consumers, food shops, and other partners in the grassroots reforestation efforts. Then we looked at the income the project generated and estimated the social and environmental benefits in monetary terms to calculate if the effort is cost-effective compared with its financial investment.
The change resulting from switching the farming practices in Mae Chaem to chemical-free sustainable agroforestry comes with many dimensions. The farmers are enjoying better health. Relationships within their families have improved. So has their sense of well-being. The consumers, meanwhile, are safe from foods contaminated by toxic farm chemicals. With better health among the locals, the central government has less of a financial burden in taking care of people suffering from chemical poisoning.
The environmental impact is also impressive. The forests are returning, serving as a carbon sink to alleviate climate change. Such local efforts help significantly in saving the country's money in tackling environmental problems.
But exactly how much "profitable" is the Mae Chaem effort in monetary terms?
According to our SROI calculations, the Mae Chaem project is worth almost 177 million baht with the project investment at about 21 million baht. The answer is clear. The profits are more than eight fold. In other words, the Mae Chaem project generates around eight baht for every single baht invested to restore the forests through sustainable farming.
This calculation method should also help other sustainable development projects decide whether to continue their operations or not. It also provides useful indicators for future project assessments and monitoring.
There are many ongoing efforts to save the environment and local communities in the country. Some are corporate social responsibility projects. But most of them involve work by local communities and civic groups to protect their natural resources and livelihoods. They are struggling with a lack of support and funding because donors still want to see concrete results in baht.
This may change if the social return on investment is widely adopted to assess sustainable farming. Support from policymakers and donors may increase when the social and environmental benefits can be estimated in money terms. We believe that this research tool to calculate social return on investment should also be applied with other development projects, especially those with massive social and environmental impacts. Hopefully, it will help policymakers and investors weigh the long-term losses with short-term gains, make the right decision, and make sustainable development a reality in Thailand.
Kannika Thampanishvong, PhD is a Senior Research Fellow and Natthaporn Butpho is a researcher at the Thailand Development Research Institute (TDRI). Policy analyses from TDRI appear in the Bangkok Post on alternate Wednesdays.