Fix needed for high-altitude farming

Fix needed for high-altitude farming


This file photo from September 2013 shows ethnic villagers growing cabbages on a highland plantation on a mountain in Phetchabun province. (Photo: Pattarapong Chatpattarasill)
This file photo from September 2013 shows ethnic villagers growing cabbages on a highland plantation on a mountain in Phetchabun province. (Photo: Pattarapong Chatpattarasill)

The government has a set pattern for trying to solve the "plight" of farmers. It describes their problems as being low farm product prices, insufficient income and labour shortages, and the authorities have their own playbook for solving these.

Solutions often come in the form of immediate, short-term measures like providing subsidies, price guarantees, or imported labour. The problem is that the standard solutions are no longer enough. The government needs to consider a long-term strategy for sustainability, with more attention put on specific areas, especially highland farming.

Believe it or not, high-altitude farming areas amount to 67.2 million rai, scattered across 20 provinces mostly in the North. This kind of farming is worrying because there is a high turnover among farm labourers, compared to those in lowland areas. The reason is that highland farmers make less money and tend to have more land ownership issues.

Cultivators in these areas have accumulated debt accounting for 150,000 baht per household, according to a research paper we wrote last year called "Future of Small-scale Farmers". To make ends meet, farmers in highland areas increase their income by encroaching on forest areas, cutting down trees, and replacing them with cash crops like corn, a plant whose cultivation is now associated with toxic smog.

That may explain why highland farming is not a secure job. It's typical that a large number of those of working age opt for factory work, or become traders, while elderly villagers continue to use traditional farming methods that are not so cost-effective. The "Future of Small-scale Farmers" paper found the problem for highland farmers will not go away unless there is a change in policies, farming methods and especially the land laws.

We found the government needs to abandon its one-size-fits-all solution from the old playbook that was applied to all farm land nationwide. On the contrary, this requires tailor-made solutions to address the unique geography and associated problems. For instance, these areas need specific water management infrastructure, special assistance to help the farmers deal with the higher transportation costs, and additional help to keep the price of their products competitive against imported rivals.

The government also needs to solve several land ownership issues. It has denied giving highland farmers, or those living in watershed areas, land ownership documents. These problems need to be dealt with properly.

Our research did conclude that change is possible. As such, we came up with some future scenarios for highland farming. The first is a utopian scenario that doesn't exist yet. Under this concept, young farmers are allowed to own a plot of land and have access to investment sources, while they and the community help safeguard the forest and gain benefits from carbon credits.

The second scenario is more achievable. This would see most farmers, regardless of their age, granted the right to stay on their ancestral land. That is possible because the government has decided to revise the existing law by acknowledging these traditional villagers have the right to stay and farm, instead of treating them as land encroachers.

With greater security, they will be more confident about investing in farm technology and using their land carefully, while also showing greater concern about local ecological systems and embracing environmentally friendly farming methods. This will provide them with a bigger chance to export their products while forest protection practices will allow them to apply for carbon credits.

The third scenario is also highly desirable. It sees young people come together and form a group, such as a co-operative. While they lack any rights over the land per se, they possess the education and know-how to use environmentally friendly production methods, save money on labour, and carry out professional marketing.

Holding smaller land plots is not a problem as they would choose the types of plants with the highest value that can be grown well in the forest like coffee, cocoa and macadamia nuts. With these high-value plants, young farmers can create a niche market that gives them a higher income. However, there are legal constraints which mean the farmers have no legal rights over the land since it's located in watershed areas, which are classified as ecologically vulnerable. Those constraints make it difficult for the farmers to gain access to financial resources, and extending their farmland is not possible.

The fourth scenario is the most realistic one, under which most farmers are ageing while the younger generation is exiting the community. They lack land security because they encroach on Type 1 and 2 watershed areas, where title deeds are prohibited. They also lack any incentive to persuade their children to carry on with the farm work. The older farmers who typically plant cash crops, such as corn, tapioca, bamboo and rubber, still rely mostly on labor-intensive methods, rather than applying new farm technology.

Despite these harsh realities, however, this scenario should be built on and transformed into the other, more favourable scenarios. Such a lofty goal is achievable, despite the massive challenges ahead.

To overcome these, farming methods need to be revised. Our research advises highland farmer to adopt more integrated farming to provide a range of products and protect the environment. The government must also encourage small-scale farmers and young farmers to form a group, planting high-value plants and farm animals that can be grown and raised in line with the terrain. Our research also recommends farmers form a system with incentives so they are willing to choose a production mode that can protect themselves from economic risks and environmental threats. In addition, highland farmers should find extra income by embacing tourism agriculture.

To achieve those reforms, the farmers need to have some land security first. It takes clear rules and conducive land polices for those who live in protected area such as Type 1 and 2 watershed areas, especially forest reserves, parks, and public areas to achieve sustainability. The rules must enable villagers to conduct environmentally friendly and sustainable farming.

The government needs to roll out measures that will enable the community to safeguard watershed areas, such as forming a partnership with other stakeholders to access the carbon credit market and also enjoy the indirect benefits (of having healthy forest land and water sources).

We need to make land-use rules more flexible so the farmers can adopt a production system that makes them eligible for soft loans, with a better opportunity to upgrade their products to the national-level market.

Siriporn Kiratikarnkul, PhD, is a researcher at Maejo University. Nipon Poapongsakorn, PhD, is a distinguished fellow at the Thailand Development Research Institute. Policy analyses from the Thailand Development Research Institute (TDRI) appear in the 'Bangkok Post' on alternate Wednesdays.

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