End debt cultivation

End debt cultivation

Thanks to the action by the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) to address the outstanding payments owed to about 800,000 rice farmers by the former government under the rice-pledging scheme, about 300,000 farmers have already received their money.

The rest of the rice farmers are expected to get their overdue payments soon. The Government Savings Bank has agreed to extend a 50-billion-baht loan to the Public Debt Management Office after the bank won the auction out of 32 financial institutions bidding to extend the loan to the office to help the farmers.

Many farmers who have already been paid, however, did not have the chance to make use of the payments they received. The money was immediately taken away from them by unscrupulous creditors or loan sharks; some of them reportedly resorted to intimidation to force repayments from the indebted farmers.

The NCPO has issued a stern warning to these creditors that they will be harshly dealt with. Tough measures may work in the short run, but will not solve the problem of unorganised debts of rice farmers as well as many low-income earners who have turned to illegal money lenders with the full knowledge they will have to pay exorbitant interest rates.

Rice farmers and debt seem to be inseparable. The subsidies provided by the government either in the form of the price guarantee programme introduced by the former Democrat-led government or the rice-pledging scheme introduced by the Pheu Thai-led government have failed to address the problem.

So long as farmers do not earn more than they do now by cutting production costs and adopting sustainable farming practices, they will never be able to settle their debts. Worse, they may plunge even deeper into indebtedness.

There are many success stories of rice farmers who have turned to sustainable farming by stopping the use of expensive and environmentally destructive chemical fertilisers and pesticides that are also harming their health, and turning to organic fertilisers. These farmers are willing to share experiences with others.

One of the successful farmers is Pai Soiprathong. Years ago, he started out with just 20 rai of land which he tirelessly worked on, using natural materials such as rice hay and animal dung to turn the salty land into fertile farmland for mixed cultivation instead of monoculture cultivation. Today, he is the proud owner of 150 rai of land, of which 50 rai are reserved for hom mali rice farming and the rest comprise a small forest, fruit orchard, a mushroom shade and a poultry farm. He has no debts.

Mr Pai was among a group of veteran sustainable farmers sharing their experiences in Buri Ram at a workshop co-organised by the National Science and Technology Development Agency and Siam Cement Group.

Organic rice is a premium product. What Mr Pai and other sustainable and organic rice farmers are doing can provide a solution to how Thailand can retain its coveted position in the global rice market while also enabling farmers to live a better life.

Government after government, however, has focused mainly on expanding rice exports to retain the country's top status in terms of volume, instead of improving rice quality and improving the livelihoods of farmers through sustainable farming.

The farmers themselves must realise they cannot depend on government subsidies indefinitely. Apart from earnestly addressing debt and loan shark problems, sustainable and organic farming should receive more state support.

If practised more widely, it can solve not only farmers’ debt problems, but also save their health and the environment.

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