Should we rethink our rice farming position?

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BangkokPost.com | Monday, August 10, 2009

by Veera Prateepchaikul

Are we overly excited with the prospect of foreign investors snapping up our farmland to grow rice or other staples to ensure future food security for their populations back home?  How about the prospect of Thai investors snapping up our farmland and turn them into industrial parks or real estates and thus permanently destroy the farmland?  Do we ever care about the misuse of our valuable farmland?

The three aforementioned questions are raised in order to invite public discussion about the emerging problem reportedly facing this country – which is the news reports, yet to be verified, that some foreign investors, Arabs in particular, have been acquiring our farmland with the help of some Thais to grow rice to be exported to their countries to ensure that their peoples are not starved and can buy them at fair prices in case there is a worldwide rice shortage.  The departments of Special Investigation and the Royal Irrigation have been investigating to determine whether these reports have any basis at all.

As can be expected, the immediate reactions to these reports in Thailand are negative.  No foreigners will be allowed to acquire our farmland for cultivation, let alone engaging in rice farming which is exclusively reserved for Thais only.  Interviewed by Post Today, one farmer said he would never let foreigners to take away his farmland and accused the Thai nominees reportedly working for the foreign land grabbers as “traitors”.

It seems that the mere mention of foreigners about to snap up our farmland to grow rice will make our blood of patriotism boil instantly.  Yet, the same hostile attitude has never been detected from the Thai public or bureaucracy when big swathes of farmland are bought by Thai businessmen in order to transform them into housing  or industrial estates.  Strangely though, we never feel concerned that the farmland which is supposed to grow rice but which is turned into a real estate or an industrial estate will be forever lost.  Which explains why there has never been a law here to protect our farmland, but there is a law to protect rice farming for Thai farmers.

Ask the farmers or their children, whether they want to be farmers the rest of their lives if there are other better choices?  I believe many of them, especially the new generation, will opt for other more rewarding occupations rather than sticking to the back-breaking rice farming which does not promise them any bright future.  Show me any farmer who has become rich from rice farming!  It will be just fine if they are not indebted.

Foreign investors - be they Arabs, Chinese or South Koreans who are now roaming Africa, Asia and Latin America to look for farmland to ensure their food or fuel security – should be commended for their vision and forward thinking although we may not agree with their exploitative method of land grabbing which, quite often, does not benefit the local peoples.  Like oil which is fast depleting, food may become scarce in the future because of increased populations and increasing reduction of farmland.

But while we slam our door shut to foreign investments in rice farming, what have we done with our farmland, with our impoverished farmers?  What have we done to ensure that we will retain our position as the world’s biggest rice exporter while, at the same time,  ensure that our farmers will have a fairer share of the cake instead of the middlemen and the exporters?

Although a rice exporter, Thailand is a net importer of oil.  What is our contingency plan for the future if oil becomes scarce and prohibitively expensive?  While the Arabs are worried that they may not have enough food to feed their peoples in the future and start looking for farmland to produce food for their peoples, what have we done to ensure that we will have a continuous supply of oil to keep our machinery running and economy functioning in the future?  Oh yes, we have slammed the door shut against the Arabs and thrown away what can be turned into an opportunity for us which, who knows, can be mutually beneficial.

Yes, we need to protect our farmland to ensure there is rice enough for local consumption and, if there are surpluses, for export to bring in the needed foreign exchange.  But we should also open our mind to things which are new to us and design measures to ensure our benefits if the new things are to be accepted.

We may be able to resist land grabbing by foreign investors now.  But we may have to rethink our position in the future.
Original source: Bangkok Post
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