Somsak seeks stiffer laws to better protect rice farming

Bangkok Post | 27 May 2008

Cabinet will be asked to look into problem

Agriculture and Cooperatives Minister Somsak Prissananantakul is set to toughen the enforcement of land ownership laws to keep rice farming areas out of foreign investors' reach.

Mr Somsak said rice farming is a career strictly reserved for Thais and he does not care about criticism leveled against him by fellow Chart Thai party members or other parties in the coalition government.

Legal experts at the ministry and the Department of Agriculture had been asked to look into laws offering protection to those involved in rice farming and other agricultural careers.

Additional legal measures are needed to close any loopholes in the laws to make sure the farming sector is safe from a ''foreign invasion,'' he said.

The matter is causing serious concern and will be brought to the cabinet's attention, Mr Somsak said.

''I don't care about criticism. An agriculture minister is duty-bound to safeguard the livelihood of Thais,'' he said, referring to his deputy Theerachai Saenkaew, a member of the People Power party, who criticised Mr Somsak for going too far by saying the foreign rice investment idea amounted to ''selling the nation''. The issue was not a political one, Mr Somsak said.

If rice farming is not given proper protection, Thai people's food security would be threatened and farmers would one day end up being foreigners' employees.

The controlling of rice growing areas by transnational business consortiums through local nominees is widespread all over the world, he said.

The best rice strains in Thailand may be stolen if foreigners are allowed to grow rice in Thailand, Mr Somsak said.

''Many companies from Malaysia have asked that they be allowed to rent plots of deserted farmland in the three southernmost provinces. But the ministry did not grant them permission,'' Mr Somsak said.

Rice Department director-general Prasert Kosalwit was concerned that there was no law forbidding landholding by foreigners through nominees.

No legal measures are currently in place banning the setting up of a farming company with Thais holding a 51% stake and foreigners 49%.

Investors from Bahrain have also requested that they be permitted to rent farmland in the central region, Mr Prasert said.

The two countries planned to employ Thai farmers to do the farming and ship the harvest back to their respective countries, he said.

Paddy exports are prohibited by law, but the ban does not cover rice exports.

The land nominee issue is of grave concern as much of the farmland in the country, particularly in the central region, is owned by landlords and millions of farmers are renting them.

It has been found that many landowners have stopped renting their land to farmers in recent months, claiming that they wanted their land back to do the farming themselves.

It is not yet known whether the real landlords seeking the return of their land are foreigners or Thais, Mr Prasert said. A plan to encourage foreign businessmen to invest in rice farming has infuriated farmers, who fear they would be made landless by foreigners if they are allowed to snap up the rice-growing areas.

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