Our fear of the foreigner on the farm

Bangkok Post | 25 June 2009


By Sanitsuda Ekachai

Hands off! The back-breaking rice farming work is only for Thais. If you are a foreigner wanting to invest in farming here, our laws allow you to partake only in the more profitable business of food processing and other agriculture-related investments which require high capital and technology.

No, no, you foreigners cannot engage in contract-farming here, either. That would turn independent farmers into hired hands on their own land. That would be daylight robbery. Only Thai agro giants can do that and still call it agricultural development!

But if you still want to invest in farming, get a Thai front. The law says it is okay if the paperwork states that your Thai partners own up to 51%. Reality does not count.

No, this is not a joke. This is how our laws on farming protection work.

What is more stunning is that when the government cited this law to appease the nationalist outcry against the Gulf Cooperation Council's interest in rice farming here, it worked like magic in ending the anxiety, leaving the real issue - that of environmentally destructive farming - as unaddressed as ever.

Should we allow foreigners to invest in farming in Thailand? When the world is galvanised by global warming and economic globalisation amid depleting natural resources, this is no longer an applicable question.

Intensive chemical farming has hardened the soil, destroyed the organisms that nourish soil fertility, and severely contaminated the waterways and the food chain with cancer-inducing residues. Is this not a crime if the Thais do it?

What if some foreign investors want to invest in ecological farming; should we say no to them? Rice farming is a politically sensitive issue because rice is not only a major export but also a national symbol of sorts. But if the government wants to protect poor farmers, why have its policies principally served the middlemen and exporters while strengthening the grip of agro-business monopoly?

Thai or not, no one should not be allowed to engage in farming which destroys the ecology and poses health threats to society. Period.

Is it possible that our fear of land grabbing by oil-rich Arabs has political, even racist, elements? When ousted premier Thaksin Shinawatra wanted to introduce a rice farming scheme from the Middle East, he was lambasted as engaging in a sell-out. PM Abhisit Vejjajiva certainly does not want to be seen as following in the same footsteps.

But why a thunderous no to the Arabs, when no one in power has paid any attention to the Chinese investors who have massively cut down the forests in the North for their orange plantations, filling the valleys with the deathly stench of toxic farm chemicals? And had it not been for fierce opposition from grassroots groups, China would have enjoyed the eucalyptus tree farms deal from the Forestry Department, too.

Aren't orange and eucalyptus plantations farming activities?

Amid fears of land-grabbing foreigners, the Democrat government is all set to give local landlords a big bonanza. Deputy Interior Minister Thaworn Senneam has promised to elevate some one million informal land ownership papers called Sor Kor I into fully-fledged land title deeds within February next year. Such a rush will make it next to impossible to investigate land ownership irregularities.

Many Sor Kor I sites are located in the commons, on scenic hills, or by the beaches where they should not be. Thanks to corruption, they are already in the hands of land speculators.

The land reform movement demands the return of this illegally acquired land to be distributed to the landless under a community ownership system. The government said yes to one such pilot project, then immediately announced a plan to reward the landlords.

The landlords are Thai, Mr Thaworn claims in defence. And the more land you own, the more taxes you will be paying to the state, he added.With such an absurd rationale, there is no hope for land reform - and the political instability rooted in social injustice will continue with no end.

Sanitsuda Ekachai is Assistant Editor (Outlook), Bangkok Post. Email [email protected]

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