31 March 2011

The Cost of Rubber

The most recent unit that we have finished was focused on land issues in the northeast region of Thailand called Isaan. Over the course of our unit trip, we as students uncovered a variety of issues linked to land controversies throughout Isaan. The most prevalent land issue that we witnessed was farm land taken from local people to be “preserved” by the Thai government.

We spent the majority of our trip in Toong Lui Lai, a village in the Chailaphum province of Isaan. The Toong Lui Lai landscape is incredible; lush green mountains towering over diminutive villages that scattered about the forests. The families throughout our homestay were more than welcoming, they became family. As our bonds became closer, we began to delve into the land issues facing the Toong Lui Lai villagers.

As a result of inaccurate land surveying by the Thai government, many innocent Thai people have been deemed “illegal” and therefore unable to use their family’s farm land. Instead of being cultivated by local people with local wisdom, the land is now used for preserving Thai nature by not allowing anyone to grow anything on it. The land is, however, turned into a variety of tourist attractions to promote more commerce and more economic development in the depleted Isaan region. Golf courses, eco-tourist resorts, or even “get your picture taken by the dam!” signs are now the appeals to get people to come to the northeast. Yet the damage that has been done to the native people is far more detrimental than anything the government could come up with. Or is it?

In the mid 1990’s, the government began distributing free rubber tree seeds and chemical fertilizers in an effort to make Thailand a leader in raw rubber material production. Many farmers throughout Thailand, mainly in the economically deprived Isaan region, were convinced to grow rubber trees versus an edible crop like corn or sugarcane. These ideas were later reinforced once Thaksin became prime minister in 2001, instituting “Thaksinomics”. One of the cornerstones of Thaksinomics is the phrase “One Tambon, One Product”, which indicates every subdistrict should focus its efforts on producing one product. In this case, rubber trees were the focus of the Toong Lui Lai village. Today, the majority of farmers in Toong Lui Lai and its surrounding villages grow primarily rubber trees.

Because rubber trees require farmers to use chemical fertilizers in its growth, farmers are now exposed to a variety of health problems. Moreover, the land that was once the farmer’s land, in an extremely muddled and unclear manner, is now owned and looked after by the government. As a result, farmers can now be charged with criminal trespassing and a civil lawsuit of violating global warming agreements, because of the use of chemical fertilizers and the growth of an environmentally unfriendly crop like rubber, Thailand made in the Kyoto Protocol. Thus is the dilemma of where do we go from here?

In 2011, the price of raw rubber material is estimated to double from $3600 a ton to $6300, due to its demand in China, the United States, and India. Therefore, it is in Thailand’s best economic interests to continue to grow rubber trees, although they are somewhat unnatural to the area they are grown in and their upkeep requires unsafe chemicals to both the environment and the farmer. However, Thailand must also uphold what it agreed to in the Kyoto Protocol and has a significant amount to gain from reclaiming land to be sold for carbon credits, although the farmers of the region are the ones paying the fines for “global warming” not the government. Overall, Thailand has a lot to gain in its GDP and a lot to lose in its weak efforts to care for its citizens.

Michalea Larson
University of Connecticut

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