1Agriculture has been Thailand’s main economic activity for centuries. In the 1960s, however, the country entered into a phase of rapid industrialization as a result of government interventions financed by public, private, national and international sources. The agricultural sector’s contribution to the gross domestic product has been in constant decline since: from 40% in 1960 to around 10% in 2000. Nonetheless, industrial growth does not yet appear to have sparked a rural exodus, as only 20% of the total population is urban. With 8 million inhabitants, greater Bangkok is the main destination for migrants coming from the countryside. The financial and economic crisis that Thailand experienced between 1996 and 2002 revealed momentarily the fragility of the country’s urban and industrial development when faced with the erratic and opportunistic flows of national and foreign capital. As a result, agriculture has again emerged as a fundamental activity in Thai society, a way to regulate migratory movements towards the cities and supply rural, urban and international markets.
- 1 Source: FAOSTAT.
- 2 Trébuil 2000.
- 3 See Barnaud et al. for more on rural poverty and the diversification of production systems in north (...)
2More than 21 million people work in agriculture, roughly 56% of the total working population.1 The sector is responsible for 13% of the total value of exports. Thailand exports four times more agro-food products than it imports. The country has become the world’s number one exporter of rice, cassava and rubber. It is also among the top exporters of sugar, shrimp, chicken and canned fruits. These results illustrate well the capacity of Thai peasants’ to adapt. But the rapid changes to agriculture that have accompanied them have not affected the country’s various regions in the same way. They have also led to serious problems with regard to the environment and the fate of ecosystems.2 Indeed, while the northeast has been most affected by a rural exodus and migration to Bangkok3 due to the absence of adequate agricultural development, agriculture on the Central Plain has intensified, thanks to increasingly frequent usage of chemical inputs.
- 4 This analysis is based on the results of 205 interviews with farmers from the district and numerous (...)
- 5 The project “Agricultural Dynamics and Water Management on the Central Plain of Thailand” of the DO (...)
3This article aims to show how the farmers in a small delta region on the Central Plain have been able to innovate and set up horticultural cropping systems that are particularly intensive and lucrative, but nonetheless raise questions about their sustainability. It presents the results of three years (1997 – 2000) of field research conducted with farmers4 in the Damnoen Saduak district within the framework of a project of the DORAS research center.5
4At the heart of the Mae Khlong delta plain, Damnoen Saduak extends from the former alluvial terraces in the north to a marshy kettle in the south, and is bordered to the southeast by the ridges of the river.
- 6 Samut Songkram was called Mae Khlong until the mid-20th century; in order to avoid confusion betwee (...)
- 7 Walliphodam 1993: 14.
- 8 The majority of these boats were built in the Siamese shipyards of Bangkok or Samut Songkram.
5Annexed in the 14th century by the Kingdom of Siam, whose capital was still located north of the Chao Phraya delta in Ayuthaya, the Mae Khlong delta plain remained sparsely populated for a long time. Three centers of commercial activity nevertheless developed over time along the river’s edge: the city of Kanchanaburi, which harvested forest products from the high basin (timber, produce collected from hunting and gathering, etc.); the city of Ratchaburi, further south, around which rice production developed; and the city of Samut Songkram,6 at the mouth of the river, which made its fortune with port commerce, shipyards and salt works.7 Merchandise that came through the port was sent via boats8 to the capital or their point of destination abroad.
Fig. 1: Location of the Damnoen Saduak Region in the Southern Mae Khlong Delta Plain
6Practically unoccupied until the end of the 18th century, Damnoen Saduak was colonized by immigrants who, in the 1830s, arrived in several successive waves. The descendents of Laotian prisoners of war were the first to occupy the alluvial terraces in the northeast (Don Khlang and Bouangam townships), the least susceptible to frequent and excessive flooding. These first farmers were joined by Thai and Laotian peasants freed from slavery and indentured servitude at the end of the 19th century and in search of lands to cultivate for themselves. They preferred to settle in the northwest (Pan Pouaï and Ban Raï townships), not very far from the areas colonized by the first immigrants. Located relatively high up, the alluvial terraces in the northeast and northwest were comprised of both valley lines that flooded during the rainy season and were conducive to rice production, and upland areas where houses, gardens and orchards were easily established without risk of flooding. Preparing land was much less work in these areas than in the marshy depression of brackish water located further south. The first settlers thus were able to easily set up production systems associating upland gardening9 with lowland rice production, bovine and poultry rearing as well as hunting, fishing and handicrafts. Agricultural produce was essentially used for the family’s own consumption.
- 10 The Catholic Church was allocated 1,300 hectares in the north-west Damnoen Saduak.
7Throughout the 19th century several laws were enacted with the intention of progressively establishing private ownership of farmlands. But only the village chiefs, a few civil servants/merchants and the Catholic Church10 actually managed to receive land titles in proper form. The last immigrants to arrive often had to lease lands that they nonetheless had cleared themselves. The surge in labor power resulted in rapid expansion of cultivated areas, especially rice fields to the extent that by the early 20th century, the quasi-totality of lowlands conducive to rice production in northern Damnoen Saduak had already been exploited.
Fig. 2: The Main Phases of the Agricultural Colonization of Damnoen Saduak
8Until the early 19th century, southern Damnoen Saduak was a vast wetland, essentially dangerous and uninhabited wild land. The Mae Khlong estuary was home to a few villages inhabited by fishermen and salt-marsh workers.11 The salt flats had been exploited since the 17th century. The harvest and sale of salt remained a royal monopoly until them mid-19th century after which the kings of Siam contracted Chinese immigrants to conduct these activities, just as they had with international trade. With the rent they received, the salt-makers were able to exploit and expand the salt flats while also taking care of transporting and commercializing salt both within and outside of the kingdom. Whence the port of Samut Songkram became one of the most prosperous in the Mae Khlong basin.
- 12 Starting in 1767 under King Taksin, and through the 19th century under the Chakri dynasty, Chinese (...)
- 13 Skinner 1957: 113.
9After King Taksin’s rise to power in 1769, many Chinese immigrants who had become rich through the salt trade were made noblemen. Their title entitled them to several hectares of lands with the right of usufruct, near the port of Samut Songkram. These lands remained idle for a long time due to lack of labor power to work them. Once they were able to call upon Chinese coolies,12 the merchants living in the estuary were finally able to plant coconut plantation on raised beds on the ridges along the sandy banks of the Mae Khlong.13 Planting coconut groves generally went hand in hand with developing new activities to process the produce: fabrication of copra oil for cooking and fuel (used for lighting lamps), rope-making from coir fiber, commercialization of sugar from the sap of the coconut trees, weaving mats from the palms of the tree, etc. Farmers were thus able to commercialize a wide variety of coconut tree derivatives. The Samut Songkram market, however, could not absorb the large supply of products and a majority was exported to other regions, often several days journey away. The coconut products – nuts, mats, sugar and copra oil– fortunately traveled well.
- 14 Abhakorn 1984: 33.
- 15 Takaya 1987: 253.
10Only after digging the canal across the marshy zone of southern Damnoen Saduak in 1868 did many farmers – also often of Chinese origin – begin to colonize the marsh areas and set up home gardens. This canal was in fact the extension of the existing canal between the Chao Phraya River and its arm, the Tha Chin River. Thirty-five kilometers long, the Damnoen Saduak canal created a rapid transit line between the Mae Khlong and Chao Phraya Rivers. Transportation was made much easier between Damnoen Saduak and the new capital and main export port, Bangkok. Previously, trade between the Mae Khlong River Basin and Bangkok had taken place via the sea along the coast of the Gulf of Siam. It took 4-5 days by boat to reach Bangkok from Samut Songkram.14 Thanks to the new canals that had been dug across the marshy plain, it was possible to travel from Ratchaburi to Bangkok in 21/2 days. Indeed, the construction of these canals represented significant progress in communication between regions and the commercialization of both bulk and perishable commodities. The government had entrusted the Damnoen Saduak canal’s excavation to private investors. In return, the investors were allocated vast landholdings along the banks of the new canal.15 The Chinese merchants took advantage of the lands they held along this artery of travel to set up warehouses, rice paddies and small agro-processing factories. They hired laborers of Chinese origin to carry out their commercial and processing activities.
Fig. 3: Canals of the Western Central Plain in the Mid-19th Century
11While elsewhere on the Central Plain the Siamese aristocracy resided in Bangkok, living off revenues generated from leasing lands and selling agricultural produce, the merchants of Chinese origin lived on their landholdings and invested a large amount of their capital to work the lands along the Damnoen Saduak canal, using the labor of Chinese coolies. The landowners did not hesitate to bring over more immigrants from China, often advancing their travel costs and then forcing reimbursement via their labor in the processing industries and farms.
- 16 Pallegoix 1854: 141.
- 17 Abhakorn 1984: 33.
12Chinese immigrants hence played a significant role in the region’s economic expansion by developing cash crops as well as processing activities and trade with the capital. Merchants transported to Bangkok more or less processed agricultural and forest produce (rice, sugar, copra oil, fruits, vegetables, teach, salt,16 etc.) and returned with boats filled with imported manufactured products (trousers, shirts, knives, guns, bullets, chains, jute, paper, umbrellas, razors, shoes, matches,17 etc.)
13These merchants gradually dug access and drainage canals in the lowest, maritime areas of the marsh in order to cultivate rice within the confines of the large landholdings. The acidity and salinity of the badly drained soil, however, made it difficult to obtain yields of more than one ton of rice per hectare. Due to the competition from regions more ecologically favorable to flooded rice production, these large paddies could not generate very high profit margins for their merchant owners. They quickly opted to lease the majority of their lands to their former laborers who continued to work seasonally the little land that they themselves owned. The land situation thus underwent significant changes in the late 1870s. Alongside the few remaining mid-sized farms (generally no more than 15 hectares) operated by salaried laborers, a multitude of small farms (usually less than 2 hectares) appeared on leased lands.
14While very labor-intensive, peasants running family farms began to prepare the lands by constructing dikes around plots and, inside them, building raised beds surrounded by a relatively deep furrow on each side. These changes were based on those that had been made to expand coconut groves along the banks of the Mae Khlong, except that the peasants worked the lands much more intensively than the groves since they were working for themselves. The dikes constructed around the plots helped keep salt water from entering during the dry season but could not always prevent them from being totally flooded when the water level was at its highest, between July and November. The farmers would therefore wait until the waters began to recede before cultivating the raised beds whose level had been increased 1-3 meters, depending on the initial height of the plot. It was then possible to take advantage of daily oscillations in water levels of the canals caused by tidal influences. At high tide, the plots were supplied with fresh water, at low tide they were drained of excess water, and this thanks to simple gravity, by opening bamboo conduits that traversed the embankments that surrounded each plot. Frequent cleaning of the furrows inside the plots and the systematic transfer of the accumulated silt to the raised beds served to regularly fertilize the soil. When they were drained, irrigated and fertilized, the raised beds could sustain a large number of annual crops between November and July. Some crops, such as rice (planted in the furrows), coco yam, sweet potato, peanuts, Chinese cabbage, and sweet corn, were mainly cultivated for the family’s own consumption. But starting in 1885, administrative records show the development of cropping systems whose produce was intended for sale: peppers, onions, shallots, etc. There was less competition for these cash crops than for rice, and their cultivation sometimes allowed farmers to generate substantial revenues. Indeed, the region presented clear comparative advantages for growing these crops:
Well-drained lands, thanks to the diked soil, with raised beds that were easy to irrigate with water from the furrows;
access to Damnoen Saduak canal, which served to transport merchandise to Bangkok, and a vibrant network of traders able to find markets for many products;
availability of immigrant labor pool constantly renewed by immigration, enabling the plantation of labor-intensive cropping systems with high added value per hectare.
- 18 Referred to as angai by the Siamese authorities, these organizations were informal and more or less (...)
- 19 Abhakorn 1984: 162.
It is estimated that by the end of the 19th century, two-thirds of the area along the Damnoen Saduak canal had been colonized. The population was essentially of Chinese origin, which created a certain number of problems for the Siamese administrative authorities when it came to collecting taxes and managing public order. In March 1889, provincial authorities were left no choice but to grant legal status to the Chinese organizations,18 and delegate to them administrative, fiscal and judicial functions in exchange for a commitment to maintain order and collect taxes on behalf of the state. The big businessmen who headed these organizations became the official spokesmen for state authorities and came to wield political and administrative power over the region’s population,19 in addition to economic and financial influence.
- 20 Line fishing, net fishing and (mainly) cast net fishing.
15Near the end of the 19th century, landowners organized the construction of a number of small canals going north and connected to Damnoen Saduak. The canals made it possible to bring the rice producing areas closer to the market. The majority of farmers with small landholdings (less than 4 hectares per family) nevertheless continued to develop diversified production systems during the first half of the 20th century. In addition to their rice paddies, these farmers cultivated garden-orchards on the village uplands near their houses. The fruits, vegetables, herbs, tobacco and cotton that were harvested from these gardens were mainly used for the family’s consumption. It was also common to raise some fifteen chickens, fed with rice bran and broken rice. The cotton harvested from the garden was ginned with a small wooden spindle, spun onto a cranked spinning wheel, then woven at home using a bamboo loom. Weaving, basketry and tool-making kept the family labor force busy during the low season, as did fishing20 and hunting activities, which provided the main source of animal protein for families.
16The majority of land was used to cultivate rice. As there were no irrigation or drainage systems in place, farmers practiced flooded rice production without really being able to control the water level on the plots. Paddies located on lowlands were flooded first and probably seeded very early, during the month of June, soon after the first rains came and the land had been prepared, a few weeks before submersion. After broadcasting and before the paddies were completely flooded, farmers would have to weed their plot by hand. The subsequent flooding would significantly hinder further weed growth and the rice plants could then grow without too much competition. Harvest would begin after the water had receded, once the ground began to dry, between December and January. Due to the duration and intensity of the flooding, farmers logically chose to plant long-cycle, tall-straw varieties on the paddies located in the base of the kettle. Such was not the case with rice paddies located higher up, where the flooding was shorter and not as intense. There, farmers planted later and harvested earlier short-cycle varieties that were less elongated. The first families to settle the region often had rice paddies well distributed at different levels and thus could stagger the most intense work periods (planting, weeding and harvesting) throughout the rainy season, thereby achieving a ratio of surface area cultivated per worker that was much higher than in paddies located at the same level (1 hectare per worker). With yields of 1.1 tons per hectare, these families produced enough rice to sell to the merchants who traversed the canals during the harvest period and supply the rice mills situated along the main Damnoen Saduak canal.
- 21 The upper portions of the plant including the stem and panicles that are brought home after the har (...)
17The wealthiest peasant families usually had their own draft animals and a variety of tillage equipment (non-reversible moldboard plows, harrows, carts, etc.), allowing them to work the land themselves and transport goods by road. Cattle herds were limited due to the lack of fodder during the rainy season when a significant part of upland areas that could be used for grazing were flooded, as well as during the dry season. Animals were usually kept under the house, built on stilts, and were fed rice straw21 stocked in stacks near the house. At the beginning of the dry season, however, the herds wandered freely in the rice paddies, grazing on stubble left on the soil surface. Families that did not own plots at different levels were constrained to lease from the large landholders. And because they did not have draft animals, they would often have to rent a couple of oxen and tillage tools. These families were almost all indebted to merchants or moneylenders and would often have to sell their own labor to the wealthier farmers who hired day laborers. However, most of the large landowners, including the Catholic Church, preferred to lease their lands or set up sharecropping contracts with less well-off farmers.
- 22 Rice in the regularly flooded ditches, bananas in the ditches that gradually filled with leaves fal (...)
18The situation was quite different in the coconut growing zones, located on the ridges of the banks of the Mae Khlong. In these areas, the availability of capital required for setting up raised bed systems at the time of colonization was at the root of very clear distinctions between family farmers and landowners who relied on waged labor. Those who owned farms of 3 to 20 hectares generally did not lease their land to peasant families but rather would hire wage laborers. The latter generally possessed less than 2 hectares of land, on which they practiced a relatively labor-intensive farming system that often associated various other crops22 with coconut cultivation. However, these families usually were unable to keep family members working full time. The large landholders, on the other hand, exploited their lands much more extensively and rarely associated other crops with the coconut trees. Usually they would direct their energies into commercial activities and oversee the processing of the various coconut by-products: coconut milk, coconut sugar, copra, fibers, etc.
19In the lowlands near the edges of the main canal where diked plots were gradually constructed, peasants with little land (less than 2 hectares per family) usually strived to cultivate their dikes and raised beds with a wide variety of associated crops. Rice, sweet corn, taro root and sweet potatoes were used for consumption while peppers, onions, garlic, shallots and other vegetables were sold at the market. Families often raised a dozen or so ducks fed with rice bran and other scraps from the furrows. The cropping systems essentially relied on human energy, with little help from draft animals. Indeed, annual flooding of plots combined with difficulties to route animals among the many furrows and canals meant that livestock rearing was not very practical. Scoops on tripods and crank pumps were widely used to increase the water level in the furrows in order to irrigate the plants cultivated on the raised beds. Baskets hanging from each end of a shoulder-yoke and boats were the most common ways to bring goods from the fields to the floating markets and homes.
20The floating markets along the main canal multiplied considerably at the beginning of the century and were at the center of market exchanges in the region. Peasants could sell their produce on a regular basis and buy tools and consumer goods from Bangkok. Vegetables and other fresh produce were still only traded locally during the first half of the 1900s. However, a few large landholders also played the role of wholesalers, purchasing in bulk the least perishable produce (garlic, onions, shallots, etc.) and bringing it to the capital via rowboats or sailboats. They would then return with an ever-increasing variety of industrial goods to sell. As a result, hand-made textiles and tools became less important as manufactured goods became commonplace. The multiplication of trading activities and intensifying farming systems make it possible to feed and establish a growing population in the former marsh area; indeed with 400 inhabitants per square kilometer in 1930, it became the most densely populated rural locality in the country.
21The international economic crisis of the 1930s was a pretext to implement a repressive policy with respect to Chinese immigrants and the many families in the region who had opted for the Siamese nationality. World War ii and the Japanese occupation had practically no major impact on the evolution of agriculture in Damnoen Saduak, except to make a handful of black market traders wealthy. Rather, it was motorization – both of transportation methods for ferrying mer-chandise and irrigation methods – that would bring about significant changes to agriculture during the following two decades, with increasingly specialized horticultural cropping systems.
- 23 Momordica charantia.
- 24 Pachyrhizus erosus.
22Until 1950, the trip from Damnoen Saduak to Bangkok took 1.5 days (more than 35 hours) by rowboat or sailboat. In 1951, the first motor-run boat appeared on the main canal to transport passengers. Traders did not hesitate to equip themselves similarly in order to transport merchandise. Motorization made it possible to significantly reduce the cost and time of travel; only 12 hours were necessary to bring agricultural goods from Damnoen Saduak to the capital. It became possible to transport fresh produce, notably fruits and vegetables. Due to the excessively frequent repetition of lily crops (garlic, onions and shallots), the peasants were at risk of increasing phytosanitary problems. The acceleration of transportation came just in time to enable farmers to commercialize their perishable produce. As a result, they modified their cropping systems, introducing new crops intended for sale: cucumbers, peas, beans, eggplant, zucchini, cabbage, balsam pear,23 coriander, yam bean,24 tomatoes, etc. A few perennial plantations were established in the 1960s, namely papaya and orange groves as well as grape vines.
- 25 Institutional credit via the Agricultural Bank, cooperatives and producer associations represented (...)
23These new crops often required attentive care, with an ever-increasing amount of work per hectare, and a better drainage system. Many peasants increased the height of the dikes surrounding their plots as well as that of the crop beds. But they were also able to take advantage of motorization to drain their lands and irrigate the raised beds. Diesel motor-run pumps made it much easier to evacuate excess water from the plots to the adjacent canals. Improving drainage and irrigation systems made it possible to extend considerably the cropping period and increase yields. However, fertilizing beds that were increasingly cultivated remained a problem. By increasing the height of the dikes, the beds could no longer take advantage of the three months of flooding as before; and the one-time cleanout of furrows did less and less to restore their fertility. Farmers thus began to use mineral (especially nitrogenous) fertilizers, now more accessible due to improved transportation conditions. They also began using phytosanitary products brought in by traders. By the early 1970s, fertilizer and pesticide purchases represented almost half of all production costs in raised bed gardens in Damnoen Saduak. Many farmers had to rely on some form of credit, usually informal,25 to manage the costs. Of course not all farmers were able to make the investments necessary to accommodate these changes; however, they usually found either permanent or temporary work on the large landholdings where the cropping systems were becoming more and more labor intensive.
- 26 Starting in the 1950s, the government began to set up hydraulic infrastructures aimed at improving (...)
- 27 Investments to convert horticultural gardens into orchards reached around 50,000 bahts per hectare (...)
24Starting in the 1970s, the diked plots and raised bed system were gradually adopted throughout the former rice-growing areas north of the main canal of Damnoen Saduak. The changes enabled farmers in this area to convert their production systems. Faced with competition from farmers in other areas of the Central Plain served by hydraulic infrastructure26 and more favorable to the “green revolution”, the better-off rice producers in the northern zone quickly understood that it was to their advantage to modify and intensify their production systems, making them more lucrative, even if it meant adjusting their plots to do so. Because lands in the north are positioned further upland compared to those in the southern zone, it was easier and less costly to construct raised beds to practice intensive horticulture or plant orchards. Nevertheless, the land situation slowed down the conversion process. Heirs to the large landholders of the 19th century, now traders or high-level civil servants, frequently leased their lands to peasants’ children whose own lands in the south had already been converted to the raised bed system. As a result of the high demand for land, rents began to go up significantly. Since contracts were usually verbal and valid for a year, the farmers did not always see the point in immobilizing capital in improvements with deferred profitability.27 This is why only farmers who managed to buy their lands converted them to perennial plantations.
25With loans from World Bank, the government built a water control structure across the Mae Khlong and made other hydraulic improvements that resulted in excellent water management in Damnoen Saduak. Annual flooding in the region was entirely eliminated by the mid 1970s and flow irrigation became possible in even the highest northern regions. These infrastructures made it possible cultivate the raised beds all year long. Some farmers opted for 3-4 cycles of annual crops; others, more fortunate, established perennial plantations of fruit species that were still uncommon in the region: grapes, guavas, jujubes, rose apples, lemons, sapodillas, etc. This intensification and diversification of cropping systems went hand in hand with the demand for fruits and vegetables in the growing urban centers (particularly Bangkok). The flow of goods was fortuitously made easier by the construction of a road network that crossed the delta. Lorries and pick-ups quickly replaced boats, reducing traveling time between Damnoen Saduak and the capital to only three hours.
- 28 Mainly “night soil” type animal manure. These droppings (poultry manure and pig slurry) came from i (...)
26The availability of year round flow irrigation in the north made it possible to expand horticultural gardens across the entire district, including the highest lands. The transformation of diked rice paddies into raised beds was facilitated by the use of motorized heavy machinery such as shovel excavators. Peasants increasingly entrusted land preparation to companies equipped with these large machines. A few farmers bought their own 15-30 horsepower tillers to prepare the beds’ soil and would sell this service to other peasants in the region. However, many purchased their own motor pump. Connected to tubes, these pumps made it possible to irrigate, by bringing water from the canals to the furrows in the plots, and drain, by bringing water from the plots towards the canals. Very often, peasants would acquire small boats with motor pumps and lateral sprinklers used to irrigate the beds by winding through the ditches interspersed among the plots. Once the water control structure was built on the Mae Khlong, the irrigation waters were not as rich in silt as they had been. As such, the deposits of silt from the furrows onto the beds also decreased. Farmers massively turned to mineral as well as organic fertilizers28 to renew fertility of the beds. Crops were first increasingly treated with phytosanitary products (fungicides, insecticides, acaricides, etc.) using small mechanic sprayers worn on the back; but it did not take long for many farmers to equip themselves with small boats mounted with a reservoir and two lateral sprayers.
27Often farmers were only able to set up these increasingly work and input intensive cropping systems with the help of a loan; today, 80% of them are more or less in debt. Commercial middlemen have often been the main source of credit, providing farmers with the financial means necessary for the new cropping practices: crop dusting with mineral fertilizers and phytosanitary products, constructing raised beds, planting vineyards and other fruit plantations, etc. In return for the loan, farmers usually had to promise to sell nearly all of their yields to the lender. Buyers thus maintained a monopolistic relationship with their borrowers, which manifested itself in very high interest rates of about 10% per month.
28Starting in the 1980s a public agricultural bank (Bank for Agriculture and Agricultural Cooperatives-BAAC) and several private banks opened branches in Damnoen Saduak. These alternative sources of credit became accessible to a growing number of farmers.29 Indeed, the interest rates (around 10% per annum) were much lower than the usurious rates practiced by traders, who, as a consequence, quickly witnessed a drop in their credit activities. Nonetheless, farmers turned down by the formal institutions continued to borrow from traders. Having lost their monopoly (as buyer, input supplier and usurer), the traders sought to specialize. There was a segmentation of commercial activities: many traders concentrated their activities on purchasing and commercializing farm produce; others began to sell inputs; the banks provided agricultural credit. This specialization coupled with the expansion of the buyers’ purchasing areas (thanks to improvements in transportation), resulted in heightened competition among traders that farmers were able to take advantage of when negotiating the prices for selling their produce. This led to a redistribution of the value-added resulting from com-mercialization, to the benefit of the farmers.
29The input supply sector, however, remained oligopolistic. Farmers usually bought inputs from the same supplier who would not only make the sale, often on credit, but also provide technical advice regarding the use of the inputs. Decisions regarding the choice of products as well as on how much and how often they were used were made essentially under the “pressure” of commercial considerations.
- 30 Converting coconut groves into more intensive and lucrative production systems involved the costly (...)
30But not all farmers in Damnoen Saduak were able to access the capital needed to modify their production systems. This was the case for farmers in the coconut-growing zone along the Mae Khlong, where conversion came with a high cost30 and the sandy soil was far less propitious to horticultural cultivation. The majority of labor from the family-run coconut plantations would migrate between the factories in Samut Songkram and Ratchaburi that would take care of organizing and paying for the daily transportation of their workers. Only the oldest workers would spend all their time working on the plantations, taking care of the daily chores. The waged laborers who worked for the coconut traders would take care of the rest of the cultivation activities, namely harvesting. Today, the only produce from coconut plantation is the nuts, harvested green for their water or picked when they are more mature for their milk after defibrating. The other by-products (sugar, ropes, cocoa matting) have practically disappeared in the region because the money to be made was too little compared to what could be earned in nearby cities.
- 31 Money that was made on selling rice paddies often made it possible to buy sewing machines that were (...)
31In the north, there are practically no rice cultivations left. Rice farmers have leased or sold part or all of their lands. Those with resources to do so have converted the few plots that they continue to cultivate into horticultural gardens. But the majority of family laborers have left the farm to look for waged labor in the city or work up pieces that supply Bangkok’s garment industry.31 Farmers from the south who hope to develop garden or orchard cropping systems have acquired most of the lands in this former rice production region.
32Unable to remain competitive, some farmers had to abandon their lands. The flight toward the city has nonetheless remained in check, despite the proximity of the capital and because of the increasing intensification of cropping systems. These systems now require 450 workdays per hectare, enough to ensure the employment of a large number of small landholders and landless peasants.
33The average surface area of farms in Damnoen Saduak is barely over 1.7 hectares (1.1 hectares per worker) – much less than the average surface area of farms in the delta as a whole (3.5 hectares). Classification of farms by size shows a Chi-squared distribution.
34In comparison to other regions in the delta, farm holdings of less than 2 hectares are much more common in Damnoen Saduak than elsewhere. Such holdings now represent nearly 60% of all production units but occupy only one-third of the available farmland. Around 35% of farms are between 2 and 5 hectares and by themselves cover half of the territory. The large landholdings of more than 5 hectares (5% of the total) cover the remaining 17%. It should not be forgotten that of the 7,000 farming families in the district, 23% have no land of their own. For the most part, these landless peasants live off the revenue that they earn as day laborers on larger farms in the region. In addition to these, another 42% of all farmers, generally among the poorest, must also sell their labor periodically in order to complement earnings from their production units.
Fig. 4: Distribution of Farms by Surface Area
35Only 30% of all farmers rely solely on family laborers; the remaining 70% rely to varying degrees on day laborers to pick up the slack during heavy work periods when family members are not enough. Such tasks that require extra laborers include digging ditches, weeding plots, pruning vines and fruit trees, placing plastic bags on the trees to protect the fruit, and harvesting. Women, who make up the majority of payroll expenditures, carry out most of these tasks, with the exception of ditch digging and portaging. Sometimes farmers will call in middlemen to recruit work teams of 40-50 people. Team organization is used to temporarily mobilize a large number of workers to carry out a task in a short amount of time. But it also enables day laborers to negotiate their wages in more favorable conditions. Nowadays, wages paid in the region (5 euros/day) are closer to those paid in the industrial sector (6 euros/day) than those paid in the agricultural sector in other areas of the delta (4 euros/day) and other regions in the country (3 euros/day). The evolution in wages paid to day workers in Damnoen Saduak is in fact more similar to that of industrial sector than of the agricultural sector.
- 32 The value added per hectare in Damnoen Saduak (an average of 260,000 bahts across the district) is (...)
36In order to set up cropping systems that are more and more work-intensive, most farmers (70%) use increasingly skilled wage laborers and thus must pay higher and higher salaries to keep them from moving to the cities. But they are able to cope with this new reality thanks to the significant value-added that these new cropping systems generate.32 The overall increase in agricultural wages in the region permits a noteworthy redistribution of these ever-rising profits to the landless peasants and small landholders.
37Today, however, an increasing number of young workers prefer to take advantage of industrial jobs that are readily available in the nearby towns of Ratchaburi, Samut Songkram, and Nakhon Pathom. Some farmers already talk about the difficulties that they face when trying to recruit the day laborers they need. In order to cope with the situation, some plan on mechanizing certain operations that have, until now, been done by hand, such as sorting fruit. Others have already opted for herbicides in place of manual weeding, and spraying with phytosanitary products in order to eliminate the job of covering the fruit on trees with plastic bags. But the margins for productivity growth are slim in this type of agriculture because the majority of tasks are hard to mechanize.
- 33 Molle & Srijantr 2003.
- 34 Mazoyer & Roudart 1997.
38One would expect that members of the poorest peasant families (small landholders and the landless) be the first to look for jobs in the city. One could also imagine that the farmers with most land and capital be the most likely to improve their cropping systems and the least tempted to leave agriculture. Yet, the facts show that the rural exodus does not involve, for the most part, the poorest peasant families.33 Rather, it is the children of the wealthiest farmers who are leaving for the city, looking for better-paid jobs than those offered in agriculture. Their parents were able to pay for their studies, and thus they can hope to land relatively skilled jobs. On the other hand, children of poor peasants compare the relatively high wages that they receive working in local agriculture with those that they would earn as unskilled industrial laborers, far from their families. Opportunities for day labor are still abundant in Damnoen Saduak, while emigration to the city is costly (board, food, etc.) and offers little improvement in terms of salary. It is therefore the most underprivileged peasants who most aspire to augment their incomes by practicing increasingly intense and lucrative cropping systems, or endeavoring to work as day laborers on their neighbors’ land. Contrary to the uneven development mechanism traditionally observed in agriculture,34 the most productive and lucrative farms do not necessarily find “taker-overs” within their own families, while at the same time smaller farms are usually taken over by a descendant. One does not observe a systematic transfer of production means from poorer farms, gradually dismembered when their owners stop working, towards the richer ones.
Fig. 5: Evolution of Daily Wages (in 1999 Bahts)
39Of the 12,200 farmable hectares in the district, two-thirds are exploited by their owners. The other third belongs to absentee owners who live in the city and lease their lands. One third of the surface area leased belongs to a few owners who inherited large landholdings that date back to the 19th century (of which there are still 500 hectares owned by the Catholic Church). Another third was acquired in the 1980s by urban capitalists who invested their money in real estate in order to speculate. The remaining third is in the hands of the descendants of wealthy farmers who opted to take on relatively qualified work outside of the district.
40These different categories of owners have various kinds of contractual relationships with their leasees. The inheritors of the large landholdings naturally try to limit the transaction costs that come with leasing their lands to a multitude of farmers; therefore, they aim to render “loyal” the creditworthy farmers and generally opt for 5 to 10 years renewable leases that have relatively low rents compared to the other owner categories. The speculators, on the other hand, avoid long-term formal contracts that could be difficult to terminate should a lucrative selling opportunity arise. They lease their lands for only a year at a time via a verbal contract. In a few rare cases, these owners will leave their lands wild or plant eucalyptus. The small landowners, descendants of wealthy farmers, usually know their farmers well and establish five-year formal contracts that are renewable.
41In today’s monetary units, the cost of land increased at a rate of about 2% per year on average, until 1992 when real estate speculation saw increases of up to 6-7%, only to be interrupted by the financial crisis of 1996/1997. In 1999, one hectare of land sold for 1.5 million bahts (35,000 euros). The rent prices have evolved very differently: the average-size farm practically stagnated, in real terms, until 1992, after which point it rose slightly until the crisis in 1996 and then it literally crashed, dropping to 6,250 bahts per hectare per year in 1999.
Fig. 6: Estimates of Land Prices and Rents (Average in 1999 Bahts)
42Until 1992, farmers were the main purchasers in the real estate market. However, with the price increase that followed, few peasants had the financial resources necessary to become owners. The farmers who managed to increase the size of their operations usually did so by leasing.
43Despite the demand for lands to rent, the number of leases remains small compared to the potential productivity of the lands. Given the high added value that is possible to create per surface unit, many farmers are able to pay rent without too much problem; and, it is surprising, at first glance, the low rents set by the landowners. But it is worth remembering that the majority of these owners are speculators who want to sell their lands when the time is right and whose income comes from the surplus resulting from this transaction. Rent amounts represent only a very small part of their overall remuneration and increasing rent would result in only a very small gain compared to the surplus the owners look to gain by selling the land. Moreover, the rice-producing region located nearby is, nowadays, a reservoir of lands likely to be leased at very low prices. An increase in rent in the raised bed zones would incite candidates to seek out rice paddies to rent instead. The rice cultivation systems set up in this area of the delta still garner rather low added value and earnings per hectare. Lacking sufficient income to intensify their cropping systems, rice farmers often decide to lease their lands to farmers with more capital. Even at current levels, which are relatively low, the potential supply of lands to lease is still significant. As such, rent prices have remained relatively controlled over the last ten years.
44Compared to the moderate increase in rent prices, the skyrocketing of land prices in the mid-1990s brought on a new phenomenon that, while marginal, is still significant: some farmers sold their plots to urban buyers who then agreed to lease the lands back to their previous owners. The income made from the sale made it possible for the farmers to invest the necessary capital to improve their production systems. This arbitrage is a way for farmers to reconcile the advantages of being a landowner with those that come with having enough working capital: in reality, these farmers prefer to intensify their cropping systems over land security.
- 35 For example, in the southern part of Damnoen Saduak, in 1998, a plot along an asphalted road was so (...)
- 36 A hectare of rice paddy leases for 4,500 bahts per year, while the annual rent on the same surface (...)
- 37 The Catholic Church continues to rent its lands to for around 3,500 bahts per hectare per year, whi (...)
- 38 These rice paddies require costly improvements in order to practice intensive and high value-added (...)
45Such diversity in circumstances and interests at stake has ultimately resulted in extremely variable prices when it comes to land transactions, be they sales or leases. As such, in 1998, the cost of selling farm lands ranged from 0.9 and 3 million bahts per hectare while rent prices for new contracts oscillated between 3,000 and 7,500 bahts per hectare per year. Accessibility undoubtedly has a lot to do with these price variations.35 The crop that is cultivated on the plots also explains the wide range of prices.36 Soil quality and quality of irrigation and drainage mechanisms also influence rent prices and, to a lesser extent, sale prices. But depending on the type of properties and leasing contracts, the cost of rent is also very different.37 Nonetheless, as a general rule, the rice paddies located in the northern part of the district are rented and sold for much less than the lands that have already been improved in the south, even when easily accessible and when soil and water conditions are good.38
46We have seen that, in the south of Damnoen Saduak, there are farmers who seek to expand the surface area of their operations, if only to take advantage of the family labor available and enable their children to settle down as farmers. But we have also seen that it is not necessarily the wealthiest farmers who are the most likely to buy new lands.
47In light of skyrocketing prices during the first half of the 1990s, and in an attempt to make a better living from their farms, it is in the interest of the region’s farmers to invest in acquiring new production means likely to increase both value-added per hectare and work productivity (motor pumps, chemical and organic fertilizers, phytosanitary products, tree plantations, etc.) rather than buy increasingly costly plots of land. Indeed, purchasing land for speculative purposes is only in the interest of the urban capitalists who have the means to do so. This is why expanding the surface area of one’s farming operations is now usually done by leasing new plots in the northern part of Damnoen Saduak, where the supply is greater and the prices are lower.
48The accessibility and fertility of rice paddies in this northern area are, nowadays, very favorable to raised bed agriculture. It is perfectly possible to cultivate vegetables or set up tree plantations. But due to lack of resources, the inhabitants of this area are unable to take full advantage of the situation. They thus lease their lands to peasants from the south, who were the first to benefit from the favorable conditions for setting up high value-added cropping systems, thanks to the construction of the Damnoen Saduak canal and its secondary waterways. Today, it is this population that has the resources necessary to set up new beds in the northern zone.
49Leasing contracts offered by former rice producers are usually formal, long-term contracts (5-10 years) that guarantee a relative land security to the farmer, something that encourages land improvements and plantations with differed profitability. Indeed, the peasants who lease plots to set up raised beds and plant orchards would like to be sure that they will reap the rewards of their efforts in the more or less long term.
50But not all peasants have the means to access lands in the rice production zone. Only those with enough capital (around 40,000 bahts per hectare, i.e., 1,000 euros) are able to convert rice paddies into raised bed gardens. The poorest farmers have only the eventual possibility of leasing already improved plots. We have seen earlier that the wealthiest farmers in the south often prefer to invest in the education of their children rather than increase the size of their operations. Thus, it is not a surprise that the farmers who manage to work leased plots in the north as well as their own plots in the south are mainly those who have medium-sized production units.
51In the neighboring Chao Phraya delta, peasants who work leased lands appear, for the most part, to have lost the ownership of lands that they had once inherited. The leasing system there would appear to be symptomatic of farms in crisis.39 It is somewhat also true in Damnoen Saduak, where some farmers who lease are former landowners who had to cede their lands because they defaulted on loans that used their land as collateral. But this is rare. Pauperization is not the reason why the majority of peasants in Damnoen Saduak lease lands; on the contrary, the leasing system offers them a way to increase the amount of surface area that they cultivate. The method does not appear to be hindering agricultural development, in that the moderate rent prices do not diminish the farmers’ investment capacity. Ultimately, leasing plays a central role in the reallocation of lands freed up by those who have abandoned agriculture; indeed their departure has not necessarily led to an increase in landless peasants. The disappearance of older farms has not resulted from the increasing proletarianization of poor peasants as much as it has from the voluntary departure of the offspring of wealthy farmers who have received enough education to find in the city qualified jobs paying better than those in the country.
52Landless peasants in Damnoen Saduak are almost all from families whose parents did not own property. The agricultural production units that are exploited through lease contracts have often done so for generations. This is notably the case for land leased by the Catholic Church and other large landholders. Day laborers are usually landless peasants from Damnoen Saduak who presume that wages in agriculture are not much lower than what they could expect to earn in the industrial sector, and who are thus dissuaded from migrating towards the big cities where the cost of living is apparently too high.
53Due to its numerous and very real comparative advantages, Damnoen Saduak is today a relatively prosperous agricultural region, densely populated and subject to very little rural exodus. We have seen that the conditions that made possible the implementation of intensive cropping systems are the result of improvements made over time by hard-working peasantry (diked plots equipped with raised beds) as much as by infrastructure gradually implemented by the government (canals and access roads). The district’s advantages have made it possible to cultivate vegetable gardens and orchards that generate both high added value per hectare and relatively high wages for a day’s work. The expansion of these production systems still appears possible in traditionally rice producing areas. This is indeed a peasantry that does not appear, a priori, condemned to pauperization nor emigration towards the suburbs of the large cities.
54The menace lies elsewhere: the use of chemicals in agriculture seems to have reached particularly high levels with significant health risks for the producers and consumers, as well as destructive effects on the environment. The massive use of pesticides has brought about the uncontrollable proliferation of parasites resistant to the treatments used; the multiplication of products and treatments appears to no longer control crop damage, which explains why many farmers try to find plots in the north, which is less affected by the problem. Crop dusting with phytosanitary products is also at the origin of dramatic water pollution: today, carbamates and organophosphates levels are particularly high. This poses serious problems, as the majority of inhabitants in the region eat fish from the canals and use this water to wash themselves as well as their food and cooking utensils. Grapes, a crop that requires the most intensive inputs, are cultivated in soils that now have alarmingly high levels of heavy metals – zinc and copper in particular. It is thus questionable whether these intensive crop systems can be practiced indefinitely. Will the farmers and the government manage to concert their efforts to make possible more “sustainable” forms of agriculture?