A DISPUTED orange orchard in Chiang Mai was in the process of being set up as an agricultural cooperative to manage the produce, Agricultural Land Reform Office (ALRO) officials said yesterday, after land-rights NGOs found that the orchard was still being operated by its former owners.
On Friday, Land Watch Thai stated on its website that the 5,958-rai (953-hectare) orchard in Chiang Mai’s Phang and Mae Ai districts was still being operated by three companies that had been unlawfully occupying ALRO land and were ordered to vacate by the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) last year.
Land-rights activists also disclosed that farmers would not be allowed to grow crops other than oranges, which would be cultivated collectively.
Meanwhile, ALRO secretary-general Surajit Intharachit addressed speculation that the companies had technically returned the land to the ALRO for redistribution, but been allowed to manage the orchard in the interim as the farmers’ cooperative was in the process of being set up.
“We let landless farmers keep the plantation and get profits from the produce and will set up an agricultural cooperative to look after the orange orchard management as a whole,” Surajit said.
“However, as the cooperative still has not been formed and the ALRO does not have the manpower and expertise in orange orchard management, we are letting the companies look after the operations until the cooperative is formed.”
He also said the ALRO had already selected 300 landless farmer families to settle and farm the land, adding that they would have to adhere to a contract farming system supplying oranges to the companies.
After the ALRO explanation, Prayong Doklamyai, a prominent land-rights activist who visited the orchard last Friday, said farmers would not have their own plots of land to cultivate other crops and would be required to grow oranges even though they did not have relevant experience.
“As the farmers do not know how to take care of orange trees and find markets for the produce, they will have to rely on these three companies to operate the orange orchard, so in the end these companies still get benefits from the orchard,” Prayong said.
He also said the area set aside for new houses for the farmers was in the middle of the orchard and prone to extensive pesticide exposure that was hazardous to people’s health.
“I noticed that the land reclamation by the government in this case differs from other cases, especially in the forestland reclamation in which authorities usually cleared all plantations from the land,” he said.
“These companies must have a lot of influence and power.”
The orange orchard was seized by NCPO order 36/2559 last year in an effort to reclaim ALRO lands in the hands of rich investors and redistribute them to the landless farmers.
The companies had not met the qualifications regarding landless farmers to utilise ALRO land according to the ALRO law and were supposed to cease operations and vacate the land within 30 days.