From cradle to grave, we Thais eat rice - and from morning 'til night. The old Thai greeting is not "How are you?", but "Have you eaten yet?"
Thailand prides itself on being the world’s rice granary, a land of plenty. Until recently, we were the world’s top exporter.
Tragically, the ones producing that rice for us and the world are living in extreme and perpetual want – a miserable return for the shining accolade they have earned for the country.
Every year they toil from dawn to dusk in the fields, knowing full well that at the end of the day, they will not make enough money to feed their family. As soon as they are old enough, their children leave home for the city in search of jobs. They in turn have their own children, but are too busy and poorly paid to look after them. So they send their children home, back to the rice fields. The children are raised by their grandparents who, despite offering unconditional love, are unable to keep up with rapid social and technological change. Many of the grandparents never learned to read or write and so are unable to provide any help with the children’s schoolwork.
The children grow up fast and soon find reasons not to respect their grandparents, who they perceive as backward. Their peers become their family. They try sex, drugs, gambling at an early age. The last thing on their minds is their future, and they never even consider the future of their grandparents’ farm and farming. They drift aimlessly through the days. They feel no particular tie to their parents, whom they see only occasionally over the years. Life becomes a void for them and their generation.
Meanwhile, the price of farmland edges up as the cities keep expanding. Many farmers opt to sell their land, their only asset. They enjoy a temporary surge of wealth and well-being. They buy houses or apartments for their children who are now city dwellers. But the harsher reality sinks in after the money is gone. Perhaps they now live in a small new house built with money from the land sale. But in reality they are no different from the native Americans who were evicted from land that was their life and forced to live on reservations.
Those purchasing the rice farmers’ land are not only rich Thais in the rice mill business; foreign investors are also buying up plots through Thai nominees. Many of them will rent back the farmland they buy. So the farmers who were once the owners, and proud self-employed individuals, will be reduced to something akin to migrant farmhands.
As always, they have to buy seeds for the new growing season. The problem is that nowadays, the seeds they buy from giant corporations have been genetically altered. These seeds cannot reproduce. So each season, farmers have to buy them again, at prices higher than the previous year. They also have to buy increasing amounts of fertiliser, fungicide and insecticides to pump into the paddies so the seedlings can withstand disease and pests.
Meanwhile climate change is bringing larger droughts and floods in increasing frequency. Irrigation remains as limited as ever. There has been no land reform to ensure farmers have adequate land to plough and can remain self-sufficient. There has been no nationwide, across-the-board reform in farming or education that could improve life for rice farmers.
And so they are in debt again. Only this time, many no longer have any assets, while their mountain of liabilities keep growing. They can no longer borrow through legitimate channels like banks or cooperatives, so they are turning to loan sharks.
One after another, each government initiates policies that benefit their own associates and cronies but do nothing or worse than nothing for the rice farmers. Corruption and fraud runs rampant. Exploitation is par for the course.
So for years on any given day you can see farmers camping outside the Ministry of Finance, asking for debt forgiveness and help. They know their calls fall on deaf ears, fading away to nothing. But they have no other choice left but to try.
The current government’s rice-price pledging programme is nothing but a scam, a populist endeavour offering an illusion of a cure for farmers’ woes but only delivering a poison pill. Such “help” can neither fruitful nor sustained. Instead, the government gives “credit cards” to farmers to buy tools, seeds, fertiliser and other agri-items, which are collateralised by the government receipts, and put more farmers into debt. With the public coffers for this programme drained by fraud, the government cannot pay the farmers the money it pledged for the rice. Many farmers have ended up in new and disastrous territory, completely broke after being repeatedly cheated.
“Life is like a landscape. You live in the midst of it, but can describe it only from the vantage point of distance,” said Charles A Lindbergh. Thai farmers are living in the midst of a vicious cycle they cannot escape. They see no way out. Their quandary is profound, yet their voices are inaudible. They no longer have control over their lives and environment. So we, the majority who have the vantage point of distance, must do what we should have done a long time ago: give the rice farmers our collective attention and help them secure a better and sustainable future.
As a relatively small group of citizens who spend their entire adult lives feeding us all, they deserve better.