Thailand – The Search for Sustainable Rural Livelihoods for Karen Communities in Om Koi District in Northern Thailand
Om Koi District lies in the mountains in southwest Chiang Mai Province in northern Thailand, and its largely ethnic minority Karen population is among the poorest in Thailand. Traditionally, the Karen people have depended for their livelihoods on rice farming, forest products and shifting cultivation on hillsides. This part of northern Thailand, near the border with Myanmar, is also part of the “Golden Triangle”, once the world’s largest source of opium poppy. Although opium production has declined dramatically in Thailand in recent decades and shifted largely to Afghanistan, local community leaders in Om Koi report that it persists in isolated pockets of the district and identify it among the challenges they face.
One strategy promoted as an alternative to opium poppy growing by the Government of Thailand and other development organizations has been contract farming. This system has taken deep root in Om Koi District, with many Karen households now engaged in intensive vegetable cultivation financed by private investors. The primary crop grown in Om Koi under this system is tomato, but chillies, cabbage, and pumpkin are also quite common. This system has brought a new set of problems to the Karen communities that have adopted it, including unsustainable land use, high exposure to toxic pesticides, and a cycle of dependence and indebtedness to investors. In short, it has not proven to be a sustainable strategy for these communities to lift themselves out of poverty. The way the system works is that investors provide all inputs to the farmers at the beginning of the season, generally at highly inflated prices (e.g. fertilizer sold in the market for Thai Baht 900 is sold to farmers at 1,200 Baht); they then purchase the crop at prices they set (currently only 2 Baht or U.S. $0.06 per kg.). With current input costs estimated by farmers of 25,000 Baht per rai (less than one-sixth hectare), the current market price results in losses and accumulating debt to investors, but few Karen farmers have been able to extract themselves from this exploitative system. Discussions with Karen farmers in the village of Mae Lan Noi revealed debt levels of as much as 300,000 Baht (more than $9,000), which is extremely high in relation to average per capita income.
Contract tomato farming in Om Koi District is also closely associated with unsustainable farming practices and community health risks. Tomatoes are cultivated almost entirely on steep slopes, generally unsuitable for annual crop production, with inadequate soil and water cultivation practices. High levels of chemical fertilizers, pesticides, plastic sheeting and other external inputs (in addition to seeds or seedlings) are provided to farmers by the investor as part of the contract package. Virtually no safety precautions are taken in the application of pesticides, resulting in high levels of exposure to toxic chemicals. The village head man of Huay Poo Luang village reported that 98% of community members whose blood was tested by government health offices showed unsafe levels of pesticide exposure.
While contract farming has increased incomes in some villages, it has not lifted families out of poverty. However, remote villages that are not actively engaged in contract farming and rely more on traditional practices (cultivation of indigenous rice varieties, gathering of forest products, poultry and swine production) also suffer from poverty and food and nutrition security. The village of Huay Thong Luang is a good example of this situation where, despite maintaining the cultivation of at least 13 indigenous varieties of upland and paddy rice, dietary diversity is low, and the numerous children in the village showed obvious signs of malnutrition. To supplement the meager income from their own agricultural activities, residents of Huay Thong Luang are forced to work as day laborers for contract vegetable growers in neighboring villages or undertake seasonal migration to nearby provinces, such as to Lamphun Province for the annual longan harvest.
The Raks Thai Foundation, a member of CARE International, has been present in Om Koi District for eight years, and is currently working with five villages in Yang Pieng Sub-District to promote sustainable water management and agricultural practices under the Where the Rain Falls project. In the first phase of project activities, the focus has been on working with communities to improve their drinking water supply and irrigation systems. Under the second phase, the focus is on sustainable agricultural production systems that can provide viable alternatives to the contract farming system. Under this program, Raks Thai identifies model farmers in each village to serve as demonstration sites for low-external input integrated farming systems, incorporating rice cultivation, tree crops, small livestock, home gardening and, in some cases, aquaculture.
Working with local farmers, village leaders, government officials and other development organizations, the Raks Thai Foundation will identify, test, and promote alternative cropping systems for hillside areas currently under contract vegetable production. Such alternatives also need to address the food and income needs of local communities if they are to successfully reduce their complete dependence on private investors and inequitable contracts. Such a transition will take time, but there are already glimmers of hope in some villages. One model farmer in Huay Kong village is developing passion fruit production on trellises over sloping land that is currently planted in tomato and chili. Support in the form of wire trellises, seedlings and starter fertilizer has been provided by the Royal Project, which also provides a market for quality, organic passion fruit. In the village of Huay Poo Luang, ten farmers have reduced or abandoned contract vegetable farming to expand organic coffee production as part of a district-level coffee cooperative enterprise that has received technical support from Chiang Mai University. Under this model, local farmers can receive as much as 150 Baht (nearly $US5) per kilo for first quality coffee beans.
Given the deeply entrenched and politically well-connected contract farming system in Chiang Mail Province, it will take time and sustained support for the Karen farmers of Om Koi district to wean themselves from this system. But such a transition is essential to the health and economic future of these communities, and the landscapes on which they depend, so it is important that progress toward the adoption of more socially and environmentally sustainable farming systems be accelerated.
Where the Rain Falls Project Coordinator