Thailand’s Armchair Agronomists
Agriculture is holding center stage in Thailand these days and many folks appear to be experts on the subject. As a former farm boy I suspect that few of them has ever been anywhere near a farm and that most would recoil at the very thought of getting dirt under their fingernails. “How can those ignorant peasants be stupid enough to keep producing rubber, let them plant something else” is a common theme. A sentiment similar to Marie Antoinette’s “if the peasants have no bread, then let them eat cake.”
That ‘something else’ is never mentioned, and the new ‘experts’ idea of switching crops seems to be as simple as changing from cucumbers to cabbage. The investment, time and patience required to establish a rubber plantation doesn’t enter their calculations, which tells me that they know nothing about growing rubber trees. These are the same folks who enthusiastically back government programs to support and subsidize other industries, and in many cases their own jobs, but they apparently think agriculture is not really an industry.
But agriculture is an industry, an industry that supports, either directly or indirectly, most of the population of Thailand. Which is why Thai politicians like Thaksin, and even Thai dictators like Prayuth, pay attention to it. Those who don’t pay attention to it find themselves in trouble, maybe even out of power.
But Bangkok’s current bumper crop of armchair agronomists think otherwise. “Let the stupid farmers go to hell” is their common theme. “No subsidies, no bailouts, no handouts!” and once again “let them plant something else.”
At one time, back even before Taksin, that “something else” was rubber trees. Thai governments, both military and civilian, did everything they could to encourage rubber planting. It was a way to boost rural incomes and the market for rubber was booming, rubber was a necessary ingredient in the ‘Asian Miracle’ of rapid economic development.
Now that rapid economic development has slowed to a crawl and the demand for rubber has slowed with it. And not only the demand for rubber, but the demand for all other agricultural commodities, and many non-agricultural commodities such as oil. There is no “something else” to turn to now, so what are farmers, or oilmen, to do? Do they shut down their operations, fire all their workers, scrap all their equipment…and then try to find something else? Oil, and rubber, will be needed in the future. Chances are they will be needed sooner than it would take either farmers, or oilmen, to find themselves a new industry after throwing away their investment in their old one.
Agriculture is not a dying, obsolescent industry. People still need to eat, cars still need tires. Higher commodity prices will return with better times. So what should be done in the meantime? The armchair agronomists say let the farmers go broke, let the rubber trees be cut down. But why even bother to cut them down if agriculture is no longer viable in Thailand? Just let 60 or 70% of the population pull up stakes in the countryside and go to a booming modern industry in the city? I guess that would be tourism, Thailand’s only currently booming industry.
Sounds like a recipe for disaster to me. If you really wanted a bloody revolution in Thailand ignoring the plight of farmers would surely be the way to get one. Which is why even Prayuth is handing out cash. It will take a lot of cash to tide farmers over to better times, but it will be worth it considering the alternative. “Let them plant something else” is not a viable alternative now, it may be at some time in the future, but at present all ag commodities are losers.