เครือข่ายเกษตรกรรมทางเลือกภาคอีสาน

Alternative Sugarcane

In Farmers Groups on 10/08/2009 at 9:51 pm

The average Thai farmer is 51 years old.  For every 29 baht that a farmer consumes, they produce 100 baht by themselves.  In Esan, the rate is 36 baht and in southern Thailand, the rate is 3.6 baht. Yet the average farmer is 169,597 baht in debt to the BAAC.  There are a total of 38 million rai of land for agriculture in Thailand, 8 million of which will be taken over by the BAAC for the next 9 years (indebted farmers will have that period of time to earn it back). The AAN believes that this land should be put to use by farmers, but that farmers need to demand this change.  Corporations and countries from all over the Global North and Middle East are looking to buy up land in northeastern Thailand.

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The uplands surrounding Ban Dong Dip, Phon Thong district, Roi Et province is prime real estate for these kind of investors looking to buy or rent cheap land to produce rice or biofuel crops.  Though this land was forested until somewhat recently, it’s red clay soils are now planted with sugarcane, cassava and corn.  On July 28, the AAN farmers group in Ban Dong Dip currently working on organic practices for sugarcane and cassava hosted a concluding meeting on the past six months of activities.  The AAN has worked on and off in this community for more than five years, and P’ Mao – a network staff member based in Khon Kaen – continues to facilitate the group’s learning process for organic techniques.

During the dry season months, the group visited the Wiseman’s Learning Center in Ban Non Yang, Kudchum district, Yasothon province as well as the fields of an organic farmer in Khon Kaen.  Farmers are now adding new activities to their agricultural practices: raising straw mushrooms, planting kitchen gardens and vegetable row crops, making their own dish soap, and developing different organic fertilizers for soil improvement.  Beyond learning these skills, the farmers are also recognizing the importance of quality over quantity.  By lowering the amount of land planted with cash crops, farmers are able to grow more food for their families.

By discussing the examples they saw at the Wiseman’s Learning Center and their own experience, the meeting helped reinforce what was being learned by the group’s members.  Yet farmers’ actual practices still need to change significantly, as they remain dependent on copious amounts of chemical fertilizers.  Important concerns were raised – we understand, but don’t follow through.  Are we really willing to try the alternative?  The challenge is to get villagers to take making changes seriously and take advantage of opportunities presented by the network.

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But this small, group-oriented process is happening in the shadows of a large sugar mill just outside Ban Dong Dip.  As contracted by the mill’s “cooperative” farmers may feel that there is no alternative.  Farmers learn low prices, especially for cassava, despite the high costs for chemical fertility, and in turn, debt binds many farmers to the mill.  Lowering production costs via organic practices is a way to break this cycle.  P’ Chompu, an active group member, has taken the lead in transitioning towards organic production.  During the afternoon following the meeting, he led the farmers group and AAN representatives out to a 4 rai piece of land where he is growing organic cassava.  The difference between the field with improved soil fertility from organic compost and the field planted with only one broadcasting of chemical fertilizers was stark.  P’ Chompu seemed impressed with himself and it was encouraging for other group members to see his example.

When we returned to the village, an exciting discussion was started about next steps for research and organic fertilizer production.  With long-term goals to produce organic brown sugar on their own, the group has a lot of work to do in developing their production strategies.  But after going through the details, it wasn’t hard to envision an alternative sugarcane – one that is the basis for a new community economy, a sustainable alternative to contract farming.  As farmers in other parts of Roi Et province have shown, organic farming has helped farmers get rid of their debt and generate food security for their families.  As more farmers make this transition, it will prove the viability of farming for the next generation and help keep land in the hands of small farmers.

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