เครือข่ายเกษตรกรรมทางเลือกภาคอีสาน

Reporting from the Ubon Rice Seed Research Center

In Farmers Groups, Meetings, Network Events, Research on 12/12/2009 at 8:59 pm

There’s a chance that we can have an agricultural system in which farmers grow local varieties with little or no chemicals – Mr. Somsong Chotechuen

Seventy-seven percent of rice production in Thailand is rain-fed.

AAN farmers and staff from throughout Esan and northern Thailand came together on December 1st to exchange about their seed research experiences and findings over the past year with the Ubon Rachatani Rice Seed Research Center.  First we got an update from Joko in Nan province, where farmers are improving seeds independently.  Over two thousand farmers are growing these seeds all over northern Thailand.  More remote places have been able to preserve seeds and these communities tend to be local ethnic groups.  Northern Thailand has preserved many field rice varieties are suitable to the hillsides, but many paddy rice varieties have disappeared from the fields.  But surrounding Chiang Mai, sixty percent of rice is Gor Kor 6.

There are three types of rice – field rice, which is suited to the mountainous ranges of northern Thailand, rain-fed rice, grown throughout Esan, and flooded-paddy rice, which grows in taam ecosystems and was traditionally grown in central Thailand (but has mostly disappeared in this export-intensive region).  There are pure, indigenous varieties, improved varieties, which have bred by and varieties improved by researchers and sold to farmers.

Esan has a diversity of ecosystems: taam which tends to be flooded during the rainy season, tung which is well-suited to Jasmine rice, non, khok and hai – hilly areas, and puu which are mountainous areas in northern Thailand.  Rice seed preservation started in different areas because of different areas.  Some areas, in the north, didn’t have enough rice to eat.  Others wanted to find their old seeds and others wanted to stop using chemicals.

Government rice seed researchers from Pattalung, Pathum Thani and Ubon joined us for the day’s meeting.  They understand the importance of small farmers participation in the preservation and improvement of indigenous seeds.  Farmers need indigenous seeds – more than 400 varieties have been preserved in Pattalung, for the purpose of farmers to plant themselves.  In the south, the AAN has created a fund and specific planting area to support the preservation of indigenous rice seeds.  The Pattalung research center has provided support to farmer-initiated development of seed preservation techniques.

Mr. Somsong Chotechuen presented information about the Rice Bank’s research in a transparent way, showing just how far this institution has come since its inception.  He invited farmers to ask questions and explained their new indigenous seed distribution system.  Seeds distributed by the Rice Department come in 10-gram amounts – a small amount to plant and expand by an experienced farmer.  In 1981, the Pathum Thani Rice Seed Bank was established to collect and preserve all rice varieties.  The Rice Bank works in partnership with the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI).  A total of 17,000 varieties have been collected at the Pathum Thani Bank. The Bank is home to “floating” rice varieties from the deep water paddies of central Thailand that reach 5 meters in length, five “forest varieties” of rice (oryza rufipogon, nivara, officinalis, ridleyi, granulata).  Until the Alternative Agriculture Network and with it’s allies demanded the return of indigenous seeds to our network farmers, Thailand’s rice producers had no access to this rich genetic resource. The Kao Kun Naa “rice returns to the field” effort organized by the AAN brought indigenous seeds back to small-scale farmers.

Why save seeds?  To do so supports family food culture, organic production, inheritance from previous generations – and we must save seeds for future generations.  Seeds are produced into food items, shared with other community members, and used in community religious or traditional ceremonies. Historically, there were more than 60 varieties of rice in 3 villages in Kamet sub-district, Kudchum district, Yasothon province.  This speaks to the ecological diversity in a small community.

Farmers can save seeds themselves and become self-reliant seed owners.  Seeds create the concrete basis for production in local communities, and are suited the range of ecological systems in local areas.  Farmers also need to be able to share or exchange information and expand production with other community members. Information systems are important – NGOs and villagers haven’t been successful in recording information and when we want to compare information with seed researchers, we aren’t able to access this information.  P’ Det noted, “It’s like we need to start again each year.”

In Esan there are over 80 Farmer-volunteers are experimenting with the appropriateness of different varieties to various ecosystems.  Demonstration paddies are also organized in each research area.  Community members come together at our annual seed campaign events, for example the 3rd Month Merit Making.  At these campaign events, we give out local varieties to community members with information about their different varieties.  Local Wiseman’s Centers are also a space to share information and show how local varieties are well suited to organic production.

Yet as we’ve written before, Esan farmers don’t plant local varieties, and don’t save their own seeds.  Farmers in general see themselves as incapable, and those who are able to save seeds feel like they can’t get other farmers interested.  Farmers are in a risky position, given the variability in the seasons.  Our network understands that the suitability of local seeds to local ecosystems will help improve yields and seed purity and our farmer volunteer researchers improve local seeds that are suited to local ecology.

Community-based seed development and expansion will be an important way for government institutions to support indigenous seeds.  As this kind of production grows, the government can support the development of markets for local seeds and food products based from local rice varieties.  Khon Kaen University has produced a number of popular foods for urban consumers and villagers’ groups have earned substantial incomes.

Market growth is ultimately dependent on the ability and preferences of the groups growing.  Groups that develop markets are able to expand production.  Some areas grow specifically for preservation.  Farmers in Nong Kae sub-district, Sisaket province are pursuing GI recognition for their local varieties.  Similar movements are happening in Yasothon and Mahasarakam.

More than participation, we need integration – supporting this work needs to be a part of this institutions’ practice – Arun Waicam

Working together is a solution, but what hasn’t yet happened with researchers is a much-needed transition.  We aren’t real “researchers,” we’re able to go into different areas and work.  The work we’ve been doing with the AAN – it’s clear that farmers are strong and are able to carry out this research on their own.  I’m a researcher, I can’t farm…I can’t grow rice on my own.  Farmers have techniques and science of their own that works.  All I’m hoping is that the policies stop coming from above and start coming from below. – Ajaan Boonrat

How should the research center support our work for seed preservation and expansion?  Our goal is for farmers to be self-reliant in terms of good seeds.  AAN farmers groups have developed techniques and strategies appropriate to saving quality, indigenous seeds and are ready to expand.  If farmers groups continue to develop, governments need to support these groups.  This support will need to come from the sub-district to the national level.

As farmers progress in their research and preservation, government advising will become more essential.  Thulang, a member of Thailand’s new generation of young farmers, helps to preserve over 120 varieties.  Towards the end of the conference, he told the room, “My father and I grow a range of rice varieties for a range of goals.  We grow some simply to preserve them.  Since 2001, we took seeds that were no longer being promoted.  By 2006, when Ajaan Boonrat came to work with us, we were improving seeds.  I believe indigenous seeds are good, and as the climate changes, we need seeds that can adapt to these changes.  This is why we’ve preserved these seeds.”

Thulang is planting a newly mixed variety, which naturally brought a Jasmine and a sticky rice variety together.  “Some of these new varieties are changing characteristics; I don’t know what the origin plant was.  When water isn’t sufficient, the grains aren’t full, which is what we’ve been warned about.”  This kind of trial and error learning process is an important space for researchers to engage with farmers and learn more about natural, paddy environments.  Farmers’ benefit from researchers’ knowledge about plant characteristics and pathology.

The Rice Department is developing a new strategy for the next 5 years.  Our goal group is farmers, research must be based in solving the problems of farmers and what comes out of our research should help solve these problems.  This is the way to work – analyze these problems and then work for the benefit of farmers.  Not just produce a lot of research and then not do anything with it. – Somsong Chotechuen

By the end of our research presentations and discussion during the afternoon exchange session we had planned a new working group for Esan and northern Thailand.  NGOs, farmers and researchers will coordinate research findings and logistical information for each villager-based research area and being mapping out strategy by the end of this month.  The AAN is confident that we can continue working together with the government to support farmer self-reliance in high quality, organic rice seeds.

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