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AAN: Policy Institute for Farmers’ Welfare, National Food Security and Community Empowerment

In Meetings, Our Network on 05/02/2010 at 12:28 pm

Yesterday’s meeting, featured in the Bangkok Post article below, touched on a lot more than AFTA tariff reductions and their impacts on small farmers.  This new Institute is the product of many years of work and collaboration with Thailand’s Agriculture and Cooperatives Ministry, Commerce Ministry and Public Health Ministry.  Over the next three years, the Policy Institute will work to mobilize information about sustainable agriculture and our network’s way of thinking about sustainable agriculture and farmer welfare.

The meeting also featured a proposal from Dr. Prawet Wasee to change the Agriculture Ministry’s name to the “Farmers Ministry.”  While this change is unlikely, it speaks to the kind of ideological change needed within the government.  It is clear that farmers are seen by the government as inefficient goods-producers and without any reform of this approach, the government will again fail in supporting small farmers in the liberalized ASEAN economy.  Farming is actually a way of life for many people – they don’t see themselves as just chow naa (rice farmers) but chow baan (villagers), and life takes place in and around their fields.  Market production and agrochemicals have destroyed this relationship for many farmers, but even with the impacts of the 1997 financial crisis and current global recession, rural communities have been able to absorb migrants.  Food security has been maintained in rural communities because of how many people continue to grow food or see the importance of preserving local biodiversity (and local foods). The government cannot afford to view farmers’ careers as simply commodity-producing and view them as people with important social value.

The Policy Institute for Farmers’ Welfare, National Food Security and Community Empowerment represents a movement for reform – it will work to bring together all related ministries and institutions to coordinate and network for a better food system in Thailand.  We must develop a society-level learning process so that communities can understand why farmers are an important part of society and why safe, healthy food is important.  Thailand’s development has meant not only a physical, but mental separation from farming and food production.  Local-level efforts by grassroots organizations like the Alternative Agriculture Network – Esan will need to be connected to national-level policy development.  Thailand’s agricultural history has shown little support for organic production from the government, only in recent years have provincial governments in Esan like Surin and Yasothon made some effort.

On the same day as the Policy Institute for Farmers’ Welfare’s inauguration, The Commerce Ministry announced a push to support organic exports and the Bangkok Post cites “The Thai market for organic goods is estimated to be worth 6 billion baht, half of which comes from exports. The country’s exports of organic products are projected to grow by 10% this year to more than 3.3 billion baht.”  Exporting high-quality, organic products has been beneficial for many producers organizations and small businesses, but government support should also focus on supporting local food systems, alternative markets and agricultural products that are genuinely owned and managed by small farmers’ organizations.  The organic movement in Thailand has always been from the grassroots and as it expands, farmer empowerment and their right to livelihood must be maintained.

From the Bangkok Post:

Academics complain farmers not safeguarded from Afta impact

Farmers’ advocates and academics are taking the Agriculture and Cooperatives Ministry to task for failing to safeguard Thai farmers from the effects of the Asean Free Trade Area.

Unlike the Commerce Ministry, which had laid down several measures to shield the farm sector from the agreement’s impact, the Agriculture Ministry has done nothing to help farmers get ready for trade liberalisation, said Pattamawadee Suzuki, an economics professor at Thammasat University, yesterday.

”The Afta was sealed in 1992, which means that [agriculture] officials have had up to 17 years to boost Thai farmers’ competitiveness, but they have failed to come up with any measures,” Ms Pattamadhwadee said.

Afta reduced the tariffs on thousands of Asean products to between zero and 5% from Jan 1 this year. As one of the world’s major farm goods exporters, Thailand is particularly concerned about the tariff cuts on 23 farm items.

The Commerce Ministry expects half of the 23 farm product to suffer a negative impact from Afta, including garlic, onions, rice, tobacco, maize and palm oil. These impacts range from an influx of cheap produce from neighbouring countries to the mixing of poor-quality imported goods with high-quality farm products produced in Thailand.

Ms Pattamawadee said the Agriculture Ministry should have helped farmers cut their production costs and increase their yield per rai by introducing new farming methods and technologies.

She was speaking at a seminar yesterday inaugurating the Policy Institute for Farmers’ Welfare, National Food Security and Community Empowerment.

The ministry should also improve the farm database, which provides key information on agriculture, farmers and their farms. This would help the government devise sound policies and measures to shield Thai farmers from the adverse consequences of the pact.

The newly established agency, which comes under the Prime Minister’s Office, serves as the government’s think-tank on agricultural policy.

Organic farmer Decha Siripat, director of the KhaoKwan Foundation, said the government could safeguard Thai farmers from Afta simply by solving exist ing problems they had faced for years. The most worrying problem was widespread use of farm chemicals and fertilisers which are expensive and harm farmers’ health and the environment.

Mr Decha called on the government to issue a ban on the advertising of farm chemicals and raise the import tax on them because they are currently subject to a zero tariff.

Nikorn Chamnong, adviser to Agriculture and Cooperatives Minister Theera Wongsamut, conceded that the ministry was moving too slowly in implementing measures to safeguard farmers.

He said the ministry only realised last August that something must be done to help farmers get ready for free trade.

”The ministry formed a committee to look into the impacts of the agreement and found that the biggest problem was that we didn’t even know what the problems were,” Mr Nikorn said. ”It is also shocking to learn that there are dozens of committees overseeing production and trade of the 23 farm items and they do not collaborate with each other.”

Mr Nikorn said he would propose that the government appoint a deputy prime minister to oversee the Afta matter. and ensure work integration between agencies concerned.

In the ministry’s initial study, those expected to be hardest-hit by the agreement include 3.7 million families of paddy farmers, oil palm planters (180,000 families), silk farmers (140,000) and coffee producers (29,000).

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