World Rainforest Movement

Thailand: Rubber plantations against forests, people and health

The recent study “Rights of rubber farmers in Thailand under free trade”, by Ms Sayamol Kaiyoorawong and Ms Bandita Yangdee, [http://www.wrm.org.uy/countries/Thailand/Rights_of_rubber_farmers_in_Thailand.pdf],makes a thorough review of the whole rubber business and its actors in that country.

The report highlights that the first rubber trees brought from Malaya and planted in Thailand in 1899 developed into a national scheme of integrated plantation, where rubber trees were grown in combination with indigenous plants and other fruit trees, food plants and other species. Such pattern allowed farmers not only to harvest the rubber but also to collect vegetables, wild animals, herbs, fuel wood and wood for construction.

A promotion policy which started in 1911 and was further strengthened in 1978 made rubber plantations spread in the southern, eastern and northeastern regions of the country, totaling some 2 million hectares according to 2003 data. And the trend has been to keep on spreading. Expectations to increase rubber production by 250,000 tons per year in Thailand aim at meeting the increasing global demand of rubber to feed –among other- the automobile industry.

This upsurge has led to a change in the production pattern of rubber, giving rise to large scale monoculture plantations which have played havoc in the environment and on people.

Rubber plantations have changed the landscape. Quoting the report, they “can be seen all over the south of Thailand, from the highland areas down to the low lying plains and since the latest government promotion project in 2004-2006 cloned seedlings have begun sprouting in almost every province of the country, replacing short-term cash crops.”

They have also eroded the ecosystems, including forests: “Being monoculture plantation, the use of chemical pesticides and the lack of other plants destroyed the bio-diversity of the eco-systems and coexistence of flora and fauna.” “With decreasing trees covering the soil, the evaporation of water was affected” and even the level of the underground water was reduced.” Moreover, some rubber plantations in the South were located on 40-60 degree slopes, which resulted in soil erosion.

Some of the social impacts of monoculture rubber tree plantations relate to the consumer culture that the production for sale of rubber has brought about. Rubber farmers now have to pay cash to get the things that they could previously harvest in the integrated system. Now it is money which plays an active role in dominating the community’s way of life, separating them from nature as well as from the community way of living and working. Now “each household will concentrate on tapping their rubber to get as much money as they can. As each plantation is located far from each other, their cooperation is, in effect, on the decrease.”

The authors explain the consequences that such change had on the life of the communities: “By collecting natural produce along with the products gained from partially transforming nature into rubber forest, the communities could live happily. In the past, any decision-making was made by community members. But when the rubber plantation system was introduced, the plantation owners would be led and forced to strictly comply with the requirements of the ORRIF [government office]. Under the monoculture plantation approach, the rubber farmers must obey and follow the instructions given to them. They have no control over the production system, development of rubber varieties, rubber pricing and its selling. The monoculture of rubber is therefore destroying the local wisdom of developing rubber varieties and the farmers’ agricultural methods.”

Regarding the work at the plantations, a study cited in the report found that “these rubber farmers did not rest adequately. Thus, they were physically weak and had aches and pains because of the movements they had to make according to the different levels of the rubber tree they had to tap and the overload of latex buckets they had to carry. Eating irregularly brought on peptic ulcer disease.”  Another study “found that the rubber farmers’ toes and nails were ruined and their eyes infected because of the use of chemical sprays without proper protection.”

The large scale rubber plantations have been a cause of uncontrollable disease outbreaks, soil degradation and topsoil erosion on the slopes. Also rubber prices are beyond the farmers’ control and vulnerable to being lowered. For local communities what may be in store is the potential collapse of the eco-systems as well as their lives.

Article based on “Rights of rubber farmers in Thailand under free trade”, by Ms Sayamol Kaiyoorawong and Ms Bandita Yangdee, Project for Ecological Awareness Building, sent by Sayamol Kaiyoorawong, e-mail: noksayamol@yahoo.com