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close this bookThe Impact of Technology on Human Rights: Global Case-studies (UNU, 1993, 322 pages)
close this folder3. Technology and human rights: critical implications for Thailand
View the document(introductory text...)
View the documentIntroduction
View the documentHuman rights
View the documentTechnology
View the documentImplications
View the documentRural development
View the documentAgriculture
View the documentIndustrialization
View the documentUrbanization
View the documentEnvironmental concerns
View the documentThe socialization process
View the documentAssessment
View the documentAppendix 1
View the documentNotes

Agriculture

One Thai commentator39 has observed that farmers suffer from four deaths: (a) death through natural causes; (b) death through general illnesses; (c) death and illnesses from pesticides; and (d) death from economic deprivation. These laments indicate that the development of farmers, who are the backbone of the agricultural sector and form the majority of the population, is far from satisfactory.

While agricultural outputs of rice and other produce such as tapioca used to be the country's biggest export earners, they are now being overtaken by industrial goods, particularly from the manufacturing sector, such as textiles. There was in 1990 a decline in most agricultural exports, the decreases in value for rice and tapioca being 38.7 and 7.4 per cent respectively, as seen in table 4.

Yet one should not forget that the importance of agriculture for the country cannot be computed in terms of cash crops and export earnings alone. Agricultural produce is the livelihood of the majority of Thais and provides their staple diet.

Government planning to help agriculture in the Sixth Plan is based upon four tenets:40 production for sale; diversification of production so as to minimize risk; linkage between production and marketing; and improvement of administration of agriculture. Government strategies tying agriculture with technology include the following:41

1. Enhance research and development on production techniques so as to produce new goods; examples include initiatives by the Ministry of Agriculture to promote herbal medicine, tobacco, macadamia nuts, mushrooms, fisheries, cashew nuts, and cocoa.

2. Promote the production process in farming communities by means of supplementary occupations, e.g. prawn farming, other crops besides rice (e.g. rubber), orchards, and crop diversification.

3. Provide incentives to farmers such as through budgetary concessions, e.g. by means of a revolving fund to help farmers, administered by the Bank of Agriculture and Cooperatives.

4. Improve the governmental role in transferring technology to help the production process; the concept of technology transfer is to help in decision-making through better education, taking into account the available natural resources and the market at large, and the provision of more productive cultivars.

5. Upgrade the system of production and marketing, e.g. with the establishment of provincial plans (now being experimented with in Ubon province).

Table 4. Exports of major agricultural commodities (in thousand of tons)





Jan. - Apr.

Product

1989

1988

%

1990

1989

+%

Rice

6,037

5,089

18.6

1,247

2,258

- 44.8


(44,803)a

(34,676)

(29.2)

(9,268)

(15,112)

(-38.7)

Maize

1,126

1,214

- 7.3

357

423

- 15.6


(3,966)

(3,828)

(3.6)

(1,284)

(1,502)

(- 14.5)

Tapioca products

9,797

8,121

20.6

3,078

3,746

- 17.8


(24,561)

(21,844)

(12.4)

(8,165)

(8,815)

(-7.4)

Rubber

1,090

938

16.2

304

287

5.8


(25,596)

(27,189)

(-5.9)

(6,209)

(7.377)

(- 15.8)

Sugar

2,975

1,855

60.4

771

772

2.5


(19,017)

(9,664)

(95.8)

(5,914)

(4,501)

(31.4)

a. Figures in parentheses indicate value in millions of baht. Source: Bangkok Post Mid-year Economic Review (1990), p. 15.

In practice, certain aspects deserve closer examination:

Appropriate Technology

No one denies the need to have appropriate technology for agriculture; many of the techniques used by farmers are already appropriate. However, it is difficult to assess the true impact of innovative technology which claims to be appropriate. These are exemplified by technology for basic livelihood, including bamboo pumps, PVC pumps, and hydraulic rams for water production; windmills to produce electricity; mixing ashes with cement to provide construction material; use of palm oil and the residue of corn for soap production; solar energy; and walking tractors as a labour-saving device.42

While the use of such technology is increasing, one should not underestimate the impact of the rising costs of fertilizers and insecticide, as well as unstable agricultural prices and inflation, which militate against real upgrading of agricultural life.

Water

Ask any farmer in Thailand and he/she will probably reply that water is the most important resource that is lacking. Irrigated land covers only 20 per cent of the cultivable area.43 The situation is more complicated owing to the dilemma concerning whether to build more dams for irrigation purposes. The growing environmentalist lobby has come out strongly against the construction of large dams, as will be seen later in this study. The options are to promote more small-scale irrigation facilities, such as reservoirs and village ponds.

Rice Cultivars

One of the most interesting impacts of technology is the improvement of rice production through new cultivars. A whole variety of rice has been developed in Thailand, at times through links with the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) in the Philippines.44 Two main varieties have been explored; the photosensitive type, depending upon seasons for growth, and the non-photosensitive type, depending upon the period of days for cultivation. High-yielding seeds of the latter type include the "Kor Kor" series, which was developed through cross-fertilization with a species lent by IRRI.

Until recently, one of the most high-yielding cultivars was the home-bred Supanburi species, with its shorter stem which helps retain rice grain. However, it has not proved resistant to pests; it has been attacked by brown plant hoppers, and farmers have had to revert to the use of other cultivars.

As noted earlier, there is still the unsettled question of whether new rice cultivars should be patentable in Thailand. The present patent legislation does not permit this because of its rationale of rendering agricultural technology, whether through machinery or cultivars, more accessible to farmers.

Fertilizers

According to a study by Mingsarn in northern Thailand, some 35 per cent of the sample of farmers interviewed used fertilizers, and spent nearly 2,000 baht annually on them.45 The expenditure on fertilizers is high, considering that some farmers earn only 5,000 baht or less per annum. According to the same study, 25 per cent of the interviewees had no knowledge of any of the four major fertilizers commonly sold in the region, suggesting a gap in access to key information in farmers' decision-making.46 Another study on agricultural technology observes that 53 per cent of the farmers interviewed in irrigated areas used fertilizers, while only 43 per cent of those in rain-fed areas used them.47 Interestingly, there is a close linkage between irrigated areas and use of fertilizers, implying that access to water provided by the state goes hand in hand with access to information on fertilizers and to the fertilizers themselves. The one technology fosters the other technology.

The second study also notes that particularly in rain-fed areas, except in central Thailand, there is misuse of fertilizers in proportion to the land area and season.48 Where there is usage, it is lower than that recommended by officials, and at times the wrong kind of fertilizer is used for the cultivated land. These elements point to the need for more education of farmers in their use of fertilizers.

An offshoot of the above is the concern expressed over use and abuse of chemical fertilizers; they are not only expensive by comparison with natural fertilizers but also create a vicious cycle of dependency: the more fertilizer you use, the more the land will demand and the more you will spend. There are also complaints that the fertilizers recommended by officials are not available in the local markets.

There are now calls for greater use of local fertilizers made of natural elements, such as compost, hay, and rice husk. For example, hay can help to regenerate nutrients in the topsoil if the soil is covered in the correct manner. However, natural fertilizers sometimes take a long time to produce, and farmers in a hurry are unlikely to wait. The compromise seems to be to accelerate the production of natural fertilizers while moderating the use of chemical fertilizers.

Pesticides

According to the Mingsarn study, 76.8 per cent of the farmers interviewed used insecticides while 65 per cent used herbicides.49 54.3 per cent have witnessed cases of insecticide toxicity in nearby areas, and 60 per cent have encountered pesticide resistance.50 In another study on agricultural technology, herbicides are identified as causing the number one problem, while insecticides follow as number two.51 Misuse of herbicides includes:

- incorrect use for type of weeds and period of time;
- wrong method in applying herbicides; and
- failure to explore other methods of dealing with undesired plants.

In relation to use of pesticides, it is interesting that such use is more widespread in irrigated areas than in rain-fed areas, indicating again that access to water technology also leads to access to other technology, including pesticides.52 An additional worry is the use of chemicals to kill rodents, particularly in irrigated areas. The abuses include: wrong method of utilization; incorrect time, and use for the wrong type of rodent.

The current concern is to move towards more appropriate use of chemical pesticides and to develop natural pesticides. Various local herbs, including takerai, saduo, mint, and tobacco, may be blended into natural insecticides. Equally important is the preservation of natural predators to curb the spread of undesired pests. One should not underestimate the value of the ordinary worm or the common toad in this respect!

Animals and Machinery

One of the most marked declines in the use of traditional technology relates to the use of water buffaloes for ploughing ricefields. In recent years, they have been killed increasingly for their meat. The shortage of buffaloes has even led to the import of buffaloes from neighbouring countries. The utility of the buffalo has been underestimated, especially if one is dealing with small plots of land which do not need high-powered technology.

Generally, labour-saving technology is much in demand and can help to raise the farmer's quality of life. These range from ordinary pumps to tractors. The four-wheeled tractor is not widespread and is costly to maintain; only 21 per cent of farmers are estimated to be using them.53 By contrast, the walking tractors are a more appropriate form of technology; some 63 per cent of farmers are using them.54 There is also increasing demand for post-harvest technology, including crop threshing and rice dehumidifiers. At present only 23 per cent of farmers have access to crop-threshing machinery.55

Interestingly, the Ministry of Technology has regulations to help reduce tariffs on machinery of this kind if it comes from abroad, as well as a revolving fund to help local research and development, as noted earlier. One should note that rice mills and silos tend to be in the hands of the few, thus pressuring rice farmers to sell their yield early to middlemen without being able to stockpile for the future. The prospect of community participation and cooperation in relation to such technology has yet to be maximized to increase farmers' bargaining power in the production and marketing processes.

On another front, Mingsarn observes that the traditional communal irrigation system, as well as its management and repair of related weirs and canals, is well established.56 However, water management at the field level leaves much to be desired, while the concept of drainage and water-saving devices is not sufficiently understood.

Land and Technology

Increasing landlessness and sale of land to investors mainly from urban areas suggests a changing picture at the rural level, whereby more local farmers are becoming tenants or own reduced areas for farming purposes. On the one hand, there is the rise of the absentee landlord with vast holdings, which are being turned over increasingly to industrial use in the central areas of Thailand.57 On the other hand, there is the increasing number of smallholdings and tenancies. Of particular concern is the role of technology in helping to alleviate the plight of the latter. Precisely because the scale of farmers' holdings is becoming smaller, the type of technology required should be cost-effective and should respond to the natural resource base.

Simple, inexpensive forms of machinery are required, while knowledge and know-how through appropriate training and dissemination of information should be maximized. This is already undertaken by various programmes of the Ministry of Agriculture and through the radio, but their reach is still limited. Equally important is managerial and marketing technology that will enable farmers to group together to manage and market their own produce without being too dependent upon unscrupulous middlemen. There is the additional aspect of how to increase their income through supplementary occupations and the role of industrialization in this respect. It is to this that the study now turns.