World farm voices, Thailand: ‘Not arresting the villagers is a favor’

by: Natasha Chart

Fourth in a series of interviews with farmers affiliated with La Via Campesina, an alliance of international peasant farmer organizations. This interview was conducted with the assistance of an LVC translator.

Baramee Chaiyarat is responsible for organizing the seven networks that make up Thailand’s Assembly of the Poor and his background as the son of a subsistence farmer and a teacher made him well-suited to this work.

The Assembly of the Poor represents villagers affected by either dam construction or forestry policy, the landless, alternative agriculturalists, small scale fisher folk, slum dwellers and injured workers. They’re a non-partisan organization that’s deeply suspicious of all the country’s political parties. At one point, they were all separate, and Chaiyarat said they all “felt tired and out of energy” after many years of unsuccessful work. He doesn’t even know who first thought of bringing them all together, and that it took several years of face to face forums before everyone trusted each other enough to establish the AoP, which organizes mass mobilizations in the capital and community-backed lending circles.

Chaiyarat said he and his colleagues “came to let the world know that the solutions being proposed at Bella Center are false solutions. We feel the real way to solve the problem is through the principle of food security,” he said, and supporting small scale farmers who work in harmony with nature.
One proposal that particularly concerns Chaiyarat is the REDD (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation)standard, which is said to be close to a final deal. He said that without adequate protections for indigenous peoples, “it will be one of the most vicious sorts of programs around,” allowing the government an additional pretext to drive villagers out of their ancestral lands.
Chaiyarat gave an example from the Trang province, of how under Thailand’s existing deforestation law, the government ejected an indigenous village from an area of the forest that was turned over to a rubber planation, which was then declared part of a national forest. When the rubber trees got old, the plantation owners abandoned them. The villagers moved back and started replacing rubber trees with their indigenous agroforestry crop rotation systems which give their plots seven years to recover.
Those directly involved in cutting the rubber trees were arrested. Those who could afford bribes were set free, the rest were prosecuted for criminal deforestation, and having been found guilty, are currently facing civil cases against them for damages.
Chaiyarat pointed to another case of an organge plantation that had moved into a portion of national forest in northern Thailand and continually expanding. He said they used so many chemicals on the trees that you could smell them walking by and the substantial runoff from the orchards’ exposed ground contaminated nearby subsistence farm plots.
When villagers complained, the government said they were living in the forest, too, so if they arrested the plantation owners then the villagers would also have to be arrested. Since the plantation owners can pay for their release, Chaiyarat said that “the government claims by not arresting either, they’re doing a favor to the villagers.”
Chaiyarat said that many Thai politicians come from timber merchant backgrounds, particularly the current Minister of Natural Resources and the Environment. “We’re very concerned,” he said, “because he’s been negotiating here for the Thai government,” and he doesn’t know what sort of carbon trading deals he’s made with wealthy nations.
Though even as he’s concerned with the proposed solutions, he doesn’t doubt the problem. He said the seasons have changed just since he was born, with the rainy season coming later and shorter, while the cold season is no longer so cold and dry as it was before, often still raining when it didn’t used to.
Chaiyarat said farmers like the ones he represents have better ideas, and that their petroleum-free methods that make use of natural fertilizers use less land and take better care of it. He said their methods resulted in less runoff, and that you could see the difference in the forests they’d been occupying for hundreds of years, at least. Those forests, he said, were “still healthy, still forests and the water was still good.”
Chaiyarat asked that people living in the US, like myself, try to understand that the way we’re living is creating great hardship and poverty in the global South. He said that when his government started using carbon credits as an excuse to grab more land for tree plantations, “we hope we can count on the support of brothers and sisters around the world.”