By Prangtip Daorueng
BANGKOK, Apr 28 (IPS)
A plan to train rice farmers in north-east Thailand in ''modern''
technologies has been mired in claims that it would kill off
traditional methods that are far more sustainable in the long run.
The project seeks to get farmers to use technologies such as the
conservation tillage, land leveling, use of herbicides and seeds ''with
improved quality and traits''.
The farmers, who would be brought such technology through microcredit,
are then to teach others to use the same methods.
This may sound harmless to the farmers in the Nong Yang and Lamplaymart
districts in Buriram province, but activists say this is an introduction
to large-scale farming that has often benefited corporate interests,
excessively relied on chemicals and undercut food security.
''Converting these farmers into large-scale mechanised farms will force
farmers to buy extensive machinery, inputs (chemical fertilizer and
pesticides) and seeds, driving them into debt and eventually off their
lands,'' Sarojeni Rengam of the Pesticide Action Network (PAN)
Asia-Pacific wrote in a letter to the Population and Community
Development Association (PDA), a well- known Thai NGO involved in
The project, called Innovative Partnership for Agricultural changes is
Technology (INPACT), is also controversial in activist circles because
of who is involved in it.
The partners of PDA, led by well-known Thai campaigner Mechai
Viravaidya, are the Thai agriculture department and the U.S.
transnational company Monsanto, the world's largest herbicide
company and third largest seed company.
Activists say the proposed project also involves the Philippines-based
International Rice Research Institute (IRRI). But IRRI says it is not
directly involved with Monsanto, though it works with local groups
Activists are now lobbying against the project and to get PDA, whose
reputation they say is being used by Monsanto, to back out. The call was
also made by Rengam in an Apr 22 letter to PDA.
According to PAN Asia-Pacific and BIOTHAI, an NGO working on
biodiversity issues, the project is no ordinary agricultural
training. Monsanto aims to develop large-scale extensive and
industrial rice farming in Thailand, which involves increased use
of its herbicides, they say.
The implications of these changes are particularly serious for
north-east Thailand, which is where the country's best rice is
produced and where extensive industrial farming is largely alien to
the local rice-growing structure.
For instance, Biothai's Witoon Lianchamroon said: ''The percentage of
pesticide use in this area is lower than other parts of the country.
Farmers here can produce the best rice by using seeds that have been
passed on from generations.''
This may well change once Monsanto gets local farmers to use its
conservation tillage technology, which the firm says will help farmers
cut back on tillage activates, increase the use of mechanical
methods and help in conserving soil and hike yields.
But critics say the north-east relies on small, non-highly mechanised
operations not suited to complex machinery and inaccessible to most
industrial farming technology.
Monsanto Thailand says it plans to introduce its herbicides, whose
performance it says has been proven in countries like the United States
and Indonesia. But critics doubt this, saying Monsanto wants to get
as many farmers to keep using its products.
Thai activists also warn that the INPACT project may end up allowing
firms like Monsanto to introduce transgenic seeds that supposedly
require less pesticides and chemicals.
Even this claim is doubtful though, they add, saying such plants in fact
need more herbicides. They cite statistics by the U.S. agriculture
department that show that in 1997, expanded plantings of herbicide
tolerant soybeans resulted in a 72 percent increase in the use of
Besides, local campaigners say introducing a seed supposed to need less
herbicides is not necessarily relevant in Thailand, because developing
countries often have small farmers who use much less pesticides than
those in developed countries.
Likewise, the use of seeds ''with improved quality and traits'' under
the north-east Thailand project implies the use of hybrid seeds
which critics fear will lead to heavy use of chemical fertilisers
Sanya Bhumichitra, marketing manager of Monsanto Thailand, said in an
interview the firm's involvement in the project is only in conservation
tillage. There are some 1,500 rice growers in Thailand participating in
the use of this technology, including 100 in the north-east, he
Sought for comment, IRRI said in a statement that does not ''push
pesticides on farmers''.
It says it has not entered into any formal agreement for the Thailand
project, but that its workplan for the country includes joint activities
with the agriculture department and PDA, which in turn enters into
partnerships with other private groups.
''Some of our NGO partners in Thailand have been exploring partnerships
with the private sector, but IRRI has not entered into any formal
agreements with private companies, including Monsanto, for technology
transfer activities,'' IRRI said.
BIOTHAI and PAN Asia-Pacific also point to Monsanto's controversial
record elsewhere in Asia.
They cite how the Grameen Bank of Bangladesh, a pioneer of the
micro-credit system for the poor, pulled out of its joint project
with Monsanto, called the ''Grameen Monsanto Centre for
Monsanto had initially offered 150,000 dollars for soft loans for
Bangladeshi farmers to buy agricultural and rural technology, including
Monsanto's proprietary herbicides, hybrid rice, hybrid maze and cotton
But protests by environmental and community-based groups, saying the
project aimed only to create markets for Monsanto's own products and
neglected local knowledge, drove the Grameen Bank to withdraw from it.
Noted Witoon: ''The way Monsanto joins hand with a well- respected NGO
in developing countries is to build up its image and it has happened
''We want to urge PDA to think twice about joining with Monsanto.
Technologies promoted by the company goes against the country's aim at
self-sufficient way of life. It will lead to the more poverty among Thai
farmers,'' he said.
Monsanto Thailand's Sanya says the fears about widespread introduction
of transgenic seeds is baseless because Thai laws do not allow their
As for Monsanto wanting to see INPACT boosting its image, Sanya said:
''To promote ourselves is to tell society what we are doing. I want
to ask you if there is anything wrong with that.''
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