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The Importance and Deterioration of Subsistence Agriculture

Census and survey figures show that over 80 per cent of the population of Northern Thailand is involved in agriculture, and village studies show that most rural people derive most of their food from what they can grow or gather. Given the low-level, and possibly declining, rural cash income (about US$64 per capita in 1972) and the large proportion of rural people in the population, subsistence production is obviously essential for a very large number and proportion of the people. In the highlands, where there is no marketing system capable of supplying the basic food needs of the people, even if there were surplus food available for sale and money with which to buy it, subsistence production is even more important. At the same time there are clear signs that the subsistence production and distribution systems are incapable of keeping up with the increase in population, the increased demands for cash, and the deterioration in productive capacity of the land. One complicating factor in the unplanned transition from subsistence to cash economy is the lack of rural agricultural credit facilities. both to finance local agricultural intensification and to tide farmers over in times of seasonal scarcity or crop failure. The lack of credit at reasonable cost in the increasingly monetized rural economy is probably a major reason, along with population growth, for the increase in tenancy in the lowlands and environmental degradation in the highlands.

Regardless of the rapid socio-economic changes in Northern Thailand, it is essential to remember that the vast majority of the rural people in the North continue to participate in local subsistence agricultural economic systems. For many reasons, the various types of local subsistence agricultural economies cannot be, and are not being. maintained intact. Unexploited frontiers of similar land types no longer remain for population expansion at a time when populations are growing rapidly both due to natural increase and migration. Thus, to the extent that migration can relieve population pressure, the movements are mostly to different economic-ecological zones. A variety of mechanisms have been used both in the lowlands and the highlands to allow the maintenance of some features of the traditional village structure even after the local village subsistence economy can no longer support its entire population. Population movements have taken the form of permanent, seasonal, temporary, or even daily migration for wage work, or for access to land. Another alternative to the increase in population pressure is agricultural intensification, in the form of terracing. irrigation, or year-round water supplies. Another alternative is cash cropping, on lands which were used previously for different purposes, which were seasonally unused, or which were not used agriculturally for reasons of terrain, etc.

Each of these changes carries with it implications for village social structure. for the subsistence economy. for the demographic situation, and for the environment. The extent to which villagers have been able to maintain village structure (and family/household structure) is surprising in view of the increase in population and the rapid pace of some aspects of modernization. The preservation of villages gives a resiliency to the society of the North. which probably reduces the scope of social problems associated with rapid urbanization in other areas. The pattern seems quite different from that followed in much of the West. in which rural areas were depopulated deliberately or otherwise, and in which urban centres grew very large and very rapidly. By contrast. there is only one metropolitan area in Thailand, Bangkok-Thonburi. and deliberate attempts have been made to provide infrastructural developments and services in provinces, districts. and even lower level towns (schools, police, administrative officials, post and telegraph services. health services, etc.). The advantages of maintaining a largely rural, small-village, and small-town distribution of population should be carefully weighed against the social costs, already overt in Bangkok and clearly foreshadowed in Chiang Mai, of encouraging or allowing large-scale metropolitan or megalopolitan growth. If this is a valid approach to regional development, the question becomes one of finding ways of intensifying agricultural and other activities in regional areas so they can support more people But this should be done in such a way that it will neither encourage population growth nor induce destruction of local village structure and village subsistence economies.

This suggests that a careful look must be taken at the unintended and probably undesired corollaries of various alternative strategies for increasing the carrying capacity of local economic systems and raising the material standard of living for villagers. In particular, the development strategy should not lead to conditions encouraging population growth, and it should simultaneously assure the maintenance of adequate subsistence agriculture at least until alternative sources of income and economical supplies of food can be assured. In the highland area at least, available data suggest that in comparison with groups whose basic local economy is one of subsistence swiddening, those groups with a mixed subsistence and cash economy or with emphasis on cash cropping have higher fertility and growth rates, and actually encourage (through a variety of reproductive and nonreproductive mechanism) the growth of population (Kunstadter 1978a; 1978f). There is also a tendency to increase the demand for land with the shift to cash cropping (see, e.g., Walker 1976; Scholz 1969). Although the exact operation of these highland cash crop economies as regards human population and resource use is not yet fully understood. it seems appropriate to characterize them as inherently expansionistic and unbounded, in contrast with the more conservative local economies of groups which have traditionally practiced subsistence swiddening in a short cultivation-long fallow cycle, such as Lua' and Karen. As indicated, even the latter groups are no longer even theoretically self-contained. Their needs for land resources are increasing as their populations grow and their need for income increases as new desires are introduced through the market economy and other aspects of modernization. Nonetheless, it would appear that stabilization of land holdings at the village level is essential for any attempt at maintaining or strengthening highlander village structures. Highlander village structure may be destroyed either through a laissez faire policy or as a result of deliberate resettlement or other schemes. This will lead to the creation, out of people who are now by and large feeding and administering themselves, of a landless, impoverished, and disorganized set of people who will be increasingly competing for land and jobs in the lowlands. This tendency is increased each time land is taken by lowlanders in the highlands, regardless of the purpose, unless the taking of land is accompanied by a direct increase in the productivity of land remaining for highlander use. and unless the highlanders are assured that the rest of the land will remain in their hands.

The Destabilization of Local Economic Systems in the Highlands

Traditionally the local economic systems of subsistence rice swiddeners (Lua' and Karen) in the highlands were relatively self-contained and self-sufficient on a sustained yield basis. The forest played many essential roles, renewing fertility of swiddens, creating grazing grounds for livestock, and offering a great number and variety of foods. medicines, fuel, and building materials from both the swidden regrowth and the deliberately preserved uncut portions of old forest. Highland villagers relied on lowland markets only for a few essentials (e.g., salt) and ceremonial items (bronze drums, silver for jewelry, silk thread, and cloth). For many generations these villagers supplemented their subsistence economy with sale of highland agricultural and forest products, as well as with some wage work. In recent years their dependence on the lowland economy has grown rapidly. in association with two major changes in conditions. new demands for manufactured goods, and a steadily declining land/population ratio associated with deterioration of soil. reduction of length of the swidden cycle, use of more marginal farming areas. and efforts to intensify farming At the same time their cultural independence has been continually eroded, and new values have been substituted for traditional ones ( Kunstadter 1978i).

These changes can be seen in the alteration of local community management of land resources in the highlands. Traditionally agricultural land was considered to be owned by the village community and allocated temporarily by village religious leaders for use by individual households. The religious leaders also controlled the timing of major swiddening activities (cutting. burning, and planting) and were responsible for negotiating with other villages in case of boundary disputes or potential conflicts in swiddening activities. The right of villages to organize themselves and control their own land in this fashion was formally recognized by lowland leaders until the takeover of administration of the North by the Royal Thai Government. around the turn of the century. Although hill lands were claimed as Royal Forest. there was a vacuum in administration of the hill areas, which has only been partially filled during the past two or three decades Land laws appropriate for lowland irrigated rice farming were proclaimed in disregard of traditional land claims. This has left most villages, even the ones established for many hundreds of years, without legal title to their land. which for the most part now officially belongs to the Royal Forest

Department. The market economy and expanding populations have made land into a saleable commodity in spite of the absence of legal title, and individual highland villagers have taken advantage of this changed attitude to buy and sell portions of what was once considered to be communal property. Meanwhile, alternative religions have been introduced, along with the government's secular village administrative system, thereby challenging the exclusivity of the traditional leadership of village religious heads. At the same time, the development of small-scale irrigation and other alternative and supplementary activities means that the local economy is no longer as dependent on swiddening, around which the traditional religious and agricultural management systems were based ( Kunstadter 1966, 1978f) .

Moreover. since the turn of the century, and increasingly in the past three decades, groups with totally different local economic and social systems have moved into the highlands (Hmong, Yao, Akha, Lisu, Lahu). The economies of these groups are based on cash crops or a combination of cash and subsistence crops with a much greater market orientation. Villages consist of impermanent sets of large households, the heads of which act as individual entrepreneurs: the role of religious leaders does not include village-wide regulation of land use and economic activities, but is more concerned with questions of life crises and healing. Although there are very obvious cultural differences, the form of organization and orientation to a market economy of these people is much more similar to and compatible with that of the lowland market-based local economies than are those of the subsistence swiddeners who traditionally occupied the highlands. Their orientation seems inclined towards maximization of individual household profits in the short run rather than preservation of community resources for the future.

At the same time, various lowland-dominated projects in the highlands are making more or less permanent claims on land resources in the highlands (roads, mines, forestry projects, etc.). Combined with population growth due to migration and natural increase, and the deleterious effects of swiddening with too short a fallow period. Iand per capita and production per unit area and per unit of effort are declining. The net effect of all this has been to destabilize the relationships between people and their resources without substituting adequate new local economic or social systems applicable to the highlands as a whole.

The broadening of economic systems from local subsistence agricultural economies to a proliferation of types of cash cropping and wage working has, we believe. contributed to the rapid destruction of forest and other resources in Northern Thailand

Especially in the highlands, under the traditional subsistence agricultural economy. with village ownership of swidden land recognized by lowland authorities and village land holdings managed by village religious leaders, the benefits of conservation were clearly recognized and acted upon forest fires and forest clearing were controlled, soil and watershed were conserved, and forest regeneration was encouraged. The interests of the village community and the individual household farming units in general were similar. Under the present system. in which forested land is claimed but not completely controlled by the Royal Forest Department, and in which land and highland products have a cash value, the traditional subsistence agricultural system is no longer able to maintain itself. Individual and community interests no longer coincide, and it is possible for individuals or household units to gain a temporary advantage by violating traditional land-holding and land-management customs. To the degree to which the consumers of highland products are physically and socially removed from direct dependence on the highlands for their subsistence, they have no particular interest in the conservation of upland forest resources. and their demands (translated into cash) have come to dominate the patterns of land use in the highlands.


The distribution of local economic types and ethnic groups is becoming increasingly complex, as is the association between these variables and ecological or altitudinal zones. Ethnic groups are no longer confined to particular ecological or economic niches. As land shortages become more acute. there is an increasing amount of migration within the Northern Region, from highlands to lowlands and from lowlands to highlands. in search of access to land. There is also increasing adoption of alternative production systems by both highlanders and lowlanders, including both irrigated and other permanent field systems in the hills, swiddening, and multiple irrigated cropping in the lowlands and foothills. and there are an increasing number of rural people in search of wage work.

Although in the North as a whole. population growth is slowing down as a result of declining birth and net in-migration rate, fertility rates have apparently remained high in the highlands, and it seems likely that the highlands are receiving a disproportionate share of both documented and undocumented foreign migrants. Thus the highland population is growing at a more rapid rate than that of the lowlands, thereby increasing the population pressure on land which was sparsely populated in the past with people practicing landextensive farming.

Some segments of the urban population of the North have participated in the growth of income and material affluence. but material modernization is spreading much more slowly in rural areas, especially in the highlands. Likewise the gap between the urban rich and the rural majority seems to be growing as implied by such indices as education, at the same time as landlessness is becoming more widespread in the rural areas.

We have suggested that conditions in the North have changed since the beginning of the century. In spite of ecological and cultural differences, there was little economic differentiation between highlanders and lowlanders in the past. At the present time, although cultural differences are being lessened through the spread of a Thai-based education system. radios, and manufactured goods, the social. economic. and political differences between highland and lowland are increasing.

Traditionally the highlands served as a sparsely populated, loosely controlled buffer, with considerable local autonomy. between lowland centres of power. Economically, the highlands were a source of a few raw materials and luxury goods, plus a small source of subsistence goods. Ecologically, the highlands served as steady sources of water for the small-scale lowland irrigation systems. The functions of the highlands today are much more complex. Politically, they are no longer effective as international buffers: they have come to be viewed as uncontrollable refuge areas or conduits for potential subversion or bases for invaders, or as the home of opium growers, smugglers, and illegal cutters of the forest. They have also become the sources of many more important resources than in the past. The importance of highland forest resources in particular has increased as lowland forests have been converted to rice fields or simply destroyed without adequate replanting. Teak and tin, some of which are obtained in the highlands, have taken on new importance as sources of foreign exchange. and the climatic advantages of the highlands are being recognized as underutilized areas for agricultural diversification. At the same time. as forest cutting or destruction is increased, the threat to highland watersheds is increasingly recognized. For the highlanders life apart from lowland contacts is no longer conceivable. The lowland markets are essential both for sales and purchases. and lowland-based administrative systems have become ever more dominant. Modern lowland standards of material well-being are recognized, and become important motives in upland existence.

Systems of highland resource exploitation based on low population density are no longer feasible, but careful consideration of the heretofore unanticipated consequences of development are essential for planned development. In particular the consequences for demographic rates (fertility, mortality, and migration), the effects on the ability of the villagers to feed themselves, and the implications for the preservation of village social structure should be assessed in weighing the benefits, costs, and risks of alternative plans.

Suggestions for Research

Basic demographic data which would allow rational development planning in the context of highland-lowland interactions are lacking. Quantitative information is needed on fertility, mortality, and migration as they are associated with ecological zone and economic type. Associations of variations in fertility with socio-economic and ethnic differences will be useful, for example, in predicting the effects of education on demographic change. Information on the distribution of causes of mortality will be useful in predicting effects of improving health standards. A knowledge of motivations for migration will improve the ability to predict or control migration in association with socioeconomic changes.

Basic information on the characteristics of local economic systems in the form which would be most useful to development planning is lacking. Quantitative estimates of productivity and the variability inherent in different local economic types are extremely rare; because variability is liable to be much higher in highland areas than in the lowlands, it is essential to take this into account when planning for development. The first question in this regard is the extent to which local economic systems provide adequate subsistence.

Models of interaction between local economic type and demographic rates. and the association of local economic type with resource use and conservation must be quantified. and the resulting conclusions should be considered in planning the introduction of cash cropping or agricultural intensification.

Because it is likely that subsistence agriculture will persist. but that it will not be adequate to supply subsistence and cash needs, and that much of the gap will be made up with wage labour. quantitative estimates and forecasts of labour supply and demand are required. These should include estimates of seasonal and annual variability inherent in the existing varieties of local economic systems. Likewise, because in the foreseeable future the area and the population will be predominantly agricultural, regional estimates of land supply. demand for land, and land ownership patterns are needed, broken down in terms of local economic type. It is essential, because of the widespread proliferation of effects, to monitor changing patterns of land ownership. especially as the proportion of tenancy is apparently increasing rapidly.

Suggestions for Action

At the moment. it is not possible to obtain the types of information needed for detailed assessment. planning, and evaluation of development in the Northern Region. Research and analytic capability must be developed within the region if rational planning is to proceed The capacity is needed both for gathering relevant statistics and for using them in analytic models which integrate socio-economic. demographic, and environmental variables. Although a number of research organizations exist in the North, they have not yet achieved this level of operation: data are gathered but remain unanalysed and unused: data are gathered which are not comparable with other series; types of data are gathered in ways which are not the most effective for the resources devoted to them Development of this type of research infrastructure should be viewed as an essential part of the development plan.

Increasing ambiquity of ownership and loss of traditional title in the highlands and growing land tenancy in the lowlands can be expected to increase the instability of populations and decrease the conservation of natural resources. The unsettled questions of !and ownership and land title in the uplands must be resolved, both in order to allow development planning, and to allow some hope of controlling the processes of development and the conservation of resources.

A co-ordinated series of projects should be directed towards the reduction of socio-economic differentials between highland and lowland and between the rural and urban portions of the population of the North. The purpose should be to maintain and strengthen the local subsistence economies and village structures. In addition to resolving the problems of land title mentioned above, the projects should include: development of labour recruitment networks co-ordinated with local and seasonal needs for supplementary income; family planning assistance to reduce the population growth rate: education to allow at least some portion of the rural and highland people to share the possibilities of upward social mobility enjoyed by the urban middle and upper classes, as well as the benefits from modern technological innovations; local credit facilities to enable rural people to invest in increasing productivity while avoiding the vicious circle of borrowing at high interest rates and the associated increase in land tenancy.


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