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Colonization by medium- and large-scale farmers: the example of the Chon Buri Hinterland

The initiators of this third type of pioneer settlement are in general entrepreneurs such as factory owners with plenty of capital, the majority of them ethnic Chinese, who clear forest areas on a large scale and at considerable expense in order to sell plots of land, rent them, or farm them themselves. This process can be documented in an especially impressive way by the example of the hinterland of the coastal town of Chon Buri on the east coast of the Gulf of Thailand (see figure 1, p. 10).

The Chon Buri hinterland, situated about 100 km south-east of Bangkok, belongs, geologically speaking, to south-east Thailand's crystalline rock and paleozoic sediment formations. A strip of alluvial coastal plain gradually merges towards the east into broad, gently undulating to hilly peneplains at an altitude of up to 100 m above sea-level, out of which inselberg-like mountain ridges rise up to an altitude of 800 m. As far as the relief is concerned, there are no obstacles to farming except for these inselbergs. The average yearly rainfall, increasing away from the coast, is about 1,400 to 1,600 mm (Chivakul 1975). A distinct dry season occurs between December and March with less than 60 mm of rainfall (Watanasak 1978). The soil consists chiefly of strongly eroded podsols of a limey, sandy consistency with little nutritional value. With the increasing rainfall inland there is a tendency towards reddish and yellowish latosols, whilst in the flat depressions and the narrow coastal strip more fertile alluvial soils predominate (Sternstein 1976).

The disadvantages of the natural conditions are far outweighed by the very favourable location of the area close to Bangkok and its excellent infrastructure, especially a close network of asphalt roads, a four-lane highway connection to Bangkok, and ports equipped with the most modern loading gear. The favourable location is complemented by the pronounced spirit of enterprise of a numerically important, old-established Chinese community which from early on had been developing a market-oriented agricultural production. Thus during the first half of the nineteenth century the Chinese entrepreneurs had already built up an important sugar industry. The area under cultivation reached roughly to what is today National Highway 331. However, under pressure from the Dutch competition from Java, Chon Buri sugar could not expand any further and it lost its exceptional importance.

Instead, a successful timber industry developed from the turn of the century. It had a number of sawmills and a close network of roads which reached far into the forests of the hinterland. Around the mid-1950s practically the whole region of Chon Buri Province and Rayong was divided up into timber concession areas amongst only a few Chinese entrepreneur families.

Thus the forest areas were by then already "processed" in readiness for agricultural colonization by pioneer settlers. The impetus finally came towards the end of the 1950s in the form of a new steep increase in the price of sugar in Thailand and the setting up of two sugar refineries, after which four others followed. During the period which followed an unprecedented decimation of the forest took place east of today's National Highway 331, with considerable amounts of capital and labour being deployed. Gangs of labourers were hired from north-east Thailand for the job of clearing. The initiators of this reclamation process were less the concessionaries themselves than the peasants from the former sugar cultivation area west of National Highway 331 who saw a chance to resume sugar growing on larger holdings. Almost at the same time as the sugar-cane boom at the beginning of the 1960s an enormous increase in cassava cultivation began. Towards the end of the 1960s the Chon Buri region was by far the most important cassava and sugar producing area in Thailand (N. Sirisambhand in CUSSRI 1974). Only recently the main area for sugar has shifted more to the west of the central plain of Thailand (Kanchanaburi Province) and for cassava the north-east (Nakhon Ratchasima Province).

Since about 1975 the forest clearance process in the Chon Buri hinterland has begun to slow down as a result of drastically reduced sugar prices, export restrictions, and keener forestry legislation. It has also begun to take on different forms. Many of the big landlords nowadays no longer do the clearance themselves or with hired labour gangs. Rather, they leave the job to peasants from small farms in the coastal plain or to landless labourers from north-east Thailand whom they allow to clear small pieces of land of about two to four hectares in the primary forest. For a fixed period of on average three to five years the peasant can then use the freshly cleared area as he likes without tax duty of any kind. He is, however, bound by contract to leave the land after this time (the pa boei system). In this way the landlord can extend his farm land into the forest without having done the illegal clearing himself. If the peasant is convicted of illegal timber felling, the landlord will be able to buy him off.

During the history of forest clearance and pioneer settlement, which has been going on for some time in the Chon Buri hinterland, the following succession of settlement zones has developed from the coast working inland:

(a) the coastal plain, which has been colonized since long ago. Here there is predominantly wet-rice cultivation and coconut planting by peasants. Recently, too, cassava has been grown on the upland ridges for marketing;

(b) the old sugar-cane belt, where sugar-cane was already being cultivated during the last century. In recent years the farmers in this belt have further specialized in cassava cultivation, which is better suited for a small farm than is sugar-cane. Besides sugar-cane and cassava, there are a few scattered wetrice areas in the lowlands. During the last few years there has evolved some specialized cultivation of vegetables and a series of capital-intensive duck and pig-breeding farms;

(c) the forest clearance area of the 1950s, along both sides of what is today National Highway 331. At first this area was planted almost exclusively with sugar-cane but nowadays there are also medium-sized cassava farms. Recently another change in structure has arisen with the'cultivation of pineapples. There exist already two large canned food factories which at the moment still receive most of their raw material from south Thailand. However, in the mean time the first innovatory farmers in the area around the factories have gone over to pineapple cultivation. Besides this the factories are trying to buy up land from the farmers in the area so as to take over pineapple cultivation themselves;

(d) the new sugar-cane belt, which was extended during the 1960s into the forest areas east of National Highway 331. Nowadays there are predominantly mediumsized and large sugar-cane farms. The fact that this sugar-cane mono-cultivation is still young can be seen from the numerous tree trunks and stumps which remain in the fields. Two service centers, Om Panom and Nong Yai, grew up here within a very short time and are now being rapidly developed;

(e) the final zone towards the east is the pioneer front, which still consists of predominantly primary forests in which, however, numerous scattered clearings have already been made by means of the mentioned pa boei system. Besides rice cultivation (mainly upland rice) the pioneer settlers grow largely cash crops, in spite of the remote location in the forests. These crops are mainly cassava and kamin (a spice similar to ginger).

Thus the large-scale pioneer settlement processes in past years have taken place in zone d, whilst zone e must be regarded as the colonization zone of the next 10 years if no fundamental change takes place in Thai agricultural and forestry policies.

As in the Km 79 region the question of title deeds is completely confused in the newly cleared areas in the Chon Buri hinterland, particularly in zone d. However, unlike the peasants in Km 79, the farmers here have no interest whatsoever in the realization of a land reform because the holdings of between 10 and 100 ha are mostly much larger than the maximum farm size of about 8 ha which is aimed at by the present land reform. In 1974, when a rumour spread that there would soon be a land reform, the big landlords hired hundreds of people from the north-east in order to register land in their names. The result of this was that nobody talks about land reform anymore. At least the fear of being driven from the land, which is widespread elsewhere amongst the pioneer settlers, does not exist amongst the sugar-cane farmers in the Chon Buri hinterland.

During the sugar-cane boom the landlords had almost all of their farm land cultivated by tenants (luk rat). The luk rai system meant that the landowner provided not only the land but also all means of production, including food for the tenants, and wage labour for the harvest and for the transport of the harvested sugar-cane to the factories. The owners recovered all production costs together with interest payments from the tenants of 3 per cent per month. A fixed sum of 10 baht per ton of sugar-cane was also reckoned. The rest of the profit went to the luk rai. Each contract was valid for one year only. This system paid off very well for the tenants during a boom; many of them then became independent farmers by clearing a piece of land for themselves. However, since prices have fallen on the sugar market, the luk rai system is profitable neither for the tenant nor for the landowner. In the mean time the farmers have almost completely changed over to a system of field cultivation with wage labourers (mao raksa system).

Thus, the wage-labourer class nowadays makes up quite an important part of society in the Chon Buri hinterland. Large numbers of wage labourers are needed in particular for the sugar-cane harvest, which is still carried out by hand except for a few isolated attempts at mechanization. They are also in demand for the cassava harvest. According to our estimates, about 20,000 seasonal wage labourers per year are additionally employed in the new district of Om Panom alone-an area with approximately 40,000 inhabitants. The majority of them are employed during the sugarcane harvest between November and March. Almost all of them come from north-east Thailand. Whilst the majority of these wage labourers go home to the north-east after the harvest, a few have tried to settle with their families as farmers in the Chon Buri hinterland. As the larger areas had long ago been distributed, they had either to rent a piece of land from other farmers or clear a plot on the very steep slopes along the foot of the inselbergs. Here the use of tractors is no longer possible. The size of these squatters' farms, scattered about in the landscape, seldom exceeds two hectares. Like the pioneers on the settlement front they grow mainly cassava for the market besides a few peanuts. However, to secure a minimum income, they remain dependent upon seasonal work for the large-scale sugarcane and cassava farmers.

All in all there is a very differentiated social structure in the Chon Buri hinterland. The hierarchy system is as follows.

Occupying equal positions at the top of the ladder are:

(a) the local, without exception, Thai-Chinese upper class. These people are in control of all the forest areas in the province as they own the forestry concessions. The members of this class are only indirectly involved in agriculture as they transfer large plots of land to family members who then farm land with the help of wage labourers;

(b) the owners of the large sugar refineries, the majority of whom are Chinese entrepreneurs living in Bangkok. The sugar refiners themselves do not participate in cultivating sugar-cane on their own estates but leave the production to other farmers in the area from whom they draw their raw cane.

On their heels follow:

(c) The large-scale farmers with holdings of between 10 and 200 ha. Nowadays they are the main suppliers for the large sugar-cane refineries. Originally many of them had processed the sugar-cane themselves to produce brown sugar in small refineries. However, since the consumers prefer white sugar many of these refineries are no longer in use;

(d) the smallholders with farms of an average of 3 to 10 ha. Many of them who worked mainly as sugar-cane producers until 1975 have changed over in the mean time to cassava cultivation due to the introduction of a sugar quota system;*

*As a member of the International Sugar Agreement Thailand is only allowed to export a certain amount of sugar a year. In order to avoid over-production the Thai Government distributed production quotas to the sugar refineries. In turn, the refineries pass these on each year to the sugar-cane producers. This quota system clearly favours the farmers with large amounts of land. The smallholders who want to carry on cultivating and selling sugar-cane can only hope that an estate farmer will hand them over a share of the quota in return for a surcharge.

(e) the smallest farms of under 3 ha. These include: the old-established wet-rice farmers of the coastal plain in the west; seasonal workers who established themselves in the central colonization zone; and the pioneer settlers on the settlement fronts to the east;

(f) the formerly large class of tenants;

(g) the wage labourers. One can divide the labourer class up according to their type of employment and its duration into the following groups: seasonal harvest workers whose home is in north-east Thailand. They make up the majority of wage labourers; seasonal workers who have become established with their own farm (see above); farm foremen. (mao raksa). They are also seasonal employees of the largescale farmers and are responsible for supervision and care of the sugar-cane fields between planting and harvest time. On average, a mao raksa is responsible for 30 rai (about 5 ha); wage labourers employed on a permanent basis in the refineries.

The settlement pattern in the Chon Buri hinterland is characterized by scattered farmhouses, built in their own fields, as opposed to the traditional Thai clustered village. In accordance with the very heterogenous social structure of the research area, the furnishings of the individual farmhouses vary considerably. Almost all the farmers, even those who own large areas, live on their own land, that is, absenteeism is not common.

The few clustered settlements occurring at crossroads are not inhabited by farmers but are places which almost exclusively provide services for the surrounding rural areas. A few of these centres, for example Om Panom and Nong Yai, sprang up like mushrooms within a few years during the sugar boom. In the mean time they have come to offer a remarkable number of services (for more details see R. Riethmüller et al. in Uhlig 1984).

Field cultivation is carried out without artificial irrigation, except for a part of the pineapple cultivation areas. Even wet rice is planted only on rain-fed plots. All other crops grow on upland fields. Besides the lack of artifical irrigation, there is also a lack of regular crop rotation systems. When the market price for a crop remains stable over the years, only this crop is cultivated. On the other hand the farmers react very quickly and radically to possible price changes. For example, their reaction to the recent collapse of sugar prices was to turn to the cultivation of cassava. This readiness to accept innovations seems to be especially typical of the farmers with medium-sized farms. At present, many of them are experimenting with rubber.

Except for the squatters and the pioneer settlers on the clearance front, the farmers in the Chon Buri hinterland farm in an unusually capital-intensive way if compared with the situation in other Asian countries. Not only is capital spent on a large scale on tractors and for the army of seasonal workers, a large amount is also used for buying yield-raising capital goods, in particular, fertilizer. In this way, the sugar-cane yield, for example, could be kept at the level of 50 tons per ha in spite of permanent cultivation for years without crop rotation and without artificial irrigation. The cassava farmers even get clearly higher yields than the farmers in most other Asian countries, with an average of 12 to 14 tons per ha (FAO 1978).

Except for the rice which is comparatively unimportant, all the agri cultural products are marketed. Even the very smallest farms belonging to the squatters and pioneer settled on the clearance front produce mainly cash crops. As was mentioned at the beginning, the Chon Buri hinterland does not provide very favourable natural conditions for agricultural production compared with other regions in Thailand. It rather owes its development into one of the most intensively used and most productive agricultural areas in Thailand to its exceptionally good strategic location, its well-developed infrastructure, and, last but not least, the entrepreneur spirit of its old-established Thai-Chinese community, which clearly outweighed such natural disadvantages as inferior soil quality.


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