Thailand has been hit by one of the worst droughts in decades – with devastating effects on farmers. However, some small organic farms demonstrate that the key to surviving future droughts could be to embrace diversity.
Thailand breathed a collective sigh of relief when the rains finally came late last month. El Nino has battered the country and wider region hard. After causing more than two years of extreme weather events including Thailand’s worst drought in decades, El Nino is finally set to abate.
In April and May of 2016, Thailand’s government said more than 30 of the country’s 70 provinces were affected by drought. It is the second year in a row that extreme temperatures have left regions parched. Exports of key staples such as rice and sugar are expected to fall by at least a million tons, and prices in the former hit a two-year high due to predicted lower supply.
For one of the world’s largest rice exporters, such figures are worrying. More than 65 percent of the country’s water is used for agriculture, so dry rivers and near empty reservoirs hit the sector hard.
This has led to tensions among small-scale farmers in the key rice-producing region of Suphan Buri to the northwest of Bangkok as water reservoirs and pumps there have run dry. In the normally fertile, agriculture-dependent far northern provinces of Chiang Mai, Nan and Phayao, there are many stories of failed harvest and threatened livelihoods.
Although all this has caused hardship for many of Thailand’s farmers, a small group that turned its back on industrial farming and monocultures has been able to weather the storm surprisingly well – by focusing on organic farming and embracing biodiversity.
Diversify to survive
One enterprise in Nan province has managed to if not prosper during the drought, then at least survive: the Chum Chon Ton Nam Nan Highland Swamp Field farm. According to its 55-year-old founder and proprietor Kul Punyawong, the farm continues to thrive primarily due to one simple thing: diversity.
Situated in an area dominated by industrial monoculture where fields of parched corn now abound, Punyawong’s farm produces a variety of crops, and numerous fruits including banana and durian.
Teams of Thai and foreign volunteers and students can be found diligently hoeing and digging in streams and fields. The farm functions as an eco-friendly farming learning center, teaching what Punyawong refers to as “new theory” farming, which has many similarities with permaculture.
The farm eschews the use of pesticides and focuses on crop rotation and diversity as a model for surviving further extreme weather events caused by climate change.
Redesigning the landscape
The first thing Punyawong did was to redesign the entire landscape. She planted trees to provide shade and protect the soil, thus reducing the evaporation of water. These trees also enriched the soil and prevented soil erosion.
She also planted a more diverse mix of native plants, and the soil is now able to store water better. Furthermore, Punyawong created extensive ponds to store rainwater.
“Organic farming is definitely the best way and the only way forward,” she told DW. “While other areas and farms had little or no water at all during the long months of drought, we had no water shortage,” she said.
“With our water conservation techniques we were able to store rainwater on our land long enough for use during the drought,” Punyawong continued. She says despite only a few years of implementation, the farm already proves that this strategy can help it withstand natural disaster and crisis.
Heading to system collapse
Watcharapol Daengsubha – known to most simply as Kwan – established his own organic orchard farm in 2011, where he produces mangosteen, langsat and stinky bean. He set up the Facebook page “Bangkok Permaculture” to share tips and ideas, and now tours the country as an agriculture campaigner for Greenpeace’s Southeast Asia office.
Kwan and his colleagues say that this El Nino has been the worst in living memory – not just in Thailand, but also in neighboring Vietnam and Cambodia as well.
“People are suffering from the impact of conventional farming practices that have been in place for years,” Kwan told DW. But the main problem is that they still don’t think there is anything wrong with those practices, Kwan continued, even though they could contribute to system collapse.
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Changes in attitude
Fortunately, projects like the Chum Chon Ton Swamp Farm can also be found elsewhere. In Chiang Mai province, 56-year old Siphan Techaphan has set up an organic farming center, which aims to train local farmers.
To those involved, promoting organic farming provides an opportunity to turn things around – and to reconnect with nature.
For Kul Punyawong, the environmental destruction of her own province had become so bad that she felt she needed to give do something. She described how deforestation for agriculture and extensive chemical usage had left the soil contaminated and the province dotted with “bald mountains.” She says such environmental degradation stretches all the way to Bangkok.
She called this the whole nation’s problem. “The environmental problems in Nan are not just Nan’s alone,” she says. “I believe by creating a small agriculture model that emphasises organic farming and responsible land and water management, we will be able to rebuild the lost ecology of the forest and river sources – while at the same time live sustainably and happily.”
But change doesn’t come easily, Kwan says. Although organic farming was on the government’s agenda around ten years ago, it wasn’t successful – due to the influence of agro-chemical companies on policy and the attitude of farmers. “Many people simply believe there is no way to cultivate without the use of chemicals,” he says.
But as further drought and extreme weather continue hit the country hard, farms like those of Punyawong and Kwan may well become the normal way of farming rather than the exception.
This article was originally published by DW in June, 2016.