Thailand’s Rubber Farmers Despair as Prices Plummet

Nasueroh

2016-01-09
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160109-TH-rubber-1000 Toiy Charongan hangs sheets of unprocessed rubber out to dry at her and her husband’s rubber farm in the southern Thai province of Phang Nga, Oct. 1, 2014.
AFP

Thailand is facing rising discontent among rubber farmers devastated by a plunge in the price of the commodity, one of the kingdom’s top exports.

Rubbers farmers in 17 provinces in the south – the major base for the country’s production of natural rubber –plan to rally on Tuesday to demand more action and a swifter response to their plight from the Thai government.

Farmers are growing desperate.

At least two of them have taken their own lives, according to reports. On Thursday, a photo of a farmer who had hanged himself circulated on social media and Thai news reports.

“How many people have died already because of the slump? The government doesn’t care about how many die,” Roya Sela, a rubber farmer in Pattani province, told BenarNews.

But Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-o-cha, who earlier pledged financial assistance to rubber farmers and tappers spread out across 56 of Thailand's 77 provinces, says the government has done plenty to help them.

Last week, he threatened legal action against farmers who joined the upcoming rallies.

"Come on out. Come on out and be sued but I continue to perform my duty," Prayuth told a news conference in Bangkok, referring to Tuesday’s planned protests by rubber farmers.

“We have officials to talk with them. There is no need to rally because they won’t get what they seek,” Prayuth said in rejecting farmers’ demands for more governmental subsidies needed to offset low prices for rubber.

Meanwhile, Thai Federation of Rubber Farmers president Boonsong Nubthong told BenarNews that it had applied for a permit to rally on Tuesday at the Hat Yai rubber market in Songkhla province, a southern hub for rubber production in Thailand, but was still waiting for a reply.

The federation intends at the rally to call on authorities to intervene urgently to prevent prices from dropping farther and speed up the process of compensating farmers financially, among other demands, Boonsong said.

Farmers have complained that compensation payments have been slow to reach them or that these have been delayed by complex bureaucratic steps requiring that claimants meet stringent criteria, such as proof of land deeds, according to sources.

On Saturday, The Nation newspaper reported that political office holders in affected provinces were backing away from taking an active role in organizing the rallies, because of the prime minister’s warning about possible legal consequences.

Under Article 44 of Thailand’s interim constitution, which the junta invoked last year, authorities can arrest citizens taking part in demonstrations or public gatherings that number five people or more.

Under a dollar per kilo

Thailand is the world’s No. 1 exporter of natural rubber, but prices for Thai rubber have dropped sharply on the international market in recent years. The industry employs two million people in the kingdom, including many migrant workers, according to the Rubber Research Institute of Thailand.

A bloated oversupply of natural rubber produced in Thailand and increased demand for petroleum-based synthetic rubber have contributed along with other factors to falling prices.

The price for natural rubber from Thailand has plummeted since 2011. Five years ago, sheets of ribbed rubber sold for 174 baht (U.S. $4.78) per kilo. Now they sell for 34 baht (93 cents) a kilo, according to statistics from the institute.

In November, the government approved a 12.75-billion baht (U.S. $350.6 million-) package of subsidies for rubber farmers to compensate them for lost income. Last month, the Thai junta also agreed to provide the struggling farmers with 5.05 billion baht (U.S. $139 million) in loans.

“I will give sustainable assistance, which means they need to cooperate with me to reform the rubber farming,” Prayuth told reporters on Thursday.

The subsidy package approved in November breaks down to payments to farmers of 1,500 baht (U.S. $41) per rai, a Thai land measurement unit, and the payments are capped at 15 rai for every farmer or landowner who puts in a claim. One acre equals 2.53 rai.

At the news conference, the prime minister said the government could only limit its compensation for farmers at that rate.

“The money used to compensate is tax payers’ money. If we spend it on a certain group of citizens, others will ask for this and that too,” Prayuth said, adding, “The remedy of 1,500 baht per rai is the right solution.”

The prime minister addressed the media only a week after traveling to Surat Thani province in the south, where he handed out compensation payments to some 20 rubber farmers.

From there, he traveled on to Hat Yai where he inaugurated the first phase of Rubber City, an industrial estate being built to promote investment in the southern rubber sector.

Cutting down, selling trees to get by

Hat Yai lies just outside Thailand’s restive borderland region known as the Deep South.

The largely Malay-speaking and Muslim region encompasses four districts of Songkhla and the provinces of Pattani, Narathiwat and Yala, where a separatist conflict has claimed the lives of at least 6,000 people since 2004.

The Deep South is impoverished and the rubber industry is a pillar of its economy. But the security threat from insurgent activity compounds the economic woes of local rubber farmers.

Rubber farming normally is done at night, when cooler temperatures are optimal for tapping sap from rubber trees.

Fears of night-time insurgent activity, however, have scared many farmers into tapping for sap in daylight. The end result, farmers say, is a rubber of poorer quality that won’t sell as well.

Farmer Goseng Wae-kaseng, a father of five, owns a small rubber plantation in Yala province that occupies 5 rai (1.9 acres).

As a result of low prices for his product, his daily income is down to 400 baht (U.S. $11), he said.

The hardship has caused his two oldest children, sons aged 17 and 20, to migrate to neighboring Malaysia in search of jobs.

“Three children remain in school. Don’t ask me if I earn enough for them,” he told BenarNews.

“If I cannot find money on certain days, I have to cut down rubber trees and sell them to make do. I have cut down trees seven times already – five trees each time to make a thousand baht [U.S. $27.50],” he added.

“I want to find additional job, but there is none.”

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