Sugarcane is stealing the thunder of the organic rice movement in Amnat Charoen

AMNAT CHAROEN – The organic rice movement in Amnat Charoen Province is losing steam as farmers are switching to sugarcane after facing falling prices and problems regarding organic certification.

In 2012, over 10,000 locals proudly participated in a walk to promote alternative agriculture in the province well known for its organic hom mali rice. But five years later, a growing number of rice farmers are switching to a new crop as a sugar factory is set to start operating in the province.

By Itthiphon Kotamee
Photos by Pitak Pratthanawutthikun

Five years ago, Amnat Charoen celebrated the adoption of an alternative development model with the goal to increase organic farming. Photo credit: Prachatai

Dhamma agriculture

In 2008, Amnat Charoen locals developed the so-called “Dhamma Agriculture” model based on the concept of self-governance and aimed at making the province a hub for organic farming.

“It was meant for people to take on a larger role in development, [and] to increase their rights and freedoms,” says Wanit Butree, the chairman of the province’s community organization council. “Less power for the center, and more power to the people.”

Based on the model, farmers could form groups to negotiate fair prices for their produce with rice millers and buyers, explains Mr. Wanit. It enabled members to forecast the income they would earn from rice sales for the upcoming year.

The model also encouraged farmers to take on a role in provincial affairs. Before 2008, local farmers were usually not able to participate in the budget planning for provincial development, claims Mr. Wanit. But through the new model, they could begin participating in administrative meetings held by provincial authorities.

Wanit Butree, the chairman of province’s community organization council, says Amnat Charoen’s Dhamma Agriculture model has strengthened civil society in the province.

Under pressure

But for the past few years, rice farmers have struggled to make ends meet as rice market prices have tumbled.

Even farmers who are growing high quality hom mali rice have been put under pressure to sell at low prices, says Sirisak Tongkaew, an organic rice farmer and member of the Amnat Charoen farmers’ council.

“The success or failure of the Dhamma Agriculture model depends on the reality of the living standards of farmers, including their income and debt,” he says.

Organic rice farmers in Amnat Charoen Province are facing several challenges in continuing their alternative farming approach.

Meanwhile, many farmers have faced challenges in obtaining the organic certificates needed to to export their produce to markets in the European Union.

“At first, a lot of people were interested [in growing organic rice],” Mr. Sirisak says. “But when officials came to examine their rice fields, their numbers dwindled.”

Organic rice yields higher returns in the long term, but the certification process is a complicated procedure, causing many organic rice farmers in the province to switch to other crops. Especially sugarcane and cassava, promoted by the government, have started to replace rice, Mr. Sirisak explains.

The Amnat Charoen farmers’ council recommended rice growers struggling with low prices to switch to sugarcane and animal raising so that they are not dependent on a single source of income.

According to the Office of Agriculture Economics, Amnat Charoen had a total of 883,499 rai of hom mali rice plantation last year. Sugarcane plantations increased from 40,688 rai in 2015 to 51,446 rai last year.

Sirisak Tongkaew, an organic rice farmer and member of Amnat Charoen farmers’ council, is concerned about the environmental consequences of sugarcane farming.

Organic farmers’ concerns

Last year, a sugar factory was granted permission to operate in Amnat Charoen’s Muang District by the Office of the Cane and Sugar Board. The project is run by Mitr Kalasin Sugar Co Ltd with a production capacity of 20,000 tonnes of sugarcane per day. It also owns a 61 megawatt biomass power plant operated under Mitr Phol Bio-Power Co Ltd.

Last year, the company conducted public hearings for both plants, and is now waiting for approval of the environmental impact assessments from the Office of Natural Resources and Environmental Policy and Planning.

Some farmers are concerned the use of pesticides and chemicals in sugarcane plantations might contaminate and exhaust soils so much that it becomes impossible to plant organic crops in the future.

A group of farmers has recently started to oppose the construction of the sugarcane factory and the power plant.

“There has been some mobilizing among organic farmers in the province, but the organization is not very strong yet,” Mr. Sirisak told The Isaan Record.

In February, a local group named the River Se Bai Basin Conservation Network petitioned the prime minister General Prayuth Chan-ocha to halt the construction of the sugarcane factory and the power plant.

Protest banners in Amnat Charoen’s Muang District opposing the construction of a sugarcane factory and biomass power plant.

But other farmers in the province are less critical of the new sugarcane factory and the expansion of other other than rice.

Kan Suyarat, a village chief in Patumratchawongsa District and coordinator of a tapioca starch factory, says all types of crops should be included in the province’s “Dhamma Agriculture” model. He is not concerned about the environmental impact of conventional agriculture and factories.

“If there are complaints, the local public health and environment authorities will take care of it,” he says.