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DateLine Sunday, 11 May 2008





Marriage Proposals
Government Gazette

World food crisis turns rice into gold

Until a few months ago, Booncherd Leekasem would never have been caught astride a muddy tractor or squelching through buffalo dung in a rice paddy.

As a headman of Khao Ngam in central Thailand he had far more respectable things to attend to, such as organising village affairs and running the restaurant where his wife serves her famous crispy catfish salad.

Mr. Booncherd rented his 14 hectares (35 acres) of land to poor relatives and let them endure the backbreaking labour of planting, weeding and harvesting the rice. This year all that has changed and now Mr Booncherd gladly spends his days in the fields beneath the tropical sun.

“In the past, when kids in school were asked what their father did, they would be ashamed to say, ‘He is a farmer’,” he says. “But now being a farmer is nothing to be ashamed of - we can be proud of what we do.”

All over the country, Thais are returning to the paddies like prospectors chasing gold. After a global surge in the price of grain, a gruelling, unglamorous occupation has become highly lucrative.

The economic opportunities have also brought risks as farmers get deeper into debt, fight over scarce water resources and are forced to defend their fields from a new breed of rice bandit.

Thailand’s 20 million farmers find themselves at the centre of an unprecedented surge in global food prices - a “silent tsunami”, in the words of the UN World Food Programme - that is threatening starvation for millions.

Its causes are multiple. A newly affluent middle class in countries such as China and India is increasing demand for food at a time when more and more crops are being diverted toenvironmentally friendly biofuels.

A series of natural disasters, from droughts in Australia to floods in North Korea and cyclones in Bangladesh, have ruined harvests and further reduced food stocks.

As prices have risen, there have been riots and protests in 33 countries, from Haiti to the Philippines. To keep rice affordable in local markets, big producers such as Vietnam and India have restricted exports - further driving up the international price. In Thailand, the world’s biggest exporter, the result has been a rice bonanza.

A year ago, a tonne of Thai Grade B rice sold for $325 (£164); last week, the rate was $960 and climbing. Rice farming has become three times more lucrative, and rice farmers are galloping to cash in.

Fields that have lain fallow are being ploughed and planted; in wet and fertile central Thailand, where Mr. Booncherd lives, farmers are contemplating three or even four harvests a year, beyond the usual one or two.

The boom is not bringing uncomplicated happiness, however. Mr. Booncherd has been engaged in a bitter dispute with neighbours about access to water, solved only after investing in expensive new pumps to draw in supplies from a distant canal.

If rice is now more expensive, so are the fertiliser and insecticide that farmers use to nurture and protect it and the fuel for tractors and harvesting machines. In any case, the grain passes through the hands of several middlemen - traders, millers and exporters - who all take their cut before it is sold at the international market price.

And the preciousness of the commodity has created fears of rice bandits marauding the fields by night. Daourieng Kitsamit, a farmer in Ayutthaya province, had 63 buckets of seed rice stolen from his fields. Thai police are laying on night-time patrols and farmers have formed village militias.

As long as the price is going up, these risks will be handsomely outweighed by profits, but if Thailand were to resort to its own export restrictions, local prices would fall, burdening farmers with debt. If that happens, Mr. Booncherd will be glad of his restaurant and his wife’s spicy catfish.

Courtesy: Timesonline


Gamin Gamata - Presidential Community & Welfare Service
Ceylinco Banyan Villas

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