The land reform proposal from Thailand’s two wise men Anand Panyarachun and Prawase Wasi is a blast from the past.
The recent discussion of land reform promoted by Anand’s National Reform Committee–with suggestions that family holdings should be limited to 50 rai–is part of a long-term effort on the part of the Thai elite to preserve the peasantry. For decades, Thailand’s governments have been anxious about the prospect of rural modernisation creating a politically dangerous class of landless malcontents who will be vulnerable to ideological manipulation and revolutionary ferment. As my colleague Tyrell Haberkorn writes in her eagerly anticipated book, creating a stable and loyal peasantry as the “backbone of the nation” has been an important element in the Thai elite’s project of governing rural Thailand. The preoccupation with peasant preservation has its origins in anxieties about the communist threat of the 1950s and 1960s and the rural activism of the 1970s. In recent years, the red shirt movement has produced genuine fear that the carefully reinforced rural backbone may be shattering.
Despite this conservative political motivation, many of the initiatives to support the peasantry have been desirable, impressive and successful. Since the 1960s, Thai governments, of all political persuasions, have supported massive investment in irrigation systems, rural roads, schools, hospitals and community development. The old tax on farmers via the rice premium has been replaced by a series of high-cost schemes to subsidise crop prices. Formal land tenure has been extended throughout most of rural Thailand, reinforcing one of the core institutional foundations of a small-holding peasantry. Perhaps most impressive of all, state-supported agricultural credit has grown dramatically, creating one of the most successful rural credit schemes in the developing world. All these initiatives have helped shape a (not-so-)modern agricultural sector that absorbs around a third of Thailand’s labour force even though it contributes only about 12 percent of the nation’s GDP.
The main problem with the latest proposal for land reform (apart from its political impracticality) is that the time for preservation of the old-style peasantry has well and truly past. Economic diversification means that for a majority of Thailand’s peasants, rural livelihoods are no longer primarily agricultural livelihoods. The proportion of farming households solely dependent on agricultural income has plummeted to about 20 percent. National surveys show that about 60 percent of rural income is earned off-farm. Land ownership is no longer the basis for rural security, prosperity and power that it once was. The primary challenge for rural Thailand is not to create more agricultural opportunities for poorer households–via land distribution–but to promote non-agricultural enterprise and to support the high quality education that rural people will need to move into more productive forms of employment. Having a third of the labour force contributing only 12 percent to GDP is economically and politically unsustainable.
Of course, this is not to argue that Thai governments should not continue to support the agricultural sector. Of course they should. In fact, Thailand’s performance in enhancing agricultural productivity has been lacklustre by international standards. There is still much work to be done.
Land reform may have some part to play in ongoing support for agricultural livelihoods and, in particular, in giving marginal households an asset that can be used as a basis for borrowing and investment. But considerable caution is warranted in plunging into complex agricultural systems that are often poorly understood by the nostalgic advocates of reform. Some of the figures being bandied around in the current discussion are straight out silly. Take the proposed 50 rai cap on family holdings, for example. The political scientist James Scott once cautioned that measuring a farmer’s land in hectares (or rai) is about as meaningful as measuring an academic’s books in kilograms. The issue is quality not quantity. Where I work in northern Thailand 5 or 10 rai of well irrigated paddy land would often be much more valuable than 100 rai of upland scrub. In an agricultural landscape as diverse as Thailand, arbitrary upper limits on land ownership are virtually meaningless.
Another important issue to consider is the distinction between ownership and access. Peasant tragic Sanitsuda Ekachai asserts that “about 6 million people or 10% of the population own 90% of the country’s land” I presume that the vast majority of those 6 million are household heads who have their name on the land title. So, 6 million households (representing more than 20 million people and close to half of the rural population) would be a more accurate way of putting it. The general point is that it is not just the legally defined land owner who has access to land. In rural Thailand access to land is achieved in all sorts of ways–within families, between kin and in a wide array of rental and borrowing arrangements. Land rental may be anathema to the advocates of a politically passive class of independent farmers–and in some cases it is certainly exploitative–but it is a common and unremarkable way in which farmers (both rich and poor) increase their involvement in cultivation. Indeed, in some places the relatively large amount of vacant land owned by non-residents drives rental prices down (and provides opportunities for surreptitious use without any payment). In my experience in northern Thailand, farmers complain much less about rental payments than they do about prices and interest rates.
Inequality in Thailand is certainly a fundamentally important issue to be addressed. Land reform may have some part to play in this enormous political challenge. But to think that the anger crystallised by the redshirts can be addressed by providing the landless poor with a few rai on which they can establish independent farms is to completely misread the socio-economic trajectory of rural Thailand.