In Thailand’s modern rural economy, rural livelihoods are no longer predominantly agricultural livelihoods. A new type of “rural” has emerged characterised by a process of “de-agrarianisation” whereby on-farm pursuits are an increasingly modest part of the household economy. According to Thailand’s national agriculture survey, the number of farming households who derived all of their income from agriculture declined precipitously from 46 percent in 1993 to only 21 percent in 2003.
The national “basic needs survey” reported that in 2008 rural people derived 58 percent of their income from off-farm employment and enterprise (Table 49 in this report). In Ban Tiam, a northern Thai village where I have been working for the past 7 years, the basic needs survey results suggest that the proportion of off-farm income is 73 percent, considerably higher than the national average. There are certainly problems with this sort of data collection, and I think that the Ban Tiam survey significantly understates cash-crop income, but the movement of Thailand’s rural economy away from agricultural pursuits is clear and survey results are borne out by a range of local studies. (I would be very interested in hearing about other data sources on this important issue.)
However, many rural households are not making a simplistic transformation from agrarian to non-agrarian lifestyles, or following the path of proletarianisation predicted for them by many old-style scholars of agrarian transformation. In fact, as Jonathan Rigg and others have argued, they are developing economically diversified and spatially dispersed livelihood strategies in which agricultural and non-agricultural pursuits are intertwined. As a result, rural households are increasingly multi-functional and multi-sited, combining an economically and spatially stretched out portfolio of livelihood activities.
Neither the “sufficiency economy right” nor the “community culture left” in Thai public life has come to grips with the social, economic and political implications of this profound transformation.