Much of the impressive economic growth recorded by Thailand in the 1970s and the early 1980s was owed to the steady expansion of the agricultural sector. This sector provided adequate food for the rapidly growing population and produced substantial surpluses of some commodities for export.
The Thai farmer's ability to adapt to changing market conditions contributed to the country's agricultural success, but even more important was the availability of large areas of virgin land for cultivation. Between 1950 and 1980, agricultural holdings nearly doubled to an estimated 22 million hectares, of which about three-quarters were farmed annually, and much of the rapidly growing population was absorbed in the expansion. By the early 1980s, however, most of the arable land had been occupied, except in the South, and continued growth of the agricultural sector became increasingly dependent on the acceptance of new technologies and the adoption of more intensive cultivation. Observers feared that without these changes growing domestic demand--both from increasing population and from rising expectations--would seriously affect the nation's balance of payments position through the reduction of exportable surpluses of vital major foreign exchange earners, such as rice and sugar.
Agriculture--crops, livestock, forestry, and fisheries-- employed about three-quarters of the labor force, and it was estimated that some four-fifths of the total population was dependent on the sector for its livelihood. During the mid-1980s, agriculture accounted for an average of about 25 percent of GDP, and agricultural commodities accounted annually for over 60 percent of the value of all exports.
The type of agriculture engaged in--whether cash crop, subsistence, or a combination thereof--varied from region to region and within regions. In the central plain, there were farmers whose sole activity was the raising of such cash crops as maize, sugarcane, vegetables, and fruit. In the rice bowl region of the central plain, farmers grew rice for sale as a main crop. Elsewhere, rice was raised basically for subsistence purposes, but many farmers also cultivated secondary crops for the market. In areas without developed access roads and services, such as parts of the upper Northeast, participation in the market economy was limited. Farmers in these areas practiced subsistence cultivation, selling only an occasional surplus locally.
Agriculture was dominated by smallholders, most of whom had either outright title to the land or effective possession of it; tenancy was significant only in parts of the central plain. In the early 1980s, the average holding for the whole country was about 5.6 hectares, but considerable size differences existed within different regions and locales that related in part to terrain, soils, rainfall, and other natural factors. In the North, where nearly a quarter of the nation's more than 4.5 million agricultural households were located (1983 estimate), over half the land is mountainous. In the upper part of the region, which is characterized by narrow valleys, average holdings were only about 2.2 hectares. In the parts of this upper area that had controlled irrigation, the typical farm only had slightly more than one hectare. A farm on nonirrigated land consisted of about two hectares, part of which was rain-fed paddy and part upland. The lower part of the region had areas similar to those in the central plain. Farms were considerably larger, the typical one having close to five hectares. Both paddy and upland crops were grown, and maize had become an important secondary cash crop for many farmers.
In the Northeast, the generally infertile soil required larger holdings to meet subsistence needs. Over half the farms had between 2.4 and 7.2 hectares, and the typical farm had an area of about 4 hectares. In the early 1980s, about 40 percent of the country's agricultural households lived in this region. Holdings in the Center, which contained about 20 percent of the nation's agricultural households, varied considerably. Near Bangkok small farms producing market vegetables might have little more than half a hectare, whereas commercial rice farms outside the city averaged over ten hectares. The typical commercial rice holding on the central plain, however, averaged somewhat over three hectares, and all available land was under cultivation. In the upland to the east of the plain, where maize was grown commercially, the typical farm size was close to 6.5 hectares. Cassava was also grown in this area on somewhat smaller farms, typically of about five hectares. West of the plain, the uplands were devoted in part to sugarcane grown on holdings usually of about three hectares. In the South, the rugged terrain made about two-fifths of the region unsuitable for agriculture. The climate, however, favored the cultivation of rubber trees, and the majority of farms grew rubber as a cash crop along with subsistence rice. A typical household had about three hectares: 1.5 hectares of rubber trees, small areas of coconut or fruit trees, and the rest planted in rice. In the three southernmost provinces holdings were smaller, averaging about two hectares.
Land Use and Soils
Roughly two-fifths of Thailand is covered by mountains and hills, the steepness of which generally precludes cultivation. Nevertheless, perhaps as much as a tenth of this area might also be converted to agricultural purposes once detailed information was obtained through surveys. Estimates in the 1970s of overall land-use suitability classified roughly 58 percent of mountainous and hilly regions as cultivable (compared with 24 percent 2 decades earlier), of which about 19 percent was usable for paddy, 28 percent for upland crops, and 11 percent for both paddy and upland agriculture. Actual holdings of agricultural land--not all of which was under cultivation at any one time--were estimated in the mid-1970s to occupy about 43 percent of the total land area.
Soils throughout most of the country are of low fertility, largely as a result of leaching by heavy rainfall. Differences between the various soil types are the result of differences in parent rock material, variations in the amount of rainfall, length of wet and dry seasons, type of vegetable cover, and other natural factors. In general, stony and shallow soils characterize the hill and mountain terrain of the North. Large portions of this mountainous area were traditionally used by hill peoples for shifting cultivation. The Lua (also called Lawa) and Karen cultivated for short periods, then permitted the land to lie fallow for long periods, which allowed forest regrowth and restoration of soil fertility. As a result of population pressures, however, other groups sometimes failed to follow this practice. The principle crop of many hill peoples was upland rice; maize was an important secondary crop. The Hmong, Lisu, and certain other hill peoples cultivated the opium poppy as a cash crop , but this activity had important implications for internal stability as well as major international repercussions. Thai authorities, with substantial international assistance, increased efforts in the 1980s to redirect these people to other cash crops, including tobacco and coffee.
Many inhabitants of the lowlands in the North also practiced shifting cultivation in hill areas lying not far above the valleys. The valleys usually had better soils, some of fairly high or moderate fertility, which were used mainly to grow irrigated rice. In places where population pressures had developed, the higher areas were often turned to shifting cultivation to supplement lowland production. The principal crop was usually upland rice, although other crops were also grown.
Shallow sandy loams cover a large part of the Khorat Plateau. Their generally low fertility partly explains the lower economic level of the region. Soils along the main rivers are more fertile, and alluvial loams of high fertility are found along the Mekong River. Lowland soils covering about a fifth of the Northeast (some 3.5 million hectares) had been converted to rice paddy.
The central plain rice-growing area and the delta of the Mae Nam (river) Chao Phraya has clayey soils of high to moderate fertility. Low-lying and flat, much of the area is flooded during the rainy season. Higher areas on the edges of the plain are generally well-drained soils of high to moderate fertility that are suitable for intensive cultivation. These lands are used extensively for maize and sugarcane. Among other highly useful soils are the well-drained clayey and loamy soils in parts of the peninsula where rubber is grown.
Traditionally, the king owned all the land, from which he made grants to nobles, officials, and other free subjects. If left uncultivated for three years, the land could be taken back by the crown, but otherwise it could be passed on to heirs or mortgaged or sold. At the same time, there was abundant unoccupied cultivable land that by tradition and custom could be cleared and used by a farmer, who after three years of continuous cultivation established informal rights. The concept of individual ownership of the land was introduced during the reign of King Chulalongkorn (Rama V, 1868-1910), and beginning in 1901 formal title could be acquired.
The titling of land in the mid-1980s was based on a land code promulgated in 1954. The 1954 code established eight hectares as the maximum permissible holding except where the owner could manage a larger holding by himself. This limitation was generally ignored, however, and was rescinded four years later. A title deed (chanod tidin) giving unrestricted ownership rights ordinarily was issued only after a cadastral survey. At least two prior steps were required before the prospective landholder could obtain a full title deed. Application was first made to occupy and cultivate a piece of unused land, and a temporary occupancy permit (bai chong--reserve license) that carried no title rights was received. After 75 percent of the land had been cultivated, the landholder could secure an exploitation testimonial (nor sor). This gave him the right to occupy the land permanently and to pass the property on to heirs; in effect it was an assurance that a title deed eventually would be forthcoming. Transferring the land through sale, however, was extremely difficult, and the exploitation testimonial was not usually accepted by banks as collateral. In the case of squatters, a special occupancy permit (sor kor) could also be obtained, unless the land was in a permanent reserved forest or was intended for public use. Satisfactory development could then lead to the issuance of an exploitation testimonial and ultimately a full title deed.
The issuance of title deeds, which proceeded at a relatively slow pace in the early 1950s, quickened somewhat during the remainder of the decade. By 1960 the total number of title deeds for agricultural land had reached 1 million, although there were 3.4 million agricultural households (this total included an unknown number of tenants' households). The pressure for titles of various kinds increased during the 1960s and 1970s as the number of farm holdings expanded rapidly. In an effort to expedite the processing of title deeds, the Department of Land of the Ministry of Interior resorted in the 1970s to the use of aerial photography in lieu of land surveys.
In the 1980s, a substantial component of the nation's dominant smallholder group nevertheless lacked full title to the land it worked. By 1982 the total number of title deeds was 3.9 million. A 1976 estimate placed the proportion of farm holdings having formal title at about 60 percent. The lack of full title by the remaining 40 percent created not only a sense of insecurity for the landholder but also presented a barrier to securing needed credit.
A major question in the mid-1980s concerned the legalization of farm holdings outside recognized areas for land acquisition. An unknown but substantial number of holdings had been established by squatters--many of them hill people--in the reserve forests, which, according to the central government, were not eligible for titling, although the de facto possession of such holdings was recognized by local authorities. Observers pointed out that in many cases of forest encroachment the occupied land was incorrectly classified and in fact was suitable for cultivation (some reclassification was reported in the late 1970s). It also appeared that in the drafting of the country's land laws there was an underlying assumption that agricultural land meant the lowlands; in other words, the land in mountainous and hill areas was considered nonagricultural. Thus, a large part of the North was not even included in the land registration system, and the hill peoples of the region were therefore unable to acquire legal title to the land they used.
Tenancy and Land Reform
Historically, agricultural tenancy nationwide appeared to have been low except in the commercial rice-growing areas of the central plain and in the North. This situation was the result of land reforms instituted by King Chulalongkorn beginning in 1874, the great availability of free land, the absence of population pressures, and the relatively small amount of funds required by the individual farmer to start cultivating rice. Together with customary practices that tended to limit the amount of cultivable land that could be claimed, these factors resulted in a national pattern of small independent farms. Of great significance to this development was the law that the farmer had to cultivate his own land; if it was more than he or his family could handle, the farmer had to supervise cultivation of the excess. Four hectares were considered the maximum tillable by one family, although with hired help up to about eight hectares could be managed, the amount varying with soil differences and climatic conditions.
Nineteenth-century legislation set a four-hectare limit on freely acquirable agricultural land and acted as a major deterrent to the accumulation of land into large estates. Nevertheless, large holdings did exist as grants to nobles and officials under the sakdi na system. Chulalongkorn's reforms played an important part in the breakup of at least some large estates. In such cases the law provided that the uncultivated land would revert to the state after a period of three years. In the area around the capital, however, where many larger holdings were located, land could be rented out, and the landholdings therefore remained intact.
Statistical data on tenancy in the mid-twentieth century varied considerably. A problem of classification concerning whether the fairly numerous part owner-part tenant arrangements should be included with owners or tenants also led to different conclusions. The part owner-part tenant group consisted largely of farmers who owned small plots but also worked as tenants on other larger farms.
In some areas, 95 percent of the farmers were reported to be deeply in debt. According to the government censuses of agriculture in 1950 and 1963, the rates of full tenancy for the country as a whole were 6.6 percent and 4.1 percent, respectively. Rates varied significantly by region. In 1963 the rate in the Center, the chief agricultural area containing the rice-growing central plain, was 10.7 percent as compared with 1.1 percent in the North. A special 1967-68 survey of the Center determined the full tenancy rate to be 22.5 percent (part owners-part tenants constituted an additional 15.8 percent). A 1973-74 survey of the Center, as well as other regions, showed the full-tenancy rate in the Center to be 12 percent (part owners-part tenants constituted another 28 percent). The remainder were full owners. Tenancy in the Center in areas devoted completely to commercialized agriculture was very high, however, especially in some districts near Bangkok where as many as 75 to 85 percent of the farmers were reported in the mid-1970s to be full tenants. Lower, but still comparatively high, rates of tenancy were also found in certain other districts of the plain.
The unusually high tenancy rates were attributed to several factors, including the proximity to Bangkok of estates that were granted to the ancestors of present-day holders under the sakdi na system; large holdings received as remuneration for the digging of canals; and, since the 1950s, acquisition of land as investment by individuals residing mostly in Bangkok. Figures published in 1975 covering 4 provinces in the Bangkok area cited 119 estates ranging in size from 160 hectares to 1,600 hectares and comprising a total of more than 60,000 hectares. Another factor contributing to tenancy in the central plain was the loss of holdings to creditors by farmers unable to repay loans. A large proportion of the small leaseholds was reported to be owned by storekeepers, local craftsmen, and other farmers.
The 1973-74 agricultural survey also provided data on tenancy in other regions. In the North, the survey found that 4 percent of the farmer operators were full tenants, 25 percent were part owners-part tenants, and 69 percent were full owners. The southeastern provinces of the North, where conditions resemble those of the central plain, reportedly had a higher percentage of farmers renting some or all of their land. In the Northeast, full tenants constituted only a negligible proportion; 89 percent of farm operators were full owners, and 8 percent were part owners-part tenants.
In the South, full tenants likewise were only a very small minority; 83 percent were full owners, and 16 percent were part owners-part tenants. One reason given for the development of the part owner-part tenant situation was the effect of Islamic inheritance laws, which in theory divide the land equally among the children. In such cases, the inherited holding might be inadequate to meet family needs, and supplementary land would be rented. The part owned-part rented condition was not in itself detrimental. There appeared to be many cases in which additional land was rented solely because the farmer family believed it would benefit financially by cultivating it.
Unrest among tenants, who constituted a substantial portion of the nation's poorer farmers, began to manifest itself in the early 1970s. Tenant discontent centered chiefly on the amount of rent, but also of great concern was the fact that use of the land was often based on a verbal agreement that rarely exceeded one year and carried no guarantees of renewal. In 1950 a land rent- control act covering part of the central plain was passed but proved generally ineffective. The civilian cabinet that succeeded to power in October 1973 promised rent and land reform. Implementing action was not immediately forthcoming, however, and farmer dissatisfaction mounted, finally erupting in demonstrations in May and June 1974. In December of that year, the government passed a rent reform law known as the Agricultural Land Rent Control Act of 1974, providing for six-year, indefinitely renewable rental contracts. Rents were to be payable once a year only, and procedures for determining the amount were specified. Moreover, if a poor harvest occurred, the rent was to be reduced, and none would be paid if the harvest were less than one-third normal.
Associated with tenancy was the equally serious problem of landless farmers, who by the early 1980s numbered an estimated 500,000 to 700,000. In January 1975, the civilian government, over strong opposition, managed to get through the National Assembly a second reform measure of potentially far-reaching effect. This was the Agricultural Land Reform Act of 1975. The legislation called for the establishment of the Agricultural Land Reform Office in the Ministry of Agriculture and Cooperatives to serve as the implementing agency. Under the act, landless and tenant farmers could be allocated up to eight hectares of land that would be paid for on a long-term installment basis. The land to be allocated was to come from purchases from private holders and from forest and crown lands. Individual landowners were required to make available to the program all but eight hectares of their holding. Under certain circumstances, larger holdings could be retained, but such holdings could be expropriated later if the provisions of the exception were not met. Payment for the private land taken was to be 25 percent in cash and the remainder in government bonds.
Implementation of land reform slowed after the coup of October 1976, which ousted the civilian government, and the act's goals were subsequently shifted. The government of Prime Minister Thanin Kraivichien, installed as head of a military regime in October 1976, announced that a land reform program covering 1.6 million hectares and taking place over a period of four years would be carried out. Prime Minister Kriangsak Chomanand, who succeeded to office in November 1977 after still another military coup, modified this goal to a more realistic one of 1.3 million hectares over five years. By early 1979, almost eighty areas throughout the country had been designated Land Reform Areas under the program. At the same time, although tenancy remained a major issue, a somewhat different concept of reform seemed to have emerged, based on the belief that the most pressing problem was to improve the situation of the large numbers of illegal squatters in the forests. The Land Reform Areas included some areas of high tenancy, but the new goal of helping forest squatters appeared easier to promote than land acquisition by the Agricultural Land Reform Office in the high-tenancy areas of the central plain. There it was strongly opposed by large landowners, including wealthy aristocrats, businessmen, and senior military officers.
The program as projected included furnishing legal titles to squatters and providing them with needed infrastructure and credit. The areas brought under the program were to be organized into self-sufficient cooperatives. Implementation of a given project was expected to take about two years, including about a year and a half to get the basic infrastructure well under way and to provide titles. The latter would permit the landholder to pass on the land to heirs but would not confer the right to sell it to private parties. The title, however, could be used as collateral for credit. According to government sources, by 1978 some 320,000 hectares consisting mainly of public land had been distributed, and another 160,000 hectares were ready to be apportioned.
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