Rice farmers in Thailand are getting increasingly worried about the Rice Bill, which drafters claim would improve their lives, but is now causing huge controversy.
Researchers and senior government officials have now joined farmers’ calls for Thailand’s Junta the National Legislative Assembly (NLA) to address their concerns and avoid triggering future problems.
Two major controversial points of the Rice Bill, proposed by 25 NLA members, are the ban on non-certified paddy seeds and the requirement that rice mills issue paddy-purchase papers clearly specifying rice varieties, weight, quality and moisture content.
Offenders face a fine of up to Bt100,000 and or one year in jail, under the draft law.
While the controversial legal clauses aim to boost rice quality and farmer incomes, they are viewed by critics as threatening farmers’ way of life and hurting their ties to rice mills. Farmers worry that the bill will force them to buy commercial varieties of paddy rather than developing their own varieties.
“We are worried that the draft law will practically bar farmers from selecting their own rice varieties or force them into seeking certification.
“That’ll be too much for farmers,” said Daoruang Puechpol, the chair of a community agricultural enterprise.
Even though his enterprise is not likely to be impacted, Daoruang said he opposes certain sections of the bill.
“Farmers should not be forced to change their way of life,” he said.
Ubon Yuwa, coordinator for the Network of Northeast Alternative Agriculture, said the Rice Bill would place power in the hands of the Rice Department as the certifying agency.
“In fact, the government should create opportunities for farmers to manage their own affairs, such as improving their own rice varieties,” he said.
Separately, Assoc Professor Nipon Poapong-sakorn, a researcher at the Thailand Development Research Institute, said that farmers have in the past successfully developed several high-quality rice varieties and have a history of preparing their paddy seeds.
“But their development activities are different from the methods used by private companies. If the current Rice Bill becomes law, farmers will become discouraged. They will be too worried about legal punishments to continue developing varieties,” he said.
Change will Increase Costs
Rice mills should also not be treated as suspected criminals, said Nipon, pointing to a section of the Bill that would allow officials to check paddy-purchase records at the mills without prior notice.
Critics have said the purchase-paper requirement, which is likely to raise operating costs for the mills, could prompt them to offer farmers lower prices for crops and so incite future conflicts between mills and farmers.
Jintana Chaiyawonnagal, vice minister attached to the prime minister, said many farmers were also worried that it would become tougher to get paddy seeds for their fields.
“Concerns are growing among rice-seed distributors as well,” she said.
Speaking on condition of anonymity, a rice farmer in Prachin Buri province complained that he and other farmers should have been informed of the drafting of the bill and asked to comment prior to the NLA introducing it.
Meanwhile, Agriculture Minister Grisada Boonrach said he had expressed opposition to any restriction on farmers developing rice varieties.
“We have already informed the NLA of this in writing,” he said.
Grisada is hopeful the NLA will heed his ministry’s concerns.
“But we will also make sure that government representatives talk to the NLA’s ad-hoc committee on the Rice Bill before it goes to the NLA for second and third readings,” he said.
By The Nation