CABLE: RURAL \”SUFFICIENCY ECONOMY\” VILLAGES OFFER ALTERNATIVE APPROACH IN TOUGH ECONOMIC TIMES

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SENSITIVE
SIPDIS

E.O. 12958: N/A
TAGS: SENV, ETRD, EAGR, ECON, TH

SUBJECT: RURAL \”SUFFICIENCY ECONOMY\” VILLAGES OFFER ALTERNATIVE
APPROACH IN TOUGH ECONOMIC TIMES

Ref: Bangkok 862

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1. (SBU) Summary: Despite Thailand\’s emergence in recent years as
a major trading economy in Asia, the King\’s encouragement of a
self-reliant \”sufficiency economy\” has attracted support in the
countryside. Government programs support village recycling and
low-carbon impact agricultural practices. A number of villages are
moving away from chemical fertilizers for environmental reasons,
confident they have found comparable organic alternatives. In the
upper South region, sufficiency economy tourism is a growing
phenomenon, with villagers eager to teach, and learn, about the best
ways to increase garden production and introduce bio-fuel
alternatives. Some believe that a more robust, self-reliant and
simple rural economy can absorb redundant labor from factories
closed by the economic recession. End summary.

2. (SBU) Comment: While many of the \”sufficiency economy\”
practices Econoff observed were impressive in their ingenuity and
some may hold promise for widespread application, the effort to
re-invigorate traditional village life as an alternative to a more
secular industrial society will be a tough row to hoe. Moreover,
the government\’s efforts to promote the sufficiency economy may be a
distraction from needed debate on improving real agricultural
productivity and competiveness with other regional players.
Laid-off workers likely to return to the villages are those with
close family ties; it is very unlikely that there will be a massive
re-migration back to the countryside. Nevertheless, as a matter of
social policy, it is a phenomenon that may attract increased
attention in tough economic times. End comment.

3. (SBU) For years, Thailand\’s King Bhumipol has taught his
subjects to take the Buddhist \”Middle Way\” in economic matters, with
a philosophy of self-reliance, minimal environmental impact and
\”small is beautiful\” ideas that became known as \”The Sufficiency
Economy.\” After the 1997 economic crisis, when Thailand was
devastated financially from years of conspicuous consumption fuelled
by massive foreign borrowing that ultimately could not be repaid,
the philosophy gained popularity as a way for national redemption.
There was some fear among economists that extreme applications of
the philosophy, such as a return to bartering, could leave Thailand
behind in a world rapidly globalizing. But such fears have not been
realized as Thailand has continued to maintain a largely open
trading economy. Arguably the most noticeable impact on Thailand\’s
national economic policy has been relatively tight control of the
banking system and conservative macroeconomic management, which the
past year has shown to have been very prudent.

4. (SBU) In the countryside, however, the sufficiency economy has
gotten more traction. In recent visits to the Northeast and upper
South regions of Thailand, econoff found that sufficiency economy
principles are very much at the forefront of current village
development efforts. Most of the efforts are home-grown, but are
supported by government officials and programs. The 2009 Thai
government budget allocates nearly half a billion dollars for rural
development; separate ministry budgets also set aside money tagged
for sufficiency economy programming. The 5-Year National Economic
and Social Development Plans have formally adopted \”the royal
philosophy of Sufficiency Economy\” as a guideline. Today, villages
claim that self-reliance agriculture provides a means to deal with
the economic recession by absorbing labor back into rural areas.

The Northeast: Leaving Chemical Fertilizers for Home-Made
Employment

5. (SBU) In the Northeast, econoff found that most of the villages
visited are shifting away from chemical fertilizers as a way to
reduce expenditures and preserve the environment. In Kalasin
province, one village head told econoff that when he moved in 20
years ago, he and other villagers made a good living by clearing the
natural forest and growing sugar cane and cassava. An industrial
conglomerate set up a large sugar cane processing plant in the area
to process the growing production. The farmers relied heavily on
chemical fertilizers and pesticides and crop yields were impressive.
\”We were greedy,\” he admitted, \”and went into debt trying to expand
too rapidly.\” Over the years, however, they noticed that fish could
no longer live in the ponds and the local well water tasted bad.
Subsequently, the village head and a few other families began
switching to natural, locally produced, fertilizers. \”The first
year, nothing grew,\” they said. But after 4-5 years of careful
development they were able to produce a better crop than before and
now actively promote the move away from chemical fertilizers among
neighbors and neighboring villages. When Econoff walked through the
fields and the headman pointed out the organically-fertilized fields
and fields across the road he said were still using chemical
fertilizer, the organic sugar cane did look very impressive.

6. (SBU) In nearly every village Econoff visited, there was some

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effort underway to switch away from chemical fertilizer. Many
admitted that they still relied on chemical fertilizer, but said
they are working to develop organic substitutes in order to lower
expenses (especially after petrochemical prices soared last year)
and preserve the environment. Many are also seeking ways to live
more simply. In one group of villages, early skepticism has given
way to an inter-village barter system for fruits and vegetables in
which econoff was told 60 percent of the households now participate.
Only produce left over from the exchanges is then taken to the
nearby city market for cash sales. Another village specializes in
herb production and encourages herbal treatment at home as an
alternative to long waits at the district health clinic.

7. (SBU) The movement toward self sufficiency is being encouraged
by local officials and spread by villagers. A Development Board
officer in Khon Kaen province explained that despite best efforts to
develop reservoir systems, the poor soil and lack of rainfall for
much of the year means that only 14 percent of the region has
irrigation, making imperative the need to make maximum use of what
resources are available if the area is to develop. The government
also promotes micro-enterprise in the villages, though the officer
admitted that to be more effective government programs need more
grassroots input into what is appropriate on a village by village
basis. It is not just the government that is encouraging more
earth-friendly change. Village monks told Econoff that they stress
the importance of not harming the environment in their teachings.
Village leaders say that while they realize young adults will
inevitably leave to find paid work in factories and cities, teaching
them basic sufficiency economy skills will enable them to come back
and make a living when economic times are bad.

The Upper South: The Growing Pilgrimage to Sufficiency Economy

8. (SBU) Evidence of the sufficiency economy movement was even more
striking in the upper South. In all villages visited, village
leaders spoke of how they are implementing sufficiency economy
principles to one extent or another. Baan Khoa Krom village in
Krabi province has transformed itself into a training center for
sufficiency economy living. The village head told econoff that
their goal is to preserve ancestral knowledge about how to live off
the land and share that knowledge. He claimed that with these
techniques, whereby any person can learn to provide enough for
himself, the land can support almost a limitless number of people,
unlike a modern industrial economy which squanders natural
resources. To that end, they have built an education center which
in the two months prior to Econoff\’s visit housed over 200 visitors
who came to learn the village\’s ways of sufficiency living. The
headman explained that the curriculum first requires training in
changing one\’s mindset away from modern materialism. The training
also stresses the need for friendliness, environmental preservation,
and cultural and religious values, in addition to the practical
skills of self-reliance.

9. (SBU) In another village in Surat Thani province, villagers have
pooled funds to construct a dozen dorm cabins for visiting students
of sufficiency economy principles. The 500-baht (14 dollar) day
charge for room, board and training is partially offset by
government subsidies. The ministries of Agriculture, Interior and
Education support the program. At the time of Econoff\’s visit, they
had trained 490 people in the previous two months and had high
expectations of full cabins during the upcoming two-month school
holiday.

10. (SBU) In Baan Khoa Krom, the headman claimed that the village
was almost completely self-sufficient. He then took Econoff on a
tour of more than 20 projects that he said villagers to produce
virtually all they need and generate products for sale outside the
village to buy the few items the village cannot product itself.
The projects seemed quite ingenious. Among them:
* Compost fermentation capable of producing gas to run a cooking
stove for two hours from 50 kilograms of vegetable waste.
* Production of a smoked orange wood liquor which can be sold for
600 baht per liter in the local market for use as a pesticide.
* Fermented durian husks, which after one month can be used as fish
food.
* Quadrupled banana production by inverting parts of the trees.
* Vegetables that need water only once a week when grown in coconut
husks.
* \”Condominium\” gardens where fruits and vegetables are grown on top
of each other, in seven layers, fertilizing and growing off each
other.
* Palm leaves ground up for cattle feed and the cattle manure
processed for methane gas. What remains after the gas is taken off
can be used as fertilizer (and has no smell!) for increased palm and
other tree cultivation.
* Bio-diesel production from used cooking oils, with a by-product
made into soap.

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Econoff\’s favorite was the long string pulled tight over fish ponds,
onto which hundreds of red ants are enticed with chicken grease.
Periodically during the day, the string is plucked, flinging the
ants down into the pond, where they become, reportedly, a favorite
snack for the catfish. The Baan Khoa Krom headman insisted that
the \”sufficiency economy\” agricultural techniques and lifestyle he
promotes can be readily adopted by villages throughout Thailand.

JOHN

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