2011 Student-Faculty Fellows: College Of Idaho
Mentor: Robert Dayley
Students: Morgan Bow Hanson, Alexandra Grande, Christoph Kober, Nicole Watson
The Local Effects of Liberalizing Thai–China Trade
Our group spent a lot of time doing archival research before we left, and consequently, we were well prepared once in Thailand to collect original data to support the preliminary conclusions reached while at the College of Idaho. Our final research paper represents the work of all four students and each team member produced a working paper to provide context: Alex – the macro-level context; Morgan – the local level context; Chris – the environmental dimension; and Nikki – cultural-religious and community dimensions of tangerine production. After much debate and discussion the group determined that the thesis for our final paper, based on the findings of the four working papers mentioned above, was that poor government regulation of tangerine production in Thailand tacitly encouraged a boom and bust cycle in the tangerine business that produced undesirable economic, environmental and local effects. The group is also producing a conference poster focused upon key elements in tangerine production: the land, the farmers, the laborers, and the leaders. The third outcome of this research will be the production of a 26-minute video, based on over 90 hours of footage taken while in Thailand and the development of a concise narrative to accompany it. The work of crafting a final paper is being done by Chris, the poster is being developed by Morgan, and the video will primarily be completed by Alex and Nikki. This video above, titled “Tangerine Dreams: Boom and Bust in Northern Thailand,” currently lives on The College of Idaho YouTube channel at http://www.youtube.com/user/goyotes.
Morgan Bow Hanson
The focus of my research in our joint project on the tangerine industry in Northern Thailand revolved around local-level politics and domestic stakeholders at varying levels. This led me to document the successes and failures of various participants in the business as well as local opposition to the industry. It readily became apparent that an important connection existed between powerful political leaders and the orchard owners. The two groups work closely together to enjoy mutual financial benefits and to squash any protests from small growers and those in the local community critical of their farming practices and environmental impact caused by the plantations. It is also clear that the Thai government, through its extension offices, have done next to nothing to interrupt the boom and bust of the tangerine-growing craze. Finally, I examined the increasing role of NGOs, run by both Thais and Western experts, to encourage sustainability in farming and to protect the interests of locals and of the ethnic minorities and refugees who generally provide the labor on the plantations.
At the 11th International Conference on Thai Studies, a scholar quoted from her new book, saying: “the field work imperative is not just logical. It is moral.” Throughout my four weeks in Thailand, I was consistently surprised, fascinated and challenged by our field work-one cannot compare it to classroom experience. My research challenge was to look into the macro-economic background of the Thai tangerine trade. I came to believe that the history of the tangerine industry in Northern Thailand is one of rapid agricultural expansion in an unchecked, unregulated market. To reach this conclusion, I combined archival research with field interviews of key players which included agricultural NGOs, tangerine farmers, officials in major tangerine corporations, and academic experts. The boom in the Thai tangerine business begins in the 1990s, when, enticed by the profits of their neighbors, many farmers began planting tangerines. The market peaked in 2006, but oversupply quickly resulted and prices plummeted. When small farmers with less than twenty acres of tangerine groves begin to lose their profits, they no longer had capital for further investment and ceased production. Since 2006, up to 80% of small and medium landholders have stopped growing tangerines, leaving production in the hands of a few large plantations.
Agriculture in the transitioning economies of Southeast and East Asia is a fascinating subject. My task as a member of this research group is to explore the effects of the Fang River Valley tangerine industry on environment and human health. I observed deforestation on a major scale, egregious pesticide use, contaminated marine ecosystems, and a broad range of side-effects suffered by individuals coming in contact with the chemicals used in the industry. At the peak of the industry’s boom in 2006, over 100,000 acres in Chiang Mai Province were designated as tangerine orchards which led to habitat loss and fragmentation. The crops’ excessive nitrogen demand drains the soils of productive nutrients and reduces fertility and compels farmers to apply copious amounts of synthetic fertilizer and pesticides. These find their way into local waterways and lakes in the Fang River Valley. Still, one must ask if a development strategy focused on industrialization in this area would have been less disastrous? Moreover, one must consider the issue of balancing biodiversity protection with the need to raise living standards. One also observes that there is increasing pressure on large orchard owners to implement Good Agricultural Practices (GAP) and Integrated Pest Management (IPM).
My research focused upon the impact of the expanding tangerine industry on the religion and culture of the local Thai community in Fang, Thailand, and the role of activists in seeking regulation of the business. One local Buddhist leader, Phra Atthikarn Anek Chanthoponyo, abbot of Wat Kong Si La, is actively opposing expansion of the tangerine trade through forest ordinations—sending a message to government officials and tangerine growers alike that the forests are sacred. Interviews with him suggest that activism directed towards the tangerine issue has also led to increased political activism among local people and to the creation of NGOs. We spoke with many day laborers to assess the difficulty of their work and the implications of their exposure to harmful chemicals even though they are paid less than half the legal minimum wage. Despite this activism, there seems little hope that wages and health facilities for day laborers will increase any time in the near future.