ERJ staff report (TP)
Bangkok − Rubber farmers in the south of Thailand have a message they want to get across: they are not all rich and they and their families are at the mercy of crop prices, reported The Bangkok Post.
Like every other crop, rubber has its cycles of boom and bust. At its peak, unsmoked rubber sheet would fetch as much as 180 baht (€4.25) per kg, much to the delight of growers everywhere.
The economies in the rubber-growing provinces in the south, north and northeast were bullish with a surge in orders for new cars from the so-called "nouveau riche" rubber farmers.
Life was looking very rosy, but the joy was not to last. The price of rubber has tumbled to less than half of what it was a few years ago as more and more farmers fall behind in their car instalments.
In recent months, farmers and tappers have been staging protests to force the government into helping to stem the drop in rubber prices. The protests have gained little public sympathy after the farmers and tappers closed off road and rail links to the south for many days. The protesters have also been accused by many people of being rich farmland owners who do not know how to be frugal when their wallets are full.
The farmers insist the comments are unfair. Rubber problems are complicated and there is more to their situation than is immediately obvious, they say. There are farmers who own rubber farmland and there are those who are hired to tap the rubber. When rubber prices fall, both groups suffer.
The current price of 70 baht (€1.65) per kg for rubber sheet, the groups insist, is not nearly enough for them to make ends meet.
The rubber protesters are demanding that prices be shored up. The government, however, is only offering help in the form of a subsidy − 2,520 baht (€59.5) per rai (1,600 square metres), at up to 25 rai (€40 hectares) for each rubber planter.
Many protesters maintain the subsidy is no solution. It can only help farmers who own their land and does nothing for the tappers who are hired hands.
Somnuek Choplook, 43, and his wife, are employed to tap latex on a 20-rai farm (32 hectares) in Ban Klang of Hat Yai district in Songkhla (a southern province).
Between them, the couple makes about 900 baht (€21.3) a day, a far cry from the 2,000 baht (€47.25) a day they earned when rubber prices peaked.
The couple starts collecting the rubber milk at 10pm and do not return home until 8am the next morning
"When rubber prices were good, food was not this expensive," he said.
When the price of rubber was twice as much as it is today, pork cost half the price, he complained.
With such huge returns during that period, the rubber farmers and tappers bought cars and houses. Now that the price has slumped, debt collectors have come knocking.
Experts predict a further slide in rubber prices. Output from the northeast − the latest region promoted for growing rubber − could flood the market in the next couple of years.
The government originally set a goal of growing one million rai (160,000 hectares) of rubber in the northeast. Today the rubber growing areas in the region exceed 3 million rai (480,000 hectares).
On many farms, the tappers obtain the latex and divide up the money from the sale of the commodity with the farm owners. The income share ranges from 50:50 to 60:40.
Also, for every 100 kg of latex, only between 28-35 kg is saleable curd. And harvesting latex cannot be done all year round.
In reality, farmers can tap rubber for about 18 days at a time in only some months of the year, said Theerapong Khlongwong, a 46-year-old rubber milk trader in Hat Yai district.
There is the "tapping-free period" of about three months when the trees shed leaves and are left to recover the sap. Excessive tapping can kill the trees.
Theerapong said tapping is impossible during the monsoon season from November to December. He said for tappers to survive financially, rubber should be priced at a minimum 90 baht (€2.13) a kg. In Songkhla, he said 80% of the rubber farms are worked by tappers who do not own the land.
Associate Professor Arzizan Kaesaman, director of the Natural Rubber Innovation Research Institute of Prince of Songkla University, said the government should figure out a long-term policy to curb the rising costs of rubber farming and develop many lines of rubber products to spur domestic demand.
This is an external link and should open in a new window. If the window does not appear, please check your pop-up blocking software. ERJ is not responsible for the content of external sites.
Full story from The Bangkok Post