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The poor hurt worst by rape of nature

Sanitsuda Ekachai
Bangkok Post, May 24th, 2000

How do we rate a government's performance? One way is to see if the population of the poorest of the poor has increased or declined during its tenure. And how much help they get.

According to a Social Research Fund report by Assoc Prof Methee Krongkaew, Thailand's poorest, those earning less than 30 baht a day, have increased in number to 7.9 million in 1998 from 6.4 million in 1996.

This grim fact comes at the same time as the Democrat-led administration's tireless efforts to reassure us that the Thai economy is getting better.

It also comes when the Thai stock market is at its lowest ebb and there is no end in sight to the oil price hike.

Rubbing salt into the wound, we now know it will take 20,000 baht from each of us or 1.2 trillion baht altogether to rescue the bad banks.

Imagine telling that to the poorest with only 30 baht a day to get by on.

Where are these poorest Thais?

And why study them at all? The findings attest to Thailand's failure in rural development and land reform. The majority of Thailand's ultra poor are rural villagers.

They have little or no land. With no regular jobs and meagre income, they struggle to eke out a hand-to-mouth existence and are caught deep in the hunger and debt trap.

In the North, 35% of the ultra poor are landless. Across the Central Plain, ultra poor families earn only 10,000 baht a year, while the family debt exceeds 15,000 baht.

In the Northeast, the poorest earn only about 300 baht a month while their family debt amounts to 10,000 baht on average. The poorest in the South seem to fare best, given their higher income and relatively stronger community ties.

It was noted that many of the new hardcore poor are laid-off factory or construction workers who find it difficult to make ends meet back in their home villages.

This research should prod the government into paying more attention to this usually invisible and powerless group of people. But we should look beyond merely appealing for direct welfare support.

For one thing, the poorest have little access to state services. This is because they have no time to join in village activities, no information, no connections and no transport money to access help.

Apart from making an extra effort to ensure the ultra poor receive help, we should ask why communities cannot take care of their poorest. They used to be able to before.

Before, the rural poor didn't have much income, but they lived on the bounty of nature. But our governments see money as the only answer to rural poverty, and industrialisation as a bottomless source of money. Hence the plundering of nature to feed export-led growth, while income-generation has become the mantra for rural development thinking.

Good forests have been destroyed to support cash crop, export industry. Big dams are believed to be the raft for industrialisation, at the cost of good forests and rivers. Coastal seas are depleted beyond repair to support fishing and the seafood industry for export.

With nature destroyed and communities torn apart, the tradition among villagers of mutual care has been allowed to disappear. The poorest have nothing left to which they can turn.

This is why grass-roots movements right across the country have similar demands.

Be they the Pak Moon fisherfolk, the Rasi Salai farmers, the northern hilltribes or the southern fishing villages, they all want their nature back.

No more hands-out, no more aspirins and band-aid treatments. They want permanent remedies. For they know they'll soon join the ranks of the poorest unless their nature is restored.

Sanitsuda Ekachai, an AssistantEditor of Bangkok Post.



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