Southern Peasants Federation of Thailand

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Mission

The mission of the SPFT consists of four major objectives:

  1. Securing arable land for peasants and landless people who have otherwise been disadvantaged. Thousands of people have been displaced or face mounting pressure to vacate their land in the wake of the privatization of agricultural land by both foreign and domestic companies. The SPFT has re-appropriated illegally-held land from the hands of private entities and distributed fertile land to many hundreds of families; essentially, the re-establishment of peasant class so as to carry on their livelihoods as independent farmers, protected under the organization.

  2. Pushing for legally-binding land reform initiatives. The SPFT, in addition to claiming land for peasants and campaigning for redistributive policies, must also engage within the realm of policy to ensure that its gains are respected and violations against the organization and its members will not go unpunished under the law. This is accomplished in pressuring companies to vacate land which they illegally occupy past the expiration of their titles, legal battles to claim ownership and alter policy and government mediation to legally enforce them.

  3. The creation of people-focused communities and cooperatives. We do not wish to establish privately owned, profit-based zones of operation, as though our organization constituted a company. Instead, we strive to construct an alternative to a system of subjugation by the private sector and state hegemony; one which employs a co-operative system of land management that focuses first and foremost on meeting the needs of its people, ensuring equal representation and common ownership of productive forces.

  4. Establishing a united front with fraternal organizations under the people’s movement. The SPFT is engaged in participation with like-minded organizations such as the Thai Land Reform Network, the Four Regions Slum Network, and the overarching People’s Movement. We understand that as organizations which answer first and foremost to the needs of the people, we hold common interests and should therefore engage in unity of action to accomplish them. In this, the people’s movement is constituted of a wide variety of small organizations which form a powerful voice and collective action group capable of influencing policy and establishing a foundation from which an alternative socio-economic model may be realized; one which is entirely constituted by and truly represents the masses.

History

o The Southern Peasant’s Federation of Thailand was established in 2008, however the history of the associated movement of which the SPFT is a part dates back to May of 1992, when the expansive people’s movements emerged in attempts to institute a legitimate prime minister and oust the dictatorial system. The People’s Movement, or P-Move, consisted of grassroots lower and middle class people who pressured for a new constitution that better met their needs, which was approved after much delay on October 11th, 1997. The new constitution helped allow for organizations focused on environmental and natural resource management to spring into action and expand their efforts.

o On May 25th, 2002, 3000 farmers held a meeting on the issues surrounding cultivating land, the spread of the growing private agricultural sector and potential solutions. The committee elected 50 representatives which began writing legislators, sending letters to then-Prime Minister ThaksinShinawatra, and other actions on behalf of a unified coalition of farmers and landless people. This is considered to be the starting point of the movement which would later become the SPFT. At this time, it was referred to as the Southern Farmer’s Alliance, or SFA.

o In 2003, the movement, along with fraternal organizations such as the Poor Peoples’ Land Reform Network, began occupying government land that had been appropriated by palm oil companies, which were not being held accountable for their actions. These companies, including the Worakran garden palm company and C. Krietchaleart occupied over 200 Rai in SuratThani, Krabi and Chumpon, all of which are areas which constitute a large amount of palm oil plantations. Unfortunately, resistance against the SFA was swift. On multiple occasions beginning in 2003, police forces of as many as 1-2,000 officers were sent to evict the peasants from their land and arrest those who resisted in Krabi. Negotiations rarely, if ever, took place and those who were arrested were subjected to inhumane treatment, while their assets were seized or destroyed.

o Similar experiences were faced in 2010 in the SPFT community of KlongsaiPattana, where two privately-hired bulldozers destroyed half of the 120 households on its land. Following this, two community members were assassinated with automatic weapons on January 2010, and terror attacks continued until the community had almost disintegrated. The SPFT directed action against the businesses responsible and set to work organizing a comprehensive legal case against the perpetrators, which is ongoing but has seen substantial gains for the rebuilding community.

o Our movement has clearly faced a tremendous number of difficulties throughout its history and experienced severe, even brutal, resistance to their efforts for land reform. In total, more than 10 SPFT members have been killed at the hands of privately hired militias or police and military units. On at least 12 separate occasions, government soldiers and privately-hired militias attacked our communities and territories. The results of the conflicts have typically culminated in a reconciliatory meetings thanks to the organization and pressure of unified farmers communities and associations under the people’s movement.

o Despite its successes, the SPFT has faced a number of setbacks in its history, from the termination of previous organizations under police pressure to internal issues. With a focus on temporary and short-term benefits, the SFA suffered a loss in support groups, socio-political allies and eventually physical space. The land reform movement’s existence as a whole became threatened from 2003-2008, but after proper analysis of its issues and failures, new organizations with new modes of operation were developed to learn from and build off of the previous ones. As difficult as it has been to regain the ground that was lost, the SPFT established itself as a successor to the SFA and has since made substantial strides in protecting and securing land, as well as forming stable groups and farmer associations capable of effectively resisting the expansion of the private agricultural-business sector.

Challenges

o The SPFT has faced severe resistance and even brutality at the hands of both the government and private companies. On October 14th, 2003, the then-government of ThaksinShinawatra sent representatives from the Ministry of Natural resources and the Environment to negotiate with over 1000 armed policemen. The peasants did not get any answer from the government about land inspection in the palm gardens for 15 days. October 15, 2003 over 2,000 police force and borderline policemen and forest voluntary officers came to seize the land in Kao Keawconservative forest, Kuan Ying Wao forest in Kao Kean subdistrict, Plaipraya district, and Krabiprovice, displacing nearly 2,000 landless peasants.

o Over the last 10 years the land occupation movement in Suratthani and nearby provinces have fought for land, facing many difficult hardships while also loosing the assets and lives of many community members. There have been twelve attacks hired by private operatives, and more than 10 people that have died.

o Since 2009 the community has faced mounting violence against their members for living off of such disputed land. In 2010 an unidentified group of forty people destroyed 60 of 120 households with two tractors.

o Shortly after on January 11, 2010 human rights defender Mr. SompornPattaphum, who was a SPFT affiliate and leader was shot and killed.

o The rest of the communityfaced intense gunfire and dismantling of their houses during the night.At this time many families were forced to move out further straining the needed support in these areas. Since then demolitions, arson, and intimidation have all been used to further weaken the communities involvement in fighting for land rights within these areas.

o In October 2012, an unidentified man in a truck carrying a gun threatened a woman farmer from the community saying that they should get out of the area.

o On 19 November 2012, members of the Southern Peasants’ Federation of Thailand (SPFT) Ms. MonthaChukaew (50) and Ms. PraneeBoonrat(54) were shot and killed while they were on their way to a local market. According to local community members, since this time gunshots have been fired regularly near the community during the nighttime and it is deemed unsafe to walk around at night.

o The movement has been charged in both civil court and criminal court, with altogether 30 cases from six groups/organizations, and around 155 landless people as defendants.

Why is Land Reform Needed?

Despite its image abroad as a highly globalized, urbanized society fit for tourist activities in major cities such as Bangkok and Chiang Mai, Thailand remains a largely agrarian country. The peasantry constitutes a very large portion of the population, both along the north and the borders with Laos, Burma and Cambodia, but also along the south stretching all the way to Malaysia. Despite the enormity of its agricultural sector, Thailand has never experienced a period of substantial land-reform initiatives designed to emphasize independent farmers and the peasant class as a whole. Instead, the dramatic rise of Thailand’s economic growth and development within the past several decades have allowed for both foreign and domestic agri-business companies to buy up huge swathes of land at extremely low prices (Stat). The seizure of land and expansion of the private agricultural sector has severely diminished the ability of independent farmers to function and survive in rural areas that were once their homes. Out of economic necessity, many have been forced to relocate to urban areas, displaced from the land which they had held for generations.

The emphasis on tourism and attracting foreign business has exacerbated the conditions of struggling farmers. From SuratThani to Samui Island, tourism and the construction of hotels and resorts has resulted in a significant loss of what was once small-scale agricultural land. The relocation of farmers have also impressed them into urban environments where living costs were astronomical and wages, due to the introduction of a greater labor pool, became lower than ever; a situation of tremendous exploitation of labor. Furthermore, resettling farmers attempting to find work in urban zones has proved extremely difficult, (especially for those over 35 years of age) as the industrial sector has demonstrated reluctance in hiring them. With less and less land available where there once was plenty, and the industrial/urban sector being far from a viable alternative, reform has become more crucial than ever for Thai farmers.

This not only stifled the ability of farmers to survive in their own land, it also greatly marginalized them as an entire social class while further empowering the very companies which had appropriated their territories. To make matters worse, the companies did not leave their occupied land after their land title deeds had expired; they instead remained and continued their operations, completely unchecked. With constant political issues plaguing Bangkok, corruption and the ongoing insurgency in the far-southern provinces, the government was wholly unequipped to address the pervasiveness of the issue of land reform (and, as some have argued, their ties to the agri-businesses made reform an unattractive prospect). As a result, the companies have enjoyed a substantial period of time in which they have been accountable to absolutely no one. This blatant disregard for the laws of the nation and the unwillingness or inability of the government to address them demonstrates an obscene amount of ineptitude, corruption and ultimately, illegitimacy; a commonly proclaimed observation in Thailand’s recent history.

Land Reform

o Unable to count on the government to act independently or the companies in question to regulate their own behavior, the farmers and landless peasants of Thailand have recognized the need to organize themselves into a force capable of applying the necessary amount of pressure to compel such institutions and entities to uphold the law. They also recognized the sobering fact that unless they struggled and fought against the negligence of the government and exploitative giants of industry, they would not only lose their lands, but their rights as Thai farmers trampled under the unyielding expansion of private capital. Thus, the need for a land reform movement of the people of Thailand came to be.

o Agrarian land reform is at the very forefront of the SPFT’s initiatives. This is facilitated by conducting campaigns and surveys on land possessed by companies that are inappropriately (ie, illegally) withholding large amounts of land.

o Since 2003, 175,746 rai of land has been inspected and taken possession of by the state for redistribution, but much of this has yet to be completed. Furthermore, information from SuratThani and Krabi provinces have shown that over 200,000 rai of conserved land in SuratThani and over 80,000 rai in Krabi were rented by Thai and foreign private companies. The contracts which were overdue constituted about 70,000 rai. The inspections can be summarized as following:

o After surveys have been made, the SPFT works to pressure those with illegal land holdings to relinquish them, via protests, demonstrations and occupations. Binding policy is also pursued, such as progressive properties taxes, new land title deeds for the organization, and leading cases and lawsuits against companies which refuse to comply with the law.

Land occupation is initiated when the illegal holding of land has been made clear (as ownership no longer lies with that entity) or after the company is made to leave its territory. Unfortunately, the occupation of land and establishment of independent farming communities is not always respected by its former occupiers. The SPFT has faced harassment, threats and physical violence by privately-hired militias and gunmen working on behalf of those companies in attempts to intimidate and discourage its movement.

Collective Farming

Communities of the SPFT organize agricultural land into a form of collective farming; ie, common ownership of productive land. Each family is allotted an equal share of territory which is farmed for various crops, providing both for themselves as well as producing for the community as a whole. The primary goal of the establishment of collective farming is providing for the people, as opposed to the generation of profits, as is the primary interest with private entities. Furthermore, the co-operative model promotes widespread and equal participation in land and natural resource management; the essence of collective ownership. With the needs and participation of the community becoming the primary purpose for agricultural production and decision-making, our communities can avoid the exploitation, overproduction and inequality that plagues the current and widespread system of industrial-scale privately-owned agriculture.

The SPFT practices a large degree of subsistence farming so that communities may strive towards a standard of relative self-sufficiency. Subsistence farming also ensures that land is not over-used or degraded, making large-scale industrialized farming unnecessary for the purposes of sustaining the community members. This generates a system of food security that provides a plentiful amount of diverse foods and produce.

Alongside subsistence farming, the SPFT communities also produce economic crops for localized sale. Economic crops produced in SPFT communities vary considerably, ranging from rice, palm and corn to rubber. These crops help to fund the activities of the organization and the needs of its members (ie, medication, fuel, etc). Economic crops do not constitute the majority of farming practices in SPFT communities however; this is occupied by subsistence farming.

Environment

Throughout its struggles against the large private agri-business sector, the SPFT and its members have borne witness to the poor state of land wealthy capitalist have left behind, which communities have been forced to deal with before being able to effectively use it for their own needs. Having seen firsthand the destructiveness of monoculture farming practices by palm oil companies on a mass scale, the SPFT recognizes the need for a diverse range of crops for farming as well as the importance of sustainable practices. This includes efforts to incorporate alternative energy sources, such as solar panels, into community infrastructure development strategies.

We understand that the standard means of agricultural production are typically unsustainable, designed to increase yields of monocultures without regard to the long-term impacts of poor farming practices. Degradation of soil, erosion, use of pesticides and herbicides and the consequences of such practices have been common hallmarks of palm oil plantations, which require massive tracts of land for the cultivation of thousands of palm trees. In recognizing this increasingly prominent and widespread issue, the SPFT has both re-introduced and enforced policies of organic, sustainable farming in its communities and agricultural zones. This also entails leaving swathes of forest areas under SPFT ownership untouched, or assisting in the recovery of forestry areas after their degradation at the hands of the companies and former occupiers of the territory.

Lastly, the SPFT focuses on educating its community members on the importance of environmental concerns such as biodiversity of flora and fauna, natural resource management and fostering an organizational attitude predicated on sustainable farming practices. Thailand today also suffers from an epidemic of overconsumption, quite notably in terms of nonrenewable substances such as plastics, styrofoam and other inorganic substances which pollute the environment for millions of years. The SPFT hopes to instill a sense of stewardship within its communities so that this wasteful and consumptive mindset can be altered for the better.