Sweetness & Power (8) – Trouble brewing over Thailand’s sugarbowl


Cover photo by Kim Seng under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

SPECIAL SERIES: SWEETNESS & POWER (8)

The national 10-year Cane and Sugar Strategy Plan (2015-2024) calls for the construction of 29 new sugar mills in Isaan, each with its own biomass power plant. Locals are concerned the development will jeopardize efforts to promote organic agriculture, take communal resources, pollute water sources, and impact long-term health and well-being of communities.

Sugarcane laden trucks queue up at a sugar mill in Kalasin province. Photo by Mike Eckel

PART VIII: Trouble brewing over Thailand’s sugarbowl

The growing hold of sugarcane cultivation in the Northeast and the spread of associated industries are increasingly causing conflicts among farming neighbors and between communities and sugar mills that aren’t just producing sugar but chemicals and electricity.

In Amnat Charoen province, sugarcane growers are clashing with organic farmers and civil society groups that are pushing for cleaner and safer agriculture.

“Amnat Charoen is ‘Dhamma Agriculture’ province. We have a good, clean natural environment and chemical-free rice fields,” says Wirat Sookkoon, a coordinator of a community group in the province. “If there are sugarcane plantations and sugar mills, it will affect the organic rice that we are growing.”

Wirat is part of a movement pushing for the province to officially adopt the “Dhamma Agriculture” model encouraging farmers to adopt organic and chemical-free practices. His group grows and exports organic jasmine rice to the European Union.

According to Wirat, the province of Amnat Charoen has around three million rai of land (480,000 hectares) under cultivation by both organic and chemical agriculture.

“This year, organic rice farming expanded to over 80,000 rai of land (12,800 hectures), from around 60,000 rai in 2018. It shows that agriculture in Amnat Charoen is more and more turning to organic agriculture more and more,” the 53-year-old says with pride.

He doesn’t agree with the government’s latest cane and sugar strategy, which recently led to the granting of a permit to set up a sugar mill and biomass power plant close to Siang Pheng village in Nam Plik sub-district that shares the Se Bai river with bordering Yasothon province.

Operated by Mitr Phol Bio-Power (Amnat Charoen) Co., a subsidiary of the Thai sugar giant Mitr Phol, the sugar mill would process 20,000 ton of sugarcane per day and comes with its own 61-megawatt biomass power plant. The power plants runs on bagasse, the pulpy fibrous sugarcane residue that remains after its juice has been extracted.

The Mitr Phol Group controlled 19.6 percent of Thailand’s sugar market in 2017 and is one of the biggest sugar companies in the world, with operations in China, Laos, Cambodia, and Australia.

Jasmine rice being grown organically in Senangkhanikhom district of Amnat Charoen province. Photo by Pitak Prathanawuttikul

Wirat found out that Mitr Phol has started sending representatives out to the surrounding areas to convince local farmers to switch to growing sugarcane for the mill.

“If farmers transition to sugarcane, they might start using dangerous herbicides like paraquat,” Wirat worries. “The toxins could easily contaminate the surrounding organic rice fields and affect the health of all the farmers.”

When the government gave permission for the sugar mill and biomass power plant to be built, people in the area remained worried. In the first public hearing in August 2016 and a second one in March 2017 in Namplik subdistrict, some locals implored the Energy Regulatory Commission (ERC) to revoke the sugar mill construction permit. But local opposition was not enough to stop the construction of the new sugar mill.

Just one part of a much bigger plan

Approved by the government, the Office of the Cane and Sugar Board’s 10-year Cane and Sugar Strategy Plan (2015-2024) will bring 29 new sugar mills each equipped with biomass power plants to the Northeast. This would increase the number of sugar factories from 20 to 49 in the region.

The proposed new mill in Amnat Charoen would be the province’s first major sugar mill.

Partial translation of a graphic published on the New Isaan Movement website on July 13, 2019. Only 24 of the 29 new mills/power plants approved by the government are on the map. An additional one would be in Pathum Rat district in Roi Et province (see below).

Certain provinces already have more than nine percent of their total land area grown in sugarcane (Nong Bua Lamphu, Kalasin, Udon Thai, and Khon Kaen). The 10-year plan clearly targets provinces with the lowest concentration of sugarcane cultivation. Most of the proposed sugar mills are in provinces that currently have none. There are five mills slated for Bueng Kan, four for Ubon Ratchathani, two each for Nong Khai, Roi Et, and Sisaket, and one each for Sakon Nakon and Amnat Charoen.

Fair use to some is water theft to others

Organized opposition against the proposed mill began earlier this year. Many locals are concerned that the sugar mill would steal water that is already scarce for agricultural purposes while at the same time polluting the (Lam) Se Bai river, one of the tributaries of the Mun river that separates Amnat Charoen and Yasothon provinces.

Malijit Ektasaeng, one of the committee members of the Lam Se Bai River Preservation Network in neighboring Yasothon province, voices concern over the construction of the sugar mill.

“We are afraid that the sugar company will divert the water from Se Bai river to use in the mill. If it does, it would reduce the amount of water in the river,” she says. “This will affect the people who are dependent on the water for agriculture, especially those who plant off-season crops such as rice.”

A sign informing passersby of Mitr Phol’s water diversion plan for the Sebai river to supply the sugar mill in Amnat Charoen province. The photo was taken by a member of the Lam Se Bai Preservation Network in September 2018, when the company still allowed people onto the property. Today, the area is off limits.

To underscore the seriousness of the water situation, Malijit points out that communities along the Se Bai river agreed amongst themselves on a communal water use agreement in the aftermath of the 2015 drought. The drought also prompted the Water Works Authority in Amnat Charoen to install pumping stations on the banks of the Se Bai river.

Sugarcane coming to Thung Kula Ronghai?

In Pathum Rat district of Roi Et province, members of the Thung Kula Non Sawan Community Network oppose a proposed mill because they fear that expansion of sugarcane in the area would contaminate their organic jasmine rice fields and endanger their livelihoods.

Thung Kula Ronghai is an area of the Northeast known for the quality of jasmine rice grown there. Currently, there are few sugarcane fields in the area.

Somyot Chaleebut, network representative and chief of the Non Sawan sub-district Municipality, says the network opposes the proposed construction of a sugar mill by the Banpong Group that would process 24,000 tons of sugarcane a day and operate an 80-megawatt electricity power plant.

A “no smoking” sign in an organic rice field in Roi Et province’s famed Thung Kula Ronghai rice fields. Stringent quality controls for organic certification have made farmers wary of even contamination by cigarette smoking. Photo by Mana Nuato

The Banpong Group, the seventh largest sugar-milling group in Thailand with existing mills in Petchaburi and Kamphaeng Phet, held 4.2 percent of the Thai sugar market, according to a 2017 report.

“We export jasmine rice to other countries. It’s an OTOP (One Tambon One Product) product that put us on the map,” says Somyot. “Our rice is some of the tastiest rice in the world due to its fragrance and softness. The rice is also registered as a geographical indicator (GI) regional product by the Department of Intellectual Property.”

According to Sanphithak Kasemlaochai, representative of the Khon Hak Prathum Rat [We Love Pathum Rat] group, local groups prevented a public hearing in May this year because the oppose the proposed mill. A new public hearing has not yet been scheduled.

Convincing rice farmers to switch to sugarcane

Chatchai Chotisan, an officer of the Region 4 Cane and Sugar Promotion Center under the Office of Cane and Sugar Board in Udon Thani, stresses the economic benefits of growing sugarcane for farmers. He also argues that farmers would be able to grow sugarcane on land that is unsuitable for rice planting.

“We’re not forcing anyone to grow sugarcane, through policy or otherwise,” Chatchai says. “We just provide people with know-how on growing sugarcane, how to get higher yields, and how to deal with weeds and pests on their sugarcane fields.”

The government aims to have an additional six million rai (960,000 hectares) of sugarcane cultivation by the year 2024 to meet its ever increasing export targets It is collaborating with the largest sugar producer and export companies to encourage farmers to switch to sugarcane cultivation.

Suwit Kulapwong, head of the Isaan Human Rights and Environmental Association, observed that government policy succeeded in convincing many farmers to switch to sugarcane.

“It is good that farmers are moving away from overreliance on rice, and are able to use land not suitable for rice for growing other things. That much is perhaps true,” Suwit says. “But this policy did not involve the people during the planning process at all. The policy starts and ends with serving the big sugar companies. Any benefit to the farmers is just a by-product.”

More sugarcane, more air pollution

Chainarong Setthachua, a community development lecturer at Mahasarakham University is worried that the expansion of sugarcane plantations will result in more air pollution. Sugarcane farmers often burn their fields to make the harvesting process less labor-intensive.

“The burning of sugarcane will create PM 2.5 dust, as had happened in Khon Kaen during the last hot season,” Chainarong says.

Exposure to PM 2.5, tiny dust particles smaller than 2.5 microns, comes with serious health risks as they can penetrate the lung barrier and enter the blood system. The WHO estimates that air pollution in both urban and rural areas caused 4.2 million premature deaths worldwide in 2016.

“Everyone in local areas suffered from health problems,” Chainaron says recalling the haze crisis earlier this year“Even the government and local businesses had to come out and ask the farmers for cooperation in not burning their sugarcane.”

A trojan horse for coal?

Maenwad Kunjara Na Ayuttaya, a Khon Kaen University researcher studying the sugarcane industry in Isaan, explained that the 10-year strategic plan at first had goal of generating 1,542 megawatts/year from biomass by 2026. But that number was revised in 2016, citing a “need” for 4,000 megawatts of electricity generated from biomass.

“When the need is increased, the government has to build more biomass power plants throughout the country,” Maenwad says.

She went on to say that in 2018, Isaan already had 20 sugar mills with attached biomass power plants. But even with the expansion of sugarcane plantation, there might not be sufficient biomass to feed all the power plants. Maenwad believes that the plants might then instead be fueled by lignite coal.

“If we look at the electricity purchasing agreement between the biomass power plants and the Provincial Electricity Authority, we’ll see that up to 25 percent of the fuel used is allowed to be coal,” Maenwad says. “Mitr Phol happens to be a shareholder of Banpu PLC, an energy company that is also a major importer of coal into Thailand. So there is a distinct possibility that coal would be used to fire these power plants,”

Maenwad would like to see full disclosure from the government, so that people can make an informed decision as to whether or not to accept this policy. She also calls for a reconsideration Thailand’s development approach so that people can participate and benefit from these projects.