SPECIAL SERIES: SWEETNESS & POWER
As part of our series, Sweetness & Power, we’ve talked with sugarcane farmers, concerned communities, academics, and activists. In this segment, we let sugar speak for itself, in the form of a representative of the Mitr Phol Group–one of the largest sugar companies in the world–and an official from the Office of Cane and Sugar Board (OCSB) which is the government’s arm for the promotion of sugarcane cultivation.
PART XV: Talking Sugar with Mitr Phol and the Sugarcane Board
Phairote Praphatharo, administrator of the Ban Phai Mitr Phol project of the Mitr Phol Sugar Group, Khon Kaen province, talked with The Isaan Record about sugarcane in the Northeast and the role Mitr Phol plays in the region’s sugar scheme.
The Isaan Record: What is the government’s policy to encourage sugarcane cultivation?
Parita Songkhurat: Most of the area in the Northeast is agricultural. Most farmers have low to medium incomes due to many factors. So the Ministry of Agriculture and Cooperatives surveyed areas suitable for rice cultivation and prepared an “agri-map” which divides land into four types according to suitability for rice growing: suitable, moderate, low suitability, and unsuitable. For low suitability and unsuitable areas, the Ministry of Agriculture has a policy to encourage farmers to grow alternative crops suited to each area. Sugarcane is one of those alternative crops.
IR: What kind of benefit will Isaan people gain from this policy?
PS: Isaan communities have been farming for generations. They sold their produce to middlemen who gave them unfair prices. That’s why we want to establish a sugar mill in their area [Ban Phai]. The mill will directly and easily buy agricultural produce from farmers and they will have a fair price. They will get the full amount of money and they will have a better lives.
An industrial factory nearby shortens the distance of transportation of their produce and reduces their costs. In addition, villagers will get jobs at the factory. They won’t have to go to a large city to find a job because they will have jobs in their hometowns. They will have happy families and good society in the local area and their provinces will develop.
IR: Critics say that sugarcane farming leaks dangerous chemicals into neighboring fields and the environment and that burning sugarcane fields pollutes the air. Does the Mitr Phol Group support organic sugarcane and sustainable agriculture?
PS: The Mitr Phol Group has a set of guidelines for sugarcane farming called, “The Mitr Phol Modern Farm,” which is a guide to modern sugarcane farming. It can bring sugarcane farming up to world-class standards. This concept creates more produce and reduce costs while taking care of the environment.
In addition, the Mitr Phol Group is also certified by Bonsucro which sets standards for sugarcane and the sugar industry that focuses on sustainable sugarcane farming that reduces environmental and community impacts through requirements concerning reduction of agricultural chemicals and not using child labor in sugarcane fields. In addition, [government] policies seek to prevent farmers from using dangerous chemicals such as paraquat, glyphosate, and so on.
IR: People in some areas are worried the mills will use public or common sources of water. Will that happen?
PS: The Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) has a plan for water management. We will not pump water directly from natural sources. We will only pump water when the water overflows the banks. It should be noted that about 65 percent of sugarcane itself is made up of water, so the mill doesn’t need to use a lot of water. In these areas [Amnat Charoen and Ban Phai] the mills won’t affect the nearby rivers.
At the same time, the company has always been open to listening to the opinions of communities and stakeholders in the area of the factory. We affirm that every step has been transparent and accurate according to legal procedures. We always create public spaces for the community to participate with us in order to make plans to prevent problems from occurring to communities or the environment.
IR: Critics say there is not enough bagasse in the Northeast to supply theplanned biomass-fueled power plants and fear coal will be used instead. Is it possible that coal might be used to power these plants?
PS: We confirm that we certainly do not use coal fuel to produce energy because biomass power plants will only use agricultural waste and other raw materials. Our main source for biomass will be bagasse which is agricultural material left over from sugar production.
IR: The burning of sugarcane fields has negatively impacted the air quality in the Northeast. Do you encourage farmers not to burn their fields?
PS: We encourage farmers to cut fresh sugarcane so that its leaves maintain their moisture. When they degrade, they add organic matter to the soil. Or farmers can store the what’s left over in their fields as biomass material that can be sold to the power plant and supply additional income for them.
The Isaan Record also had a chance to sit down with Chatchai Chotisan, an official at the Region 4 Office of Industrial Sugarcane and Sugar Promotion in Udon Thani, which operates under the Office of Cane and Sugar Board (OCSB), and, ultimately, the Ministry of Industry.
The Isaan Record: What does your office do? Do you encourage farmers to grow sugarcane?
Chatchai Chotisan: No. I don’t have any targets to meet. I’m not trying to sell anybody anything. We have a soil lab here and we’re pretty popular. Farmers bring us their soil and we can tell them what kind of fertilizer they ought to use. We can help them save money, too, because some farmers have been spending lots of money on the wrong kind of fertilizer for five or even ten years so they might end up saving a few hundred baht on each time they apply fertilizer after coming to see us. We also advise them on growing rice, how best to grow plants that provide ground cover. It’s all free of charge to the farmer.
IR: What is your office’s role in terms of developing sugarcane varieties?
CC: We improve sugarcane varieties, create new sugarcane varieties obtained by natural breeding methods, the traditional way. We select which species are suitable for each area. We then promote these new varieties to replace old varieties because after ten years, 15 years, a given variety will deteriorate and its insect resistance goes down. Insects adapts faster than other organisms. We might find a stronger species to replace one that insects can get to.
IR: What does the Office of Cane and Sugar Board promote here in Udon Thani?
CC: We promote technical knowledge. I am not going to tell someone to make a change. We don’t do that. We do not have the right to tell them what to grow. For factories, it depends on them what they say to farmers. For me, when I’m a guest speaker, I give knowledge about sugarcane. It’s up to them whether they choose or not. If they want knowledge about sugarcane, I’m glad to give it. The government side has no vested interest in this matter.
IR: Do you advise farmers to grow sugarcane?
Drought conditions in the Northeast have made many rice fields unable to produce enough rice because of the lack of water. For some areas, there’ll be a need to transform rice fields into sugarcane growing. I think upland rice paddies are suitable for sugarcane cultivation because it’s not suitable for growing rice.
Imagine that you have ten rai of land (1.6 hectare) that is very dry and nothing’s growing on it, not even any trees. Well, you could plant sugarcane there, and it would grow. That makes sugarcane a good option for some people. If someone wants to plant a forest instead and wait five or ten years to see the results, they can do that, too. It depends on them. It’s their decision.
IR: Will a sugar mill being located nearby provide an option for some farmers?
CC: Absolutely. If there’s a sugar mill nearby, and you want to grow a cash crop, well then you could maybe try to grow rice or perhaps it would make more sense to grow sugarcane instead.
IR: There is concern about the use of a lot of chemicals to eliminate weeds in sugarcane growing. Do you promote the use of herbicides or do you promote organic agriculture?
CC: Our policy is if someone wants to use herbicides, they have to register. But some farmers overuse it. They think weeds won’t die without it, so they add even more, and the toxic residue builds up. But if they don’t use [herbicides], it’s better.
We’re looking for people who don’t use chemicals at all. We reward this kind of farmer by taking them to see how others are working without chemicals to improve their fields. The three most dangerous chemicals [paraquat, glyphosate and chlorpyrifos] are being phased out over the next three years.
IR: Can you control whether farmers use herbicides or not?
CC: No. We’re asking them to reduce. But we can’t force them [to stop]. They should change their behavior. I think the Ministry of Agriculture should be encouraging farmers to use less chemicals. They’re very dangerous for the health of people using them. What we can do is teach those with little investment how to nourish the soil. Sugarcane is not different from other plants. Sugarcane needs good soil, organic matter needs to be added.
IR: Some communities are worried that the sugar mills and biomass power plants will create pollution and harm the environment and people’s health. As a government official, what role does you office play in this?
CC: We have to do an EIA for the stakeholders, which the Department of Industrial Works (DIW) is responsible for. The OCSB is just an observer. The OCSB can’t answer questions about the EIA because it doesn’t have anything to do with it.
What we can do is tell you how to go about registering your sugarcane farm, which variety of sugarcane is the best to grow in your area, and so on. We can even teach you how to grow the sugarcane.
But as for the pros and cons of the project, that’s for the sugar mill to communicate in their presentations. They’ll talk about how many jobs they’ll create in the local area, what kind of jobs they’ll be, how locals won’t have to go far away in search of jobs any more, things like that.
IR: The government has set a goal to grow six million more rai of sugarcane in Thailand, and mainly in the Northeast, by 2024, along with 29 new sugar mills to be built here. What do you think about this plan?
CC: Actually we are looking to see cultivation of more sugarcane to increase export of sugar. [But] personally I think we already have plenty of sugar mills. The new ones in Isaan are in effect moving here from somewhere else. They’re being opened here as a result of closures in the central region where sugarcane cultivation has reached a dead end there. [These companies] are coming to Isaan from the likes of Chonburi or Sa Kaeo because the region has a lot of dry land which is quite suitable for sugarcane cultivation.
The real question, for me, is what’s going to happen when we plant huge amounts of sugarcane everywhere. That’s what I’m concerned about. I agree with this policy though–let’s be clear on that. I’m just worried about there being a glut of sugarcane and then the price drops, and then it gets painful for the growers. A lot of people who get involved in sugarcane farming think they’re going to be self-sufficient but they end up being burdened by the high costs. Thailand produces a lot of sugar, but we’re still the number two grower behind Brazil, and Brazil produces a hell of a lot of sugar, way more than we do. So no wonder the price is low.
IR: So if Isaan really did grow a lot more sugarcane, do you think that it would really benefit the Isaan economy? If so, how?
CC: I’d rather look at the possibilities other than sugar. The sugarcane industry has been around 70 or 80 years now. In the previous arrangement, we grew the sugarcane, turned it into sugar, and exported it. The profits were then split 70/30, according to the law. Now the price of sugarcane depends on the world price of sugar. I think we’ve probably reached a dead end of this road.
But what if there were factories that took sugarcane and made other things? We could be making other things such as bioplastics, cosmetics, or ethanol with sugarcane. There are so many other things we can be turning the sugarcane into other than sugar. Not enough thought has been put into other uses for sugarcane. The OCSB has been studying the different products that can be made from sugarcane. This is how farmers could get a better price for their sugarcane.
Editor’s note: The interviews were edited for readability.