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Thailand has significantly reduced poverty and hunger in the last decades, yet some parts of the country face low social and economic development, in particular the drought-prone NorthEast where half the farmers live. Community-based watershed management and development of improved groundnut varieties are some solutions for farmers to cope with a harsh and changing climate. 

20% - Share of the 21.1 million ha of Thailand’s agricultural land being irrigated

3.6 ha - Thailand's average farm size

90% - Share of Thailand's population involved in agriculture in the climate challenging NorthEast



General context

In the last four decades, Thailand has shifted from a rural agrarian to an urban and industrial economy, with high growth rates and major reductions in poverty and hunger. Only a small share of the population still lives under the poverty line. Agriculture has declined in relative importance, yet Thailand has become a leading agricultural exporter, able to produce a range of tropical produce at competitive prices. Agriculture represents 12% of the GDP and 20% of the exports, with main the commodities being rubber and rice followed by fish and shrimps. About 38% of the national workforce is employed in agriculture.

Thailand has about 21.1 million ha of agricultural land, with only about 20% being irrigated.  The main crops are paddy (50%) followed by field crops (20%), fruit and perennial crops (20%) and then pastures. Field crops are dominated by cassava (1.3 million ha), maize (1.1 million ha) and sugarcane (about 1 million ha). The average farm size is 3.6 hectares, or 0.3 hectare per person, much higher than other South East Asian countries.

The remote Northeast region, or Khorat plateau represents one-third of the territory, where almost half of the farmers live. In 2004, almost 90% of rural households were involved in agriculture here, compared to 62-75% in other regions. Yet, this region has the least favorable agroecological conditions. Even though rainfall is high due to the tropical monsoon, it is highly seasonal and erratic, and farmers cultivate sandy and low fertility soils, with a quarter of the area being saline. The Northeast is drier than the rest of the country and has the lowest yields as well as the highest incidence of rural poverty. 

ICRISAT research in Thailand

The 2011 historic flooding reminds us that Thailand is prone to natural hazards which can severely affect its agriculture. Better natural resources management is required to combat rising land degradation in the highlands.

Baseline characterization of Tad Fa  watershed shows that after converting forest areas into arable lands, farmers suffer from high soil erosion and reduced soil productivity, partly explaining the consequent yield gap. Community-led integrated watershed management involves low-cost interventions such as contour cultivation, vegetative bunds and fruit trees grown on steep slopes, reduced seasonal run-off to less than half and soil loss to less than one-seventh as compared to the conventional system. Water availability has significantly improved, encouraging farmers to diversify toward high-value crops like vegetables.

Already affected by frequent drought or dry spells, flood and other climate hazards, Thai farmers will need to adapt to a changing climate in the decades to come. By the second half of the century, temperatures may rise by 3-4 degrees.

ICRISAT actively collaborates with Thailand's research institutions such as the Field and Renewable Energy Crops Research Institute (FCRI), for instance on groundnut diseases.

The upcoming ASEAN integration by 2015 will certainly boost regional trade, in particular agricultural products. Under the Global Agri-Business Incubation (GABI) Network  there is scope for reinforcing the ability of smallholder agriculture to be linked to the marketplace.

Photo: ICRISAT
Tad Fa community pond - Water harvesting helps restore yields in the Northeast region.