Thai farmers are wealthier and healthier thanks to their agroforests
Farmers in Thailand are adopting agroforestry for environmental and human health, diversified and increased incomes and to mitigate global warming
‘The advantages of agroforestry? How can I answer this? There are so many’, said Mr Naris Khamthisri of Kusumal district, Sakon Nakhon province in northeastern Thailand.
His nearly 5 hectares, which he has been developing for 20 years, is completely agroforested, boasting a carefully created integrated system that it is hard to believe isn’t natural forest. Sitting in his traditional stilted home, he is passionate about the benefits and his story of how he discovered them.
‘I gathered a lot of information to confirm whether a multi-species cropping system, that is, agroforestry is, in fact, good or not’, he said. ‘The answer I got was that agriculture-based countries should have agroforestry systems. This is because of, first, economic security: farmers can earn daily, monthly and yearly incomes. Second, food security; agroforests are very secure. So it does not matter what happens with the economics, we can survive. This is self-reliance. Besides food security, there is food safety because we produce the food ourselves and see every step, ensuring healthy production. This happens from recycling materials within the gardens because agroforestry systems have crops, animals and fish. There are not just crops only’.
Mr Khamthisri gave an example of how this works, using a system within his own farm.
‘When trees are planted, there are also grasses and weeds, which are considered undesirable for the trees’, he said. ‘So the grasses and the weeds are used as cow feed. They are good for the cows but not good for the trees. After the cows eat them, they excrete waste but that waste is good for the trees. This is also an example of the recycling of resources in an agroforestry system: economically maximizing the use of the resources. Next, when we use green manure, what follows is soil fertility: the soils will be slowly improved, making them suitable for plant growth. If the plants can grow well and provide yields, what follows is the return of a more natural environment’.
He is not just talking theory. Mr Khamthisri’s farm is highly productive and provides him with a good income all year round. He harvests 300 kg of longan, 10 t of Sandoricum (‘santol’) (14 varieties from all over the country), 7 t of jackfruit, 5 t of tamarind and 3 t of mango (which he doesn’t sell but feeds to the wild birds and his chickens). He also produces rattan, teak, Siamese rosewood, chickens, ducks, quail and fish (from three ponds). Such a lot of harvests must require a lot of work, which could be a disadvantage in a country such as Thailand, which is experiencing a loss of young people to the cities. However, Mr Khamthisri is able to hire harvest labour because of the high returns to his products, so much so that he is able to claim that ‘being a farmer does not require a lot. If one does another work, one can find a bit of time to do the farming’.
The ultimate result is not wealthier farmers, though this is certainly an outcome, rather it is healthier farmers and the environment.
‘As I said at the beginning, there will be economic security, food security, job security, and the last benefit is health. We will be healthy at the end of the day. Good health is difficult to accomplish and it cannot be bought. But we can grow good health if we do agroforestry because there will be less use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides or we will even rarely use them. Our good health will follow’.
Fellow farmers Ms La-ead Tana, Mr Kittisak Kittipiboonsak, Mr Amnuay Kongsorn, Mr Nares and Mrs Pongnapha Srina of Bua Yai sub-district, Na Noi district, Nan province, couldn’t agree more. They have switched parts of their farms to organic agroforestry because of health concerns.
‘Our village has the highest rate of cancer in the sub-district’, said Mr Kongsorn, who is head of the sub-district. ‘We thought about the possible causes of the cancer and we concluded that we have used a lot of chemicals in agriculture and consumed the crops that were covered in pesticides. We discussed what we could do to reduce pesticide use and went on a study trip about agroforestry to Chiang Mai province. We then adapted what we learned to our area of Bua Yai’.
Mrs Srina explained using the example of her own decisions: ‘I am doing organic, mixed-species farming because when I grew maize for sale I used my income from selling the maize to buy food from the market. There was no way to know whether there was any pesticide residue in that food. Now I grow my own food of various kinds. I can eat whatever I like. It is like I have my own fresh market.
‘I started by growing bit by bit, prioritizing growing what we eat on a daily basis along with some fruit trees. Now I can save the money I used to spend on buying food and I can also eat pesticide-free food, as can our children, who can feel that farming is a good thing. I don’t want them to forget about agriculture.
‘Regarding the environment, it is good for us that we don’t get any chemicals into our bodies but the environment is also safe, which is good for it and good for us. For example, if we use chemicals, some insects that help with pollination will be killed too. Now I use only organic pesticides made from local medicinal plants’.
Mrs Srina is keen to impart to others that organic agroforestry does work and has many benefits.
‘I would like to convey to other farmers that if chemicals are used then our environment will be changed and ruined. I would like to advocate to other farmers not to use chemicals, which can be started little by little. No need to move fast. It can be done gradually. I would like to see our Earth and the environment become healthy again’.
This work is linked to the CGIAR Research Program on Forests, Trees and Agroforestry