The events of the last few months in Bangkok in Thailand have exposed a huge rift in society. The ongoing conflict shows to what extent elitism determines the political agenda in the capital. In the San Sai district in northern Thailand, on the other hand, farmers’ relation to the traditional elite – purchasers and government advisers – is characterized more by equality than by dependence. Equality creates a firm foundation for cooperation, and through formal and informal cooperation farmers in San Sai have succeeded in making use of the opportunities presented by the growing market.
In her study, including interviews with farmers, Lena Örönberg, at the School of Economics and management, Lund University, shows that the traditional structure in the countryside is beginning to break down. This is a phenomenon that is probably underway in other areas besides Chiang Mai, where San Sai is located, and that can have a positive effect on the entire country in the long run.
“In a society where there is flexibility and where hierarchies aren’t so clear, it’s more difficult for individuals to build up a position of power and exploit others. In San Sai, for example, there is competition among purchasers, and farmers have the possibility of switching if the conditions aren’t right,” says Lena Örnberg.
Government investments in agriculture that were carried out as early as the 1930s laid the groundwork for the relative equality that prevails today. But it is not self-evident that development will be positive merely because the government is making investments. Instead, the process can be seen as AN interplay between different groups that are competing for power and influence. In San Sai the relationship to the government has developed into one of support rather than control, and this cooperation is working well today. Farmers have also benefited from the growing market for potato chips. Since companies have been competing for the farmers rather than the other way around, farmers have strengthened their position.
“In San Sai, farmers have considerable room for negotiation. Many of them are entrepreneurs and come up with new solutions to problems. This also probably means that more of them will choose to remain in the agricultural sector, instead of looking for employment in services or industry.”
The Farmer’s Choice is a book that to some extent reflects the researcher’s own background.
“The connection to my father and the province of Blekinge shows my frame of reference, but it’s also a matter of farmers in Blekinge in the 1950s having a lot in common with those in San Sai today, and the processes that are underway are similar. My father also cultivated potatoes under contract, although the potatoes were used for starch, not for chips,” says Lena Örnberg.
Lena Örnberg will publicly defend her dissertation Bondens val – system, samspel och stödjande strukturer under moderniseringsprocessen i norra Thailand (Farmer’s choice – systems, interaction, and supporting structures during the modernization process in northern Thailand) at the Department of Economic History, School of Economics and management, Lund University, on December 6.