Tapping into uncertainty: Thailand’s rubber crisis leaves farmers in limbo

After nearly two decades of stable work, 40-year-old rubber tapper Sa-ari Buraheng is finding his future uncertain.

Like the many Thai rubber farmers who have been suffering from low market prices for the past half a decade, Sa-ari is struggling to make ends meet and support his family. Unlike many farmers, he depends on other people’s land to do so as he’s a hired labour on the rubber plantations.

He first came to this rubber plantation, seven hours north of his hometown province of Pattani in the deep south of Thailand, after hearing that he could earn good money.

But the situation has changed dramatically from when he started tapping rubber trees 30 years ago. After leaping to a record high of over 120 baht per kilogram in 2011, prices have fallen dramatically with no signs of recovery despite various government measures. For the past half a year, prices have hovered around 40 to 50 baht per kilogram.

Dropping incomes have coincided with climbing costs of living.

“Nowadays rubber prices are low, but oh, things are expensive!” Sa-ari says, with a sad laugh. “I want to save money but there isn’t enough money.”

Part of Sa-ari’s earning’s go to his 10-year-old son, who lives back at home in Pattani.

“My child’s school fees are high. I have debt. I don’t like having debt.”

Other tappers at the plantation share similar troubles.

“Before, I earned around 80,000 baht a year,” describes Veeranu Kadhen, a 28-year-old rubber tapper, who has worked at the same plantation since he was 16. “Now I don’t even earn 40,000.”

Koliyoh Bahae, 26, has also faced a significant drop in income. She and her husband tap over 1,000 trees each night, two nights out of three if there is no rainfall. She has been working in Chumphon for nine years, after moving with her husband from Yarang district in Pattani.

“Prices haven’t been good in the past few years. When I first started working, it was over 50 baht. The second year it was expensive – over 100 baht,” she recalls. “That year I saved some money. After that I haven’t been able to save much because of my child’s school fees and family expenses.”

Illuminated by only a headlamp, Koliyoh deftly carves slivers of bark from a tree. She needs to work speedily to tap her assigned 500 trees between 7pm and 2am each night. (Photo by Pin Pravalprukskul.)

Thailand is the world’s top producer of natural rubber. Most of it is produced by small and medium-sized family-run farms. Rubber tappers like Sa-ari, Koliyoh and Veeranu are employed by larger plantations, like the one in Chumphon province, which hires around 20 tappers each tapping season to manage around 50 hectares, or 18,000 trees. Many of these large farms are concentrated in Chumphon and other upper provinces of the southern peninsula (Surat Thani and Ranong).

Hired tappers typically receive 40 percent of the earnings from sales of the milky latex they extract from the trees. When the prices dropped to a little over 30 baht per kilogram in 2016, Sa-ari’s employer increased the tappers’ share to 50 percent to help them get through the crisis. It was her way of keeping valuable workers, who have honed, over many years, the skill of carving the delicate, 6 millimeter thin bark to maximize the tree’s life: Too shallow and the latex flows poorly; too deep and the bark is scarred when it heals over, making it difficult or impossible to tap again.

“I have to make sure they can live too, so they can earn enough and make it worth their investment,” says the employer. “Last year I divided the government aid money among the employees to help them as much as I can, but if it’s too much, I can’t do it either.”

Away from home

Sa-ari and Koliyoh have been hoping that by making a living elsewhere, they could save up money to buy land and set up rubber plantations at home in Pattani. Those prospects are dwindling as rubber prices fail to rise sufficiently to make saving money possible.
“Everyone wants their own farm. If they don’t have a farm, they have to work for other people,” says Sa-ari. “If I had my own land I’d stay home and work on my farm. But I don’t have enough land.”

Migration for work is the norm for many people from Veeranu’s village, because they do not have their own farms where they can make a livelihood.

“I didn’t know what I wanted to do when I finished secondary grade three,” explains Veeranu. His sister, who was working at the rubber plantation, invited him to find work there. He helped her collect rubber sap for a year before the plantation owner had him learn how to tap, starting with six rows of trees.

For Veeranu, rubber tapping has turned out to be better than other kinds of migrant jobs. Most other young migrants from his village in Pattani province work across the southern border as cooks and dishwashers at Thai restaurants, which are popular in Malaysia.

“When I went home, I heard that my friends who worked in Malaysia didn’t like their work very much. So I came back to tap rubber.”

The lifestyle in Chumphon also differs from the deep south of Thailand, where the separatist insurgency, now in its fourteenth year, has brought mistrust, anxiety and unpredictability to everyday life. “It didn’t feel safe,” says Koliyoh with concern. “There are so many violent events now.”

Sa-ari agrees. “Working here is more peaceful. No one bothers us.”

“Nowadays at home we have to be careful. It’s scary and not peaceful, even if we know people. I can’t tell how it’s going to turn out.”

Sa-ari sharpening knife. (Photo by Pin Pravalprukskul.)

Seeking relief, Sa-ari and his fellow tappers have registered for the government’s welfare care program for low-income earners, which gives them 300 baht each month for purchasing necessities and 500 baht to subsidize transportation. But the tappers do not think this is the solution to their problems.

“A one-time solution doesn’t help in the long term if the rubber prices don’t increase,” says Sa-ari.

But even though future prospects for rubber prices do not look sunny, these tappers are reluctant to give up tapping. For many of them, this is the only occupation they have known.

“If I have to, I’ll find additional jobs but I won’t stop tapping rubber,” says Veeranu. “I could change my job but would it fit me? This is the only job I’ve done. I’m afraid I won’t be good at doing something else.”

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