By Lim Kooi Fong*
One of the most enduring images of the late Thai King Bhumibol Adulyadej is that he is almost always seen with a camera around his neck or in his hand during his time visiting regions within Thailand, checking on projects, which he personally supported and followed up.For over 70 years of his reign,
Thailand’s much loved monarch kept a promise – the promise that he would reign with righteousness for the benefit and happiness of the Siamese people.
In 1997 when Thailand suffered its worst economic crisis in living memory, he came up with his now trademark ‘Sufficiency Economics’ theory, based on Buddhist principles to help alleviate the suffering of his people – especially the mental condition. The theory was based on the experience of over 40 years in helping his people to adopt a sustainable development model.
As of 1998, there were 2,159 royal development projects initiated by the King and implemented throughout the country. Most of the projects are aimed at improving the living conditions of his subjects, particularly those in the remote rural areas.
Sometimes he would use his own funds in the early stages to help a project get off the ground. In 1988, he established the Chaipattana Foundation to fund and help in accelerating rural development projects that are beneficial to the people and the country as a whole.
The off-shoot of his passion for the deprived sections of the Thai people is his ‘New Theory’ in land management and the development of water sources for agricultural purposes. The ‘New Theory’ was a simple formula: 30-30-30-10.
Under this theory, a plot of land was divided into four portions, namely 30 percent for a water source, 30 percent for a rice field, 30 percent for mixed crops such as fruit trees and vegetables and 10 percent for residence, animal farms and rice barns.
Farmers who followed the ‘new theory’ found the plan to be uncomplicated and easily implementable. It also did not involve costly technology. Many who tried and tested the system produced satisfactory results. Consequently, large sections of the farming communities became self-sufficient and self-reliant.
In the aftermath of the 1997 Asian financial crisis, which negatively impacted his country greatly, the King suggested a self-sufficient economy as a way to pull Thailand out of the economic crisis. The idea was that all Thais should live a life that leaves them with enough to eat, while relying on their own economy.
Sufficiency Economy called for research and development on soil and crop improvement, with effort to produce enough for Thailand’s own consumption first.
As a country governed on Buddhist values, the philosophy of sufficiency economy stresses the middle path as an overriding principle for appropriate conduct by the populace at all levels. In a sufficient economy, generation of material wealth is not the ultimate aim. Instead the final goal is to create environmentally healthy, self-sufficient communities in which basic human needs are met through Iocal natural production methods.
A typical example of a sufficiency economy in operation is how a monk from Wat Doi Pha Som in Chiang Mai and his local community used the principles of sufficiency economy to undertake an environmental revitalization process in the Samoeng District.
When farmers from the village of Samoeng first approached local monk Phra Sangkom Thanapanyo Khunsiri they told him of their problems in producing quality crops. What Phra Sangkom and his consultants found was that the soil quality in the local area was very dry with little nutrients, and thus provided limited growth potential for crops.
The key in addressing the issue of water scarcity was creating environmental structures that retained natural water resources (mountain springs and rain water). The rainy season was capable of providing sufficient water resources to support the needs of both a thriving forest ecosystem and local agricultural practice.
Deforestation of the land in favor of expansive farmlands removed necessary natural structures for water retention and increased water lost to run-off, which left the area’s soils thirsting during the non-rainy season months. The monk’s initial development projects constructed a long network of check dams, which are able to retain natural water resources in a series of small reservoirs. The construction of the check dam system involved local community members, military personnel and government officials.
The collaboration between both local and external organizations was key In Wat Doi Pha Som’s sustainable development scheme. Twelve months after the check dams’ construction, the moisture content and growth potential of the local soil steadily increased. Currently there are over 100 check dams of different sizes [0.25m-2m] in the Hoi Bong watershed.
Reforestation efforts during the first year of development complemented the check dam network by supporting the soil’s ability to retain natural water resources. Plants regarded in the ‘sufficiency economy’ categories as “resourceful plants” i.e. for food, usage and economic, were prioritized.
These included banana, papaya, rice, guava, coconut, teak, bamboo and red wood. The local ecosystem then saw improvement in biodiversity and water retention. Not surprisingly, the habitat restoration became refuge for numerous birds and wildlife.
In the four years following the first year of the revitalization process, efforts continued to improve the system for natural water retention. The creation of a water line system involved upgrading wooden check dams to concrete and the creation of separate water storage reservoirs, known in Thai as “monkey cheeks’.
These storage reservoirs collect and diffuse moisture to surrounding soil and can be tapped to meet community needs during the dry season. During this time as well, the reforestation process continued. More resourceful plants were planted. As soil moisture increased, an increase in the number of annual harvests coincided.
The development of the alternative energy is an essential component of Wat Doi Pha Som’s sustainable development scheme. Initial experimentation in the community has been a success in creating biofuel from locally grown sunflower oil and recycled cooking oil. Future development hopes to harvest clean energy through the construction of solar cells and small scale-hydroelectric dams.
The success of land revitalization as shown in the Samoeng District dispels the notion that regeneration of soil nutrients for each year’s crops is dependent on the use of expensive chemical fertilizers. Such “modern farming methods” usually compels the farmer to be financially indebted in the long term.
High investments as such have pushed many people to abandon their ancestral farming tradition and to take jobs in the nearest urban center, in this instance, Chiang Mai city, which is a two hour drive away.
The everlasting legacy of Thailand’s “Righteous King” could well be his Sufficiency Economics theory that Thailand could offer to the rest of the world. With Sustainable Development Goals the buzzword of UN agencies today, it is perhaps time that UNDP brushed up their Thailand Human Development Report 2007 on Sufficiency Economics.
If sufficiency economy works for that small time farmer in Samoeng District, it should too for that prairie farm owner in small town Wisconsin.
* This special feature is presented in association with The Buddhist Channel.