Northeast Thailand is a large region, nearly half the size of Japan, in the
center of mainland Southeast Asia. Over twenty million people live in this
region, most still living in rural areas.
This presentation is an interim report on a current research
project to overview change in human adaptive strategies in rural Northeast
Thailand over the past twenty years. Many of the changes that took place
were not anticipated, and indeed stunned many academic observers.
Reconceptualizing our understanding of these changes may help us to better
understand the situation.
In the mid-1980s, human adaptive strategies in rural
Northeast Thailand exhibited a high degree of economic diversity at the
micro level (within the household), despite rising incomes. This was seen
as an ongoing response to the opportunities and constraints of micro
environmental variation (within the rainfed "mini-watershed"), and a risk
minimizing strategy against uncertain pay-off in any one particular
activity, primarily in response to highly variable rainfall. The typical
household "portfolio" included raising more than one type of rice on more
than one type of paddy land, livestock, cassava, vegetables or tobacco in
the off season, fishing, hunting and gathering, handicrafts and seasonal
The portfolio was dominated and controlled by the rainfed
rice cultivation strategy. The rice strategy was a highly elaborated one,
with different photoperiod sensitive varieties selected for and adapted to
differential niches within the holding: later-maturing species on lower
paddies, quicker-maturing species on higher paddies, etc. By the mid-1980s,
the rice strategy seems to have been increasingly elaborated and fine-tuned
in response to increasing population pressure on the subsistence rice base.
All other economic activities in the portfolio had to be "fitted" to this
rice strategy, in their timing, their labor requirements, land use, etc.
Today rice is still widely grown in rainfed paddies
throughout the Northeast, and there are other similarities as well, but
this does not mean that human adaptive strategies have not changed much
over the past twenty years. They have undergone very major change,
arguably: structural change. This was in large part a result of Thailand's
economic boom in the late 1980s up until the economic crisis of 1997, even
though that boom mostly took place in the greater Bangkok area and along
the Eastern seaboard. The economic crisis of 1997 complicated but did not
reverse this change.
Using government data, including some year-by-year graphs,
some photographs, and various published materials, this presentation will
overview the changes that took place, and attempt to reconceptualize and
better understand them (including the role of rice). If we can better
understand how and why things have changed over time in the past, we may be
in a better position to anticipate the future.