Private land ownership in villages in Northern Thailand is precise, as it is throughout the country. Every plot of land is owned by someone or else by the government. A privately owned piece of real estate is described on a chanote tii din, a document which locates the plot exactly in relationship to landmarks, especially cement posts that have been planted by government survey teams working for the Land Bureau, a branch of the Agriculture Ministry. [See the picture above]. The copy of the chanote tii din, or real estate deed, in the land owner’s possession is one of two identical documents, the other one being kept in the local Land Bureau office along with the master record.
People living in a village usually have two types of land, one where their residence is and the other(s) which are farm land nearby. A plot of land can be owned by any Thai citizen. Family members can claim the right to have a say in the disposal of (sale or irreversible changes to) land they are in line to legally inherit. Presumably this is to insure that no person can become landless against their will, but it seriously compromises the concept of land ownership.
As with all aspects of village culture, private land ownership can be divided into three historical phases: past, passing, and present (coming to be). Also, as with other facets of village culture the transitions are slow. That lassitude includes the phase that introduced private land ownership and the issuance of chanote tii din documents, the era now passing.
Before agricultural land was privately owned it was owned by the “Lords of the Land”, princes of the city states. In our case here in the North the Lord was the head of the Lanna Principality (or kingdom). The fact that people did not own their land hardly mattered in those days. Traditions reigned. Families knew which plots they farmed and that was recognized by everyone. The irrigation system was maintained jointly. Public works projects were done by conscripted labor, with most able-bodied males required to give 3 months a year to this. There was no standing army, but those same men served if need arose. Public land was mostly forests on hills. Local people felt free to cut wood they needed. The overall principle of the time was “subsistence living.”
In 1901 King Chulalongkorn, Rama V, instituted the most significant long-range innovation of his revolutionary reign. He mandated that people had the right to own the land they farmed and lived on. The government set about regulating this land reform by surveying the country and marking it into plots – along traditional irrigation routes and field dikes.
There are two ways to consider the King’s land reform. First of all it was part of modernizing Siam, and not incidentally creating a vast new dimension to the economy. Second, in a stroke, it deprived the traditional princes of their sources of power and wealth, which was key to centralizing power in Bangkok to counter threats of colonization by France and Great Britain.
Technically, this land reform was the end of serfdom, and the King emphasized it by ending slavery as well. In many cases slavery was not what we think, but was forced movement of people for the benefit of different Lords of the Land, and in other cases a way of paying off debts through uncompensated work. The movement of people also had a political aspect. When one of the Lanna princes moved a community of paper craftsmen from Burma to Hang Dong District in Chiang Mai, they were technically slaves, but actually privileged by being exempt from taxes and labor conscription and were given prime land which displaced those who had been living there. This resulted in social polarization in that community for well over two hundred years into the last quarter of the twentieth century.
Several major issues emerged right away, the biggest being: (1) how to manage new land that had not been farmed before, (2) and how to deal with land transfers and sales. Integral to the land reforms was the desire to expand agriculture to be a major part of foreign trade and foreign exchange (which was, of course, a matter of governmental rather than local concern). Rice and other products were needed as timber was running out. This new agricultural expansion meant extending the irrigation system to service land at higher elevations and also deciding who was entitled to this new land being put into production. In effect, the land was made available to those who would actually use it.
No single action in the past 200 years has had a more radical impact on the economic structure of Thailand or, ironically, has done more to concentrate power into the central elite. Banks, owned by the elite (and in some cases creating new members of the elite), have replaced princes as the primary beneficiaries of agricultural systems of production.
It is an illusion that farmers own their land in actual fact, if (1) they must get government permission to sell or inherit it and cannot sell it to anyone who is not a full-fledged citizen, (2) they are dependent on water supplies controlled by the government, (3) they are unable to plant their crops without jeopardizing their titles to the land they farm (which they do when they borrow to purchase seed, fertilizer or chemicals), (4) they are unable to market their crops freely rather than through cartels controlled by the central elite at some point. It is worth remarking that the less one in the chain of production has to do with the produce, the greater will be the profits; the farmer typically derives less than 15% profit from the investment, whereas the agency that purchases the produce makes at least 50% on their investment, the bankers who capitalize the middle-men make as much as 90% on their investment (considering their expenses, not their interest rate), and the government has a clear profit on any taxes and payments made to permit the banks and shippers to operate.
To summarize the first two eras: the first was characterized by subsistence living in which everybody in the village took care of themselves and provided service to the patron, the prince, for the protection and security they enjoyed. The second era was characterized by the introduction of a money economy and the possibility of producing an excess of goods and services to provide for a level of living beyond subsistence. Utensils and equipment were no longer made by hand or made locally, but were purchased for money. Self-sufficiency came to an end.
The third era is the one unfolding before us. This era has certain features of great impact. (1) A middle class has expanded with someone in each farming family having a non-agricultural job, and each succeeding generation more dependent on salaried income. (2) The presumed dependability of salaries has had a positive effect on ability to secure credit and bank loans and to go into debt. (3) As the largest profits go to those highest in the agricultural chain of production, incentives to work at lower levels diminishes. (4) Village residency is no longer entirely hereditary, nor are village properties valued primarily as residences but also as ways to store wealth. (5) Citizenship and land titles have become possible for most communities living on the hills as has long been the case for those living in the valleys. (6) Means to do profitable hillside agriculture have become available as a result of leadership begun with Royal Projects. (7) As the younger generation moves into the salaried middle class their intention to remain in the village goes down. (8) As prosperity (including health and financial opportunities) increases, the average family size is reduced and the median age of village residents rises while traditional social security is weakened. (9) It becomes harder and harder to sustain village projects with local voluntary contributions of time and money. (10) To sustain local operations (including lanes, central water supplies, community organizations and village government) villages depend increasingly on outside support, usually from the central government, and village voices are unnecessary in decision-making.
All this because of land reform.
The only danger is that this economic system will collapse. It is not an imminent danger, I hope. But agricultural land values have escalated far beyond any possibility of agricultural returns on investments. For example, we have 2 rai (.8 acre) of rice land next to our house which we bought 10 years ago for 300,000 baht. Profits from each of 2 crops of rice a year is about 5000 baht. It doesn’t take a genius to see we will never live to see the land pay for itself through rice farming. But land values have risen in 10 years. We could sell the land, we think, for a 200% profit, which is greater than any other real commodity we could have bought (as distinguished from paper – stocks and bonds), including gold which has only risen 120% in that time. Just to be clear, the economic value of land in our village is exclusively what it will sell for. That is not conducive to social stability.
To summarize the third era: the village is no longer the source of individual or family well being. Almost all necessities are produced or manufactured away from the village and are purchased with money. Land is the basic collateral for securing most loans that potentially exceed future earnings, and all loans, theoretically at least, have land at risk behind them.
Rev. Dr. Kenneth Dobson posts his weekly reflections on this blog.