Wirat lives and farms in Chiang Rai, in northern Thailand. Charoen Pokphand (CP) is a Thai conglomerate founded and still tightly controlled by business tycoon Danin Chearavanont, Thailand’s richest individual. CP began as a small vegetable seed company and has grown into one of south-east Asia’s largest corporations, with involvement in agribusiness, retail, real estate, finance, industry and telecommunications. UNCTAD ranks it as the fifth-largest agriculture-based TNC in the world. It is the world’s largest producer of animal feed and one of the world’s largest poultry exporters. It controls nearly one third of the Thai commercial poultry market, three quarters of the chicken processed in Indonesia and four-fifths of the industrial poultry farmed in Vietnam.
What was life like in your village before Charoen Pokphand (CP)?
It was very different. There were no regulations, no rules about how to do things. We followed the way of our ancestors in raising animals.
Each family would keep about 5-10 chickens. More than that and it would be difficult to control their health. There were no big outbreaks of disease among our chickens or other animals. And if a chicken started to get sick, we would just eat it. It wasn't a big problem.
Chicken is very much a part of our culture. In many villages, when a guest comes to your house, the first dish you serve them is chicken. But we also had ducks, cows, water buffaloes and other animals. We would raise them all simultaneously in a holistic manner. On any day, we would decide which animal we would eat. We always had enough meat to eat even though we didn't eat it every day. We could always supplement with insects, frogs and fish.
And we didn't just keep the animals for food either. Water buffaloes were kept under the house as a security measure, to alert us to thieves. And fighting cocks were a very important part of village life.
During the Vietnam war, US soldiers came to our village and showed us movies about the "right way" to grow animals. It was the first time we'd heard about separating animals or about pigs being dirty. And at around the same time, the government started pushing for orderly and clean communities. They would go into the communities to give awards for the houses that were the most orderly, including whether the animals were kept separately. Local government officials started coming and looking at the ways people were raising animals and saying they weren't doing it hygienically and properly, and they started creating training programmes at the universities to teach villagers how to do it. Those who graduated from these programmes became the heads of the government livestock departments.
And what happened when CP came in?
In the 1980s, local government officials began coming to our village to hand out promotion materials about how we could become rich if we started doing contract farming with CP. They were promoting contract farming for poultry and pigs but also, potatoes, which we didn't eat, and maize. This was the first time we'd planted maize for animal feed and it was a very different variety of maize than what we planted for food. Villagers had no concept of feeding animals that way. I remember when we first started comparing chickens fed with CP feed to those raised in the traditional way. We saw that the chickens grew very quickly but got very fat and lazy. They looked tough but they were useless at cock fights!
The people from the local livestock department showed us all kinds of charts and pictures showing how raising this new breed of chicken was much faster and would make us a lot of money. People got excited. Five people from my village took out loans and started getting into production.
How did CP's entry change farming in your village?
To raise the chickens for CP, you needed chicken sheds. So you needed more land and you needed electricity to run the fans, and it wasn't easy to access electricity. And the company didn't provide good information. Villagers didn't know that the chickens needed to be raised off the ground, and so they would get dirty and sick. CP would come around and blame the villagers for either being stupid or lazy or for stealing the birds for themselves.
The people who were doing the contract farming for CP, we wouldn't vist them anymore. They were worried that we would contaminate their chickens and they were always busy and couldn't participate in community events such as funerals. So they became alienated from the rest of the village. And it caused divisions in the community because the smell of the chicken coops was overpowering. The village became divided into two camps: those who thought you could get rich doing it and those who who didn't want it. We had a saying that CP chickens cause families to break apart.
People rarely ate the chickens because all of it went to CP, but also because we didn't much like the taste. The price of CP chickens was 50 baht and the price of local chickens was 150 baht, so people valued the local chickens more.
What happened when bird flu broke out in Thailand?
By the time bird flu broke out, the contract farmers in the area had already gone bankrupt and no one in the area was still farming for CP. But in other villages the CP chickens got wiped out and they kept it quiet.
At the time, if 5 or 6 chickens died you'd have to report it and cull, that was the rule of the government. But we just kept things quiet. If a few chickens died we'd eat them. Nobody got sick in the village. But there were different views in the community. Some felt we should report and others thought it was a stupid idea. Some people thought we should put the chickens in pens, but this was problematic for various reasons. The government didn't give us any advice; they just put out the order to report and then cull.
What's the situation now?
How we now raise our livestock is how we've done it traditionally, with small numbers of animals. And we get our chickens from breeders with local breeds, which is important because it's built on relations of trust and the birds are adapted to the local conditions. We are fortunate because we get information from some NGO friends about the importance of working with alternative forms of agriculture to the CP model.
But there are few communities like ours. We are in the North, far from the large Bangkok market and export base, in an area where CP can't get access to the big land areas that it wants.
(Thanks to Jason Kevin Lubanski for his help with the interpretation)