Blame it on tapioca
THERE is a complex link between trade, land degradation and socioeconomic development and Thailand's export of tapioca to the European Community (EC) provides a clear example.
Farmers in Isan, Thailand, used to grow rice till the 1960s. But at that time, increasing grain prices forced cattle-breeders in Europe to look for an alternate cattle-feed such as tapioca (a variety of cassava) and within a decade, Thailand was producing 85 per cent of the world's tapioca. A major consequence of this has been extensive deforestation and land degradation.
More than half of the Thai tapioca goes to EC countries, where it is converted into a fodder substitute. But now, the EC wants to reduce its tapioca imports because it is producing a surplus of grain. While European environmentalists support this move because it would stop deforestation, soil erosion and land degradation in Thailand, representatives of the development movement in Europe oppose it because tapioca now provides employment to 5 million Thais.
Nevertheless, in the current round of GATT talks, EC is negotiating for a reduction of tariffs on imports of grain, in exchange for more restrictions on imports of grain substitutes such as tapioca.
In a market-determined economic system in which only the cheapest producers survive, if Thailand invests in measures to protect its environment, its tapioca would be priced out of the market.