One of the ways to eradicate poverty in Thailand’s poorest region, the north-eastern area known as Isaan, has been to introduce new cash crops that can deal with the comparatively poor agricultural conditions. General Chavalit Yongchaiyudh introduced the Green Isaan (Isaan kiew) policy back in 1989 which saw large areas of land cultivated with rubber trees for the first time. This policy was re-emphasised under Thai Rak Thai, which had as a central policy the redistribution of resources and eradication of poverty throughout the Kingdom. In that period, the amount of land growing rubber trees was multiplied.
Rubber is usually grown in the south of Thailand, where the higher levels of rainfall are more suitable for the trees. However, there is a lack of affordable land for expansion of rubber plantations in the south and demand for the product is increasing now that the wood is considered suitable for furniture (we have some rubber wood furniture, although I cannot remember exactly what it is – but I do remember buying it). So, the opportunity in Isaan is evident, especially when new varieties can be developed that are resistant to drought and other weather conditions traditionally unhelpful for rubber.
The reasons for expanding rubber plantations in Isaan go beyond just providing an alternative cash crop for local people and also include alternative employment opportunities and the chance of reducing flooding in the region – large-scale deforestation across Thailand has made flooding during the rainy (monsoon) season a much more dangerous undertaking since the tree roots that once held the moisture in the soil had all gone. Then, after the floods, come droughts since again the roots do not hold the water. More trees should help to reduce the problem, although monocropping (as has been tried with the fast-growing eucalyptus trees from Australia) has previously caused problem of depletion of resources within the soil.
By the way, all that stuff about koala bears being stoned on eucalyptus leaves all day long and having to cling to the trunk for dear life turns out not to be true, sadly.