By choosing sustainable practices that retain soil biodiversity, improve food security and facilitate the propagation of nature.

Sanya Thongphoem is a rubber plantation owner and farmer. However, these days he is better known as the bee-keeper of Rattaphum—a district with a population of 73,744—in the southern Thailand province of Songkhala.

Like many children born into farming homes, Thongphoem grew up in the plantations. Tapping rubber was as natural to him as play. “I have been tapping latex since I was a young boy. On days when I did not have school, I helped my parents in the plantations,” he says.

Despite completing his graduation, Thongphoem chose to continue working as a farmer and rubber tapper. According to him, he chose self-determination over subordination. “I did not want to become someone’s employee, so I decided to stick to rubber tapping,” he says.

Today he owns 2.5 hectares of rubber plantations certified by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC). Most of these were inherited from his father-in-law.

Thongphoem’s plantation is one of 1,632 smallholder members of an FSC group certificate, led by group manager, Panel Plus. The company, which represents almost 5,000 hectares of smallholder farms in Thailand, manufactures wood substitute products like ecofriendly wood particle boards and medium-density fiberboard, which are used to make furniture.

Smallholder in Thailand

Environmentally sound economics

Until 2017, Thongphoem practiced traditional plantation farming – tapping latex from his trees until they were old enough to cut and sell for their wood. For supplementary income, he grew fruit and vegetables to sell in Hat Yai’s local markets. But, his spirit of independence sought more.

It was during this time, in August 2017, that Thongphoem learned about beekeeping in a workshop conducted by Panel Plus. He enrolled himself for the workshop in the hope of boosting his income, while he waited for the next latex harvest.

The 46-year-old farmer earns an annual income of 150,000 Thai baht (THB) or 4,200 euros (EUR) from latex collected from the rubber trees on his 2.5 acres plantation. This translates to 12,500 THB per month (about EUR 350).

According to OECD’s Economic Outlook for Southeast Asia, China and India 2014, this is much lower than the country’s average monthly household income of 20,378 THB for farm operators that own land, almost half of Thailand’s national average monthly household income of 23,236 THB and at least four times less than what a professional, technical or administrative worker earns as a monthly average (51,866 THB).

The opportunity that beekeeping provided is understandably attractive to Thongphoem.

He has cultivated tens of thousands of bees and currently owns 110 beehive boxes—104 boxes of stingless bees (Meliponini) and 6 boxes of common honeybees (Apis). The economic opportunity this presents is huge.

Thongphoem says each beehive with stingless bees can produce a litre of honey per year, which sells for 350 THB (EUR 10) per 200 ml bottle. A beehive box with common honeybees produces eight litres in the same period, selling at 150 THB (EUR 4) per 200 ml bottle.

With the beehives Thoengphoem cultivates, this means he can sell 520 bottles of Meliponini honey and 240 bottles of honey from regular honeybees, making an additional annual income of 182,000 THB and 36.000 THB respectively. That’s an additional 218,000 THB (EUR 6150) annually or 18,200 THB (EUR 514) per month.

To put this in perspective, Thoengphoem’s earnings from his beekeeping venture are 33 percent higher than the income from latex.

It’s no wonder then that he hopes to eventually make beekeeping his main source of income.

“As I see it, beekeeping has boundless prospects. The bees help in the pollination of plants, they produce honey which farmers and beekeepers like me can sell and they maintain the balance of nature. This helps us improve our avenues for income, and is also good for the environment,” he says.

Crop in Thailand

Improved soil management = healthier lands

Thoengphoem is not the only farmer who has benefitted from being a member of Panel Plus’ FSC-certification.

Forty-five-year-old Somjit Yunu, a member with 1.2 hectares of land, says she has learned better management practices for her plantation and a more positive way to nourish her land.

Before joining Panel Plus, her farmland was mostly dedicated to a single type of crop. After gaining considerable knowledge about how her land can be of multi-crop use, she now also grows mahogany and durian – a type of Indigenous fruit - on it.

This kind of farming, where multiple crops are planted and rotated, retains soil diversity and is characterized by higher overall crop yields.

This has brought about very visible benefits to Yunu—both economically and environmentally.

“I now use the organic garbage I earlier threw away, as fertilizer for my land. The soil is better and less likely to degrade. The biggest reward for me is that I have started noticing that the soil has more earthworms and the quality of the fruit is better, so enhancing its retail value,” Yunu says.

Another rubber plantation smallholder, Somjit Aphainet, is an inspiration and model in agroforestry for many others in his village.

The 67-year-old plantation owner bought 1.5 hectares of deforested land 30 years ago and nurtured it into an oasis of rubber trees and salak, a type of palm tree native to the region. He has been a pioneer in multi-crop practices and has helped many convert their monoculture lands to healthy multi-crop ones.

He only joined Panel Plus in 2017, and despite already being a pioneer of sorts in agroforestry, he says joining the group has only advanced his knowledge of managing his plantation.

“I have learned better waste, data and records management after becoming a member. The diseases to my plants have decreased considerably, I make better use of my land and monitoring them is now much more convenient thanks to the constant knowledge that Panel Plus imparts,” Aphainet says.

Growing multiple crops also provides farmers with a form of insurance. If one crop fails, they still have the other to rely on.

Aphainet earns more income from the salak he sells each year (100,000 THB or EUR 2,850) than from latex, whose income is 91,000 THB (EUR 2,500) annually.

This 1.2 hectares of rubber plantation is owned by Somjit Yunu, who says that certification has taught her better land and soil practices.

What money cannot buy

But, Aphainet says that’s not the only important factor. “FSC’s standard for forest management is very good because it benefits people and is sustainable environmentally,” he says.

Yunu concurs. “It is a system that loves and cares for people. It’s helping us gain more expertise.”

For Thongphoem, what he learned as a Panel Plus member was more valuable than just making more money – he learned better living.

“Honey bees are an indicator of the health of our food and our own health. They don’t survive in areas which see the excessive use of pesticides and chemical fertilizers. When highly adaptable insects like them die, it is a warning to us—a beckoning that our own well-being is in danger,” he says.

Elaborating further, Thongphoem’s says being part of an FSC-certified group has brought him benefits that are intangible – and of more value than just economic gain could provide.

“I am constantly learning new things, like beekeeping and growing healthier crops. Earlier, I used chemicals and pesticides like everyone else and never thought of the adverse impact it has on the environment. Thanks to the knowledge I’m able to access from Panel Plus, I have now switched to using organic fertilizers.”

Thongphoem says his attitude towards work and life has changed.

“Money is not everything. A healthy planet which we can leave for our children and their children is.”

A version of this story appeared in the Bangkok Post and a related commentary piece appeared in Mongabay.”