Recent national development plans in Thailand have incorporated concepts of sustainability, livelihood rights, and human dignity. Yet, development and urban expansion have unfolded in unexpected ways, complicating the socioeconomic and ecological integrity of peri-urban and rural spaces. This paper explores the ways in which urban expansion and state development within rural peripheries reshape political economies and, in so doing, the nature of vulnerability and precarity. Using ethnographic data collected among agrarian households in Samut Prakan province and among domestic migrant laborers in the Bangkok Metropolitan Region (BMR), the research considers the socioeconomic and ecological effects of peripheral areas’ tighter integration into expanding urban geographies. In effect, to what degree does urban development unfolding in the BMR improve people’s lives and, simultaneously, rework the dynamics of vulnerability and precarity experienced among those laboring in marginal spaces of the economy? A broad array of ethnographic and Landsat data demonstrates that families and individuals must renegotiate livelihood strategies to mitigate the sociopolitical, economic, and environmental outcomes of development. The findings demonstrate how agrarian families manage the structural and stochastic shocks and pressures of development in urbanizing landscapes and what this means for the future of smallholders situated within changing national economies.
Bangkok’s urban expansion into peri-urban and rural areas is found to change the lives of existing residents. This outward movement of urbanization has negatively impacted smallholder agrarian families’ livelihoods and created new dynamics of vulnerability and precarity. Bangkok’s urban development into its peripheral greenfield areas has shifted political, economic, and environmental conditions that have led to a gradual but irreversible process of livelihood alteration. Agrarian families must pursue diversified livelihood portfolios in response to current policies that dispossess households of land and resources. To assist local people with this transformation, policymakers must address the fundamental transformations of agrarian economies within urbanizing landscapes. Positive actions could include the creation of productive high-paying jobs, training and education pathways into new labor markets, strengthening social safety nets, and considering alternative food production strategies.
Over the past several decades, Thai development agencies have advocated for urbanization and industrialization policies that target regions ignored in earlier nation-building efforts, which would arguably diminish material disparities between urban and rural spaces. Despite such calls to correct longstanding inequities in the allocation of national infrastructure and investment, Bangkok retains in large measure a dominance in the Thai political economy and cultural imagination. However, densification and urban buildup of Bangkok has complicated further industrial expansion. While brownfield and infill development continue in central Bangkok, greenfield development within peripheral areas of the Bangkok Metropolitan Region (BMR) has proven more common and financially feasible (e.g. Jongkroy 2009; World Bank 2015). Additionally, pursuing urban growth and development initiatives outside central Bangkok aims to reduce poverty and economic insecurity for families in the BMR (NESDB 2007, 2012, 2017). Yet, despite the Thai government incorporating concepts of sustainability, livelihood rights, and human dignity into growth policies, research in fields such as anthropology, geography, and environmental studies has noted that urban expansion and greenfield development have complicated the socioeconomic and ecological integrity of peri-urban and rural peripheries (e.g. Hirsch 2009; Menakanit et al. 2022; Webster 2002; Wu & Sui 2016).
Building on work in urban development, agrarian transitions, and livelihoods research, this paper explores the ways in which urban expansion and state development within rural peripheries reshape political economies and, in so doing, the nature of vulnerability and precarity (e.g. Dayley & Sattayanurak 2016; Drahmoune 2013; Fan et al. 2019; Inwood & Sharp 2012; Kelly 2011). Combining Landsat data with ethnographic data collected from agrarian households in Samut Prakan province (Bang Bo district) and domestic migrant laborers in the BMR, this paper considers the socioeconomic and ecological effects of peripheral areas’ tighter integration into expanding urban geographies. In effect, the research asks to what degree urban development unfolding in the BMR improves people’s lives and, simultaneously, reworks the dynamics of vulnerability and precarity experienced among those laboring in marginal spaces of the economy.
A broad array of ethnographic and Landsat data demonstrates how changes initiated through urbanization require families and individuals to renegotiate livelihood strategies to mitigate the sociopolitical, economic, and environmental outcomes of development. Importantly, data show agrarian families’ creativity and resiliency when managing the structural and stochastic shocks and pressures of urban expansion. Families and individuals reconstitute livelihoods across economic sectors in response to urbanization and associated experiences of dispossession, exclusion, or hazard. This combination of ethnographic and Landsat data responds to the relative absence in the literature of such analysis, particularly in the context of Bang Bo. Further, by exploring economic dislocation and spatial displacement occurring through urban planning, this research highlights the way that precarity is regularly experienced by many, but also how notions of ‘precarity may acquire substance through the attention to the singularity of lives’ and lived experiences (Han 2018: 332).
This research emphasizes the need for state policies that attend to the alteration and upheaval of livelihoods tied to primary sector economies in urbanizing landscapes and to the ways urban expansion creates new precarities within labor markets. Though the case study presented primarily centers on one province in Thailand, the findings have relevance to other regions and countries managing urban growth and contribute to ongoing debates at the intersection between urban development and livelihood rights. Ultimately, this paper presents implications for understanding the complex socioeconomic and cultural dynamics of urban development and widens the analytical lens through which to view the possibilities for a sustainable, inclusive, and moral expansion of urban centers.
State development regularly prioritizes fundamental targets for improving people’s lives. These include enhancing living standards, increasing healthcare availability, ensuring access to safe food and water, expanding infrastructure, diversifying employment options, raising incomes, etc. Yet, multiple challenges frustrate development planning. Research shows that problems addressed by development are deeply interwoven with other issues, and technocratic and economistic approaches may have limited success (Appadurai 2013; McGregor 2008; Olivier de Sardan 2005). While establishing clear, objective measures underpins much development planning, development must also confront the nature, cause, and dimensions of suffering (Clammer 2012). This requires the field to move beyond its roots in economics and politics and attend to people’s experiences with and efforts to overcome poverty, exclusion, distress, or neglect.
A central way states have sought to address the manifold issues tied to improving people’s lives, while ensuring the long-term stability of ecological systems, is through urban development. Researchers and practitioners see possibilities of sustainable, inclusive, and dynamic growth for a growing share of the world’s population through metropolitan areas’ economies of scale and proximities to needed infrastructure and services (e.g. Blewitt 2017). Given that the majority of the world’s financial wealth originates in cities, urban growth presents opportunities to create jobs and offer improved livelihoods, which would critically challenge the rural idyll common within environmental and development literatures (Shucksmith 2018). Other possible benefits of sustainable urban development include improving social cohesion and reducing alienation and disaffection, diminishing various types of poverty, protecting non-built environments and safeguarding ecosystem services, decoupling some economic growth from resource exploitation, ensuring intergenerational support through participatory governance, among other enhancements (e.g. Fioretti et al. 2020).
As noted by Amin (2006), to achieve a pragmatic, caring, and sustainable urban space, one that enriches the human experience, development planning must place four registers of solidarity at the center of planning: repair, relatedness, rights, and re-enchantment. This reconceptualization of urban development responds to the ways state planning strategies fail to meet targets and improve the lives of intended beneficiaries, including ensuring that the proposed benefits reach all people. As rural spaces are subsumed into urban expansion, created environments may become:
polluted, unhealthy, tiring, overwhelming, confusing, alienating […] places of low-wage work, insecurity, [and] poor living conditions.
The nature and cause of human suffering become intimately tied to state interventions that seek to correct poverties and exclusion.
Of direct concern here are the effects of land-use change characteristic of rural spaces undergoing urbanization. Research in fields such as anthropology, environmental science, and human geography has considered the consequences of peri-urban growth (e.g. Hirsch 2009; Kontgis et al. 2014; McGee 1991; Molle & Srijantr 2003; Pribadi & Pauleit 2015; Sajor & Ongsakul 2007). The transformation of space and mixing different economic sectors change land-use patterns and alter natural resource use for generations. When done without strict regulation and planning, urban expansion can exacerbate land fragmentation and ecological degradation, undermine productive agricultural areas, create economic dislocation, and lead to new socioeconomic marginalization. As noted in the growing literature on peri-urbanization in the BMR, the integration of peripheral areas into expanding urban networks often results in rapid and disjointed transformations. Physical, ecological, economic, and social changes create new challenges for agrarian families to continue rice farming (Fakkhong et al. 2018), vegetable production (Menakanit et al. 2022), wet market operations (Tsuchiya et al. 2015), or aquacultures (Mrozik et al. 2019).
Yet, few studies on agrarian livelihoods take the perspective of development or (peri) urban expansion as wholly impinging upon primary sector producers. Most recognize agrarian families’ creative attempts to overcome the circumstances of subjection or diminished support within state development policies and an urban bias (e.g. Kelly 2011; Molle & Srijantr 2003; Rigg et al. 2018). Here livelihood studies have proven central in analyzing what constraints agrarian families face and how they adjust to the dynamics of enclosure, foreign investment, liberalization policies, or environmental change. Recognizing the impact that such destabilizing processes can have on families and communities and the need to restrain or restructure such conditions to achieve degrees of stability, Chambers & Conway (1991) expanded on the World Commission on Environment and Development’s (WCED) sustainable livelihood framework (WCED 1987) and offered the following, now classic, integrative, and holistic definition:
A livelihood comprises the capabilities, assets (stores, resources, claims and access) and activities required for a means of living: a livelihood is sustainable which can cope with and recover from stress and shocks, maintain or enhance its capabilities and assets, and provide sustainable livelihood opportunities for the next generation; and which contributes net benefits to other livelihoods at the local and global levels and in the short and long term.
Though scholars have critically assessed the conceptual foundation—e.g. the lack of attention to power, the structural conditions that frustrate livelihood options, or the impracticality of implementing the concept in assessment and evaluative programs (e.g. De Haan 2012; Knutsson 2006; Morse et al. 2009; Scoones 1998)—the framework offered a way to improve understandings of development from a lived-experience perspective. Steadily, researchers and practitioners could, with refinement, view people’s constraints and challenges situated within varying governmental and institutional arrangements. As such, if the foundation of a sustainable livelihood within development is ‘stable, durable, resilient and robust in the face of both external shocks and internal stresses’ and does not undermine familial capabilities and assets or the natural resource base (Scoones 2009: 188), then analysis must focus not only on coping strategies and short-term adaptation, but also on systemic, long-run dynamics and societal transformations.
As seen below, data highlight how livelihood options are impacted by urban development and the alteration of landscapes and natural resource access. This intersects short-term adaptations (e.g. pursuing cash crops or off-farm labor) with long-term variables and structural changes (e.g. land fragmentation, erosion of state support for primary economies, or climate instabilities such as droughts or rising temperatures). The combination of ethnographic and Landsat data contributes to debates on long-run changes in economies and urban planning and wider questions about livelihood complexities and the moral expansion of urban spaces.
The majority of ethnographic data considered here come from the field site of Samut Prakan (Bang Bo district), located in the central region of Thailand (along the Eastern Economic Corridor), approximately 35–50 km south/southeast of central Bangkok. Analysis draws from a broad array of ethnographic data collected in Thailand’s central region, primarily occurring from 2011 to 2013, with subsequent visits in 2016 and 2019. Ethnographic methods included semi-structured and unstructured interviews, participant observation, and socioeconomic surveys. Interviews were conducted with heads of household and those managing agricultural output in Bang Bo. Agrarian families were identified through chained-referral and purposive sampling, which sought to locate families in each of Bang Bo’s eight subdistricts (tambons), families with diverse agricultural activities underpinning household livelihood strategies, and families with varying socioeconomic, class, age, or educational characteristics. In addition to qualitative interviews that explored how families perceived and adjusted to urban expansion in the district, basic socioeconomic data were collected during interviews.
Given the prevalence of labor migration as an economic strategizing behavior among agrarian households, chained-referral and purposive sampling were also used to identify a diverse range of domestic migrants working in Bangkok’s formal and informal economies.1 Efforts were made to identify domestic migrants who held varying types of employment and exhibited a range of social markers—class, age, dialect, education, etc.—which may influence one’s upward integration into labor markets (e.g. Gullette 2019). Similarly, in an effort to understand the political, economic, and environmental changes occurring under urban development and the challenges faced by families in the province, semi-structured interviews were also conducted with both non-governmental organizations and government officials. This included those in the provincial Ministry of Labor and the Agricultural Administrative Office.
Samut Prakan is characterized by marked urbanization, extensive land-use changes, multiple land-use strategies, occupational variation, and expanding housing and residential zones. Given Samut Prakan’s integration into Bangkok’s extended metropolitan region, the province experiences intensive interregional flows of goods, people, and natural resources, establishing it as an ideal site to explore the effects of urban expansion on primary sector economies. While Bang Bo sits as the most easternly district in the province (Figure 1), the area has been shaped by urban expansion and ribbon development, particularly through road construction and industrial, commercial, and housing development. Patterns of rapid land-use change characteristic of urban expansion position this region as a transitional space—one that exhibits social, political, economic, and environmental changes, which dissolves the duality created between rural and urban areas. Districts within Samut Prakan exhibit varied types of industrial growth and urbanization patterning, including automation centers, industrial estates, national and international factories, health and science centers, agrochemical companies, etc.
Samut Prakan is closely related to the historical expansion of Bangkok—notably shaped by the industrial development and land acquisition policies of Prime Minister Chatichai, who served from 1988 to 1991 and promoted economic liberalization and foreign investment in the country. More recently, the province has deepened its connections with the emerging economic region of the Eastern Seaboard Project, and Suvarnabhumi Airport has spurred economic growth and light tourism economies in the province.
Characteristic of urbanizing spaces, Samut Prakan has exhibited decreasing agricultural activities supported by the Chao Phraya River (see Landsat data below). Eastern districts such as Bang Bo and Bang Sao Thong have experienced increased tensions between previously existing agrarian economies and expanding industrialization due to their position as a gateway to the Eastern Seaboard Project and to Chon Buri. Pressures also emerge from the urban sprawl of the province’s namesake city district (or Mueang Samut Prakan). The province’s growing economic base has ensured continued in-migration of labor and the social, cultural, and ethnic diversification of districts and subdistricts. As such, domestic and foreign migration into the region and a state development ethos prioritizing industrial growth have constrained land availability and opportunities for agrarian expansion.
To assess rates of urban expansion and the conversion of agricultural land over the past several decades, a series of multi-temporal Landsat 5 Thematic Mapper (TM), Landsat 7 Enhanced Thematic Mapper Plus (ETM+), and Landsat 8 Operational Land Imager (OLI) satellite images of Samut Prakan Province were obtained from the United States Geological Survey (USGS) Earth Explorer data portal.2 Five images were acquired from Landsat 5 for 1987, 1992, 1997, 2003, and 2007. Satellite images for 2017 and 2021 were obtained from Landsat 7 and 8, respectively. All images contained less than 1% cloud cover and were selected during the dry season within the same approximate yearly time frame to minimize seasonal vegetation differences and the effects of varying sun position. Multispectral sensors aboard Landsat 5, 7, and 8 provided coverage of the global landmass at a spatial resolution of 30 m for the visible bands. To avoid spectral information differences between the three satellites, only similar bands were considered. For Landsat 5 and 7, a combination of bands 1 (0.45–0.52 µm), 2 (0.52–0.60 µm), and 3 (0.63–0.69 µm) was used to create a natural color composite image. To analyze Landsat 8, bands 2 (0.45–0.51 µm), 3 (0.53–0.59 µm), and 4 (0.64–0.67 µm) were combined.
A classification scheme for Samut Prakan Province was developed—primarily based on the USGS data user handbook (USGS 2019)—to assess the land-use/cover change. Few modifications were made, resulting in four classes for the study area using the supervised classification method (Table 1). Land cover is indicated as the characteristics of ground surface, e.g. vegetation areas or surface water areas, while land use refers to the area used by various human activities for some purposes, such as residential areas, commercial areas, and agricultural areas.
|Urban or built-up land||Areas characterized by buildings, asphalt, concrete, suburban gardens, and a systematic street pattern. Classes of urban development include: (1) residential areas; (2) commercial areas; (3) industrial areas; (4) transportation or communication areas; (5) utilities; and (g) airports and parking lots|
|Agriculture or cultivated land||Areas covered with plants, crops, and trees including (1) agriculture areas; (2) forest land; (3) shrub and brush; (4) green areas in city such as parks; and (5) areas of seasonal cultivation left barren|
|Aquaculture land||Areas of controlled cultivation of aquatic organisms or plants in all types of water environments, particularly inland freshwater aquaculture and coastal or marine aquaculture. This class includes (1) shrimp farming; (2) fish farming; (3) mollusk farming; and (4) salt farming|
|Water||Areas of open water including (1) streams and canals; (2) rivers; (3) lakes; and (4) reservoirs|
Supervised classification, which is a pixel-based classification method, was performed on all Landsat data. A representative set of pixel values for each class is key for the implementation of supervised classification. This requires prior knowledge of land cover types to assign a class to each cluster. To achieve this, training sites that represented distinct sample areas of the different land-use/cover types for Samut Prakan Province were created. Spectral signatures were generated and refined. Following the identification of reliable signatures for each class, Landsat data were classified using parametric classifier, maximum likelihood in ArcMap (Version 10.8.2).
Over several decades Samut Prakan has been one of the most rapidly growing provinces in Thailand and historically one of the most important (e.g. Hussey 1993), experiencing an explosive pace of urban development since the mid- to late 1980s. Industrial, commercial, and housing development patterns clearly follow infrastructure, leading to ribbon development (Figure 1). Though some industrial growth during this time reduced agriculture land availabilities, the most significant change for land use during the 1980s was the extensive conversion of rice paddies into fish and shrimp ponds (Chomchan et al. 1990).
In 1987, approximately 16% (36,472 acres) of the total land area was used for marine and inland freshwater aquaculture activities (Table 2). At the time agriculture and seasonal cultivated land still dominated and accounted for 69%, while residential, commercial, and industrial land use taken together accounted for 14% (31,704 acres). Urban build-up was mainly clustered in the Mueang district of Samut Prakan. As seen below, aquaculture expanded between 1987 and 2007. However, following the 20-year period of moderate growth, aquaculture has since declined by nearly 34%. Reasons include the abandonment of shrimp farming in coastal areas due to self-pollution and land degradation. In 2021, the land used for aquaculture activities in Samut Prakan Province constituted 12%, or 26,986 acres.
|Urban or built-up land||31,704||67,285||82,623||79,459||88,995||109,422||117,948|
|Agriculture or cultivated land||161,616||124,816||107,181||111,533||99,707||87,654||84,649|
Largely under the authority and influence of the National Economic and Social Development Board (NESDB), economic development within Samut Prakan has proceeded rapidly and steadily transformed agricultural lands into urban spaces. Over 30 years, land used for agricultural production decreased by nearly half, from 69% (161,616 acres) in 1987 to 36% (84,649 acres) in 2021. In contrast, urban and built-up areas expanded from 14% (31,704 acres) to 50% (117,948 acres). This shift in land-use type and spatial patterning has also facilitated the disappearance of natural areas of water retention, such as swamps and wetlands that play important roles in managing excess water and limiting flood damage. For example, mangroves that buffered the effect of storm surges have been rapidly cut down and further reduced by coastal erosion (WWF 2009). Of course, in some areas shrimp farm expansion has contributed to coastal mangrove forest destruction (Mrozik et al. 2019).
Though results from the classified Landsat images between 1997 and 2003 indicated that there was a slight increase of 4% in agricultural land and a decrease of nearly 4% in the built-up area, this might be due to a common error in the classification, in which the spectral signatures of the built-up area and barren seasonal agricultural land were almost identical. Additionally, in 2002 the land in Bang Phli district, 30 km east of Bangkok, was cleared for the construction of Suvarnabhumi Airport. The airport started operations in 2006, and its area coverage appears in red on the 2007 classified image. Ultimately, Landsat data show that urban or built-up land has nearly quadrupled from 31,704 to 117,948 acres since 1987, and agricultural land has been almost halved since that time (Figure 2).
Conversations and interviews with those primarily responsible for families’ agricultural output highlighted the ways urban expansion within the BMR had directly and indirectly impacted their livelihoods. At an indirect level, families were aware of the ways that agriculture and primary sector economies held lower valuation in Thailand’s recent political economy (see also Gullette & Singto 2015). Within hierarchical orders, professional occupations and those who work with symbols and people become exemplars of high status and are clearly differentiated from occupational work that centers on material things and primary sector production (e.g. Chan & Goldthorpe 2004). As such, little societal advantage exists for younger generations to enter agricultural work and many look to exit in favor of other occupations. Given families’ proximity to central Bangkok, it served as one of the main destinations for those aged between 18 and 40. Work outside Bang Bo might carry additional status for oneself and their family. The result is that agrarian labor has steadily aged over the years, with majority of farming being carried out by those in their 40s, 50s, and above (see also Udomkerdmongkol & Chalermpao 2020).
The direct impacts of urban development and enclosure of rural spaces reshaped political economies and livelihood options in Samut Prakan and, in so doing, the nature of vulnerability. As in other locations throughout the Chao Phraya delta, rice farming maintains a degree of dominance. However, given the fragmentation of land, diversification into cash crop production has normalized. This includes growing vegetables, orchids, coconut, and fruit (e.g. bananas and mangos), and tending to aquacultures (primarily shrimp and fish). Such diversification may, on the one hand, require increased labor, which can face hurdles as children move from agricultural activities, and, on the other, diversification enables intensive farming on smaller parcels to generate income competitive with non-agricultural activities (to an extent).
When explaining land fragmentation in Bang Bo, farmers pointed to the historical legacies of the Chatichai government. In addition to cutting rural job-creation programs, Chatichai worked to diminish agricultural activities in the region by pushing land acquisition and privatization for urban expansion. Though industrialization unfolded more slowly in the succeeding decades than some hoped, farmlands were sold for a premium at the time. Many of those interviewed operated under tenancy, renting lands from an affluent class that regularly lived in Bangkok or in other major cities throughout the country. The result is that agrarian families have a hard time ‘stepping up’ and investing in the expansion of agricultural activities or the rehabilitation of the land, which may have suffered from exhaustion or pollution. For example, shrimp aquaculture can generate income yields that eclipse those earned in rice production (10–20 times more). Yet, the activity carries considerable risk as stringent water quality standards must be maintained to avoid disease or collapse (see also Mrozik et al. 2019).
As seen in the Landsat data above, significant densification and urban build-up has continued in the province. Aside from the construction of Suvarnabhumi Airport in Bang Phli district and the relatively rapid densification of the Mueang district, Landsat imagery demonstrates the loss of forest and greenscapes, the rise in land fragmentation, and the eastward movement of urban and suburban spaces.3 This includes a southeastern movement from Bang Sao Thong district into agricultural areas in Bang Bo.
Most agrarian families attempted to cope with the vagaries of the market and the instabilities of crop production, rarely investing too much into the land or expanding one’s operations due to land’s prohibitively high cost and lack of availability. While some discussed abandoning agricultural production, more often families diversified into new livelihood options. A common strategy for those with limited household capital was pursuing low-investment crops that could be harvested throughout the year, such as guava or galangal. This bolstered year-round incomes and provided some degree of protection as families had flexibilities to adjust to market conditions. Other families incorporated agricultural outputs into other enterprises. For example, some might take surplus food to sell at the local market, use it as a foundation for a small restaurant, or sell it in a family-owned convenience store. Of course, depending on their asset base and available capital, shifting and adopting new farming activities could prove difficult.
Not all pathways remained open, and state social support systems were at times inaccessible or unavailable. For example, following the catastrophic shocks of the Asian Financial Crisis in 1997 and the Global Financial Crisis in 2008, social protection programs in Thailand proved inadequate among different economic sectors, including primary sector economies, as expenditures and services contracted (e.g. Chalamwong & Meepien 2012; Jayanthakumaran 2016; Warr 2009). Recognizing the instabilities and economic dislocation created through such crises, government agencies increasingly focused on expanding social protection beyond the initial aims of reducing poverty to more broadly tackling the intergenerational elements of poverty through health and education investments, and addressing vulnerabilities experienced among those underemployed or in low-productivity occupations (Cook & Pincus 2014: 2). However, these expansionary measures overlook many needing support. In particular, social protection policies tend to exclude those employed in informal sectors, which increases risk among families as they attempt to mitigate the instabilities associated with agricultural production in urbanizing landscapes by entering informal labor markets. Certainly, some families supported daughters and sons as they gained access to advanced education, moving into higher occupations in Bangkok and increasing the various types of capital made available to the family. Families that owned or rented relatively large plots (over 50 rai, or 1600 m2) commonly had access to greater capital and had flexibilities in supporting their children’s exit from agricultural production into higher status occupations (e.g. into education, government, law, or banking sectors). Yet, others experienced more constrained assets and futures.
Interviews that considered these issues generally indexed the challenges of both coming from families that struggled as smallholder agrarian producers in an urbanizing landscape and those that might lack the socioeconomic capital to pursue formal, prestigious work in Bangkok. The result is that families and individuals may experience a mixture of different types of work, stress, and trauma as they attempt to make ends meet over the course of their lives. During an interview with Oraya, a middle-aged woman who had moved to Bangkok to work outside of family agriculture so she could send remittances to support her parents and siblings, she considered many of these themes. Sitting down to talk, Oraya carefully pulled out a letter, saying she wanted to make sure all her points were clear:
I was born in a poor family of farmers, the poorest one in Thailand, I would say. I still remember when I started school, my mother sent me to a temple in the neighborhood. The classroom was an open sâalaa [pavilion] with a dirt floor. I didn’t have a textbook, a notebook or even a pencil to use. When it was the time of year to start growing rice, my father would ask me and my brother to walk our ox to the rice field early in the morning. Once we were done, we went straight home, ate breakfast and dressed for school. I had to run as fast as I could. By the time I got to school, most of my friends had already been in class. And the teachers would punish me for being late, making me run five times around the school. Other times the teacher would spank me and my brother or slam our knuckles on the desk. It hurt so much, but we had to put up with it.
When I finished fourth grade, I stopped going to school and helped my parents work our land. When I was done working in the rice field, I would go and find other jobs around the neighborhood. People would hire me to clear their fields, readying it for the next crop. Eventually I left my parents and came to Bangkok to work as a housemaid. I’ve worked for many families over the years and some were unkind. But my time and work in the city was always short. When the rice season started, I had to go back to help my family because my other siblings were too young to do much for my parents. And when the harvest season would come, I would return home again or send money if the yield was less than expected. That has been most of my life, coming up as a daughter of poor Thai farmers.4
As seen here, aside from a child’s distress and pain suffered as a consequence of assisting in early morning agricultural tasks, one’s class position may structure familial responsibilities and constrain opportunities to access formal work. In the case of Oraya and others, family support in planting and harvesting proves vital to sustaining household economies and attempting to manage the unknowns of production over time. As social protection programs for instabilities and loss in agricultural production diminish within the Thai state (e.g. Kobayashi et al. 2016; Poapongsakorn & Pantakua 2014), reliance upon diversified livelihoods increase, with family members finding work within growing cities and at times only seasonally supporting agricultural work. A result is that informal labor—while appreciated for what it may provide those with limited socioeconomic and cultural capital—continues families’ degree of vulnerability as livelihood opportunities change under urban expansion. Families experience new conditions of precarity and informality as daughters or sons work in unregulated or unprotected jobs, while families attempt to access new lines of credit to offset losses and declining agricultural prices in fluctuating markets.
As the Thai state limits social protection policies due to expenditure cuts or preferences for industrial development and urban expansion, greater strain is placed on agrarian families’ economic base. Though Thailand had seen a steady decline in poverty rates over the past 30 years, this trend has recently slowed and reversed in some sectors, seeing an increase of 2.6% for the absolute number of people in poverty (Yang et al. 2020). At a national level, the macroeconomic conditions over the past 20 years have seen a per annum growth rate of 7.2% for wealth and non-financial wealth—the latter principally being housing and land, which may exclude tenancy families (Table 3). Yet, debt has outstripped wealth by a per annum expansion of nearly 10%. In 2000 debt was proportionally 13.8% relative to one’s wealth. By 2020, debt increased to 22.2%. Considering agrarian families specifically, 40% earn an annual income below Thailand’s poverty rate of 32,000 baht (approximately US$960). The situation for debt is worse, with 30% of families holding more debt than the annual income generated by agriculture and 10% holding three times more debt than the annual income (Udomkerdmongkol & Chalermpao 2020).
|YEAR||WEALTH PER ADULT (US$)||NON-FINANCIAL WEALTH PER ADULT (US$)a||DEBTS PER ADULT (US$)||MEDIAN WEALTH PER ADULT (US$)|
|Per annum growth rate (%)||7.219%||7.157%||9.774%||6.677%|
In the case of Bang Bo, urban encroachment, accrual of debts, restrictions on further land acquisition, and erosion of state support for smallholder agrarian families have made off-farm or diversified labor a common way of life. Despite improvements in national development and infrastructural investment, many households in the BMR remain vulnerable to changing socioeconomic preferences and to stochastic shocks that may reduce agricultural output. Of growing concern are the effects of urban pollution, land degradation, and altered climates and weather systems. As seen in the Landsat data above, ribbon development within Samut Prakan has steadily proceeded over the past 20 years. The negative effects of urban expansion (e.g. land fragmentation, soil degradation, industrial pollution, or the disappearance of ecological landscapes) have created new exposures and hazards. During an interview with Chalong, who had lived in the area since he was child and had participated in community initiatives to help farmers learn how to diminish the negative effects of industrial growth, he interrelated several of these themes:
With the increase in factories, you can’t do agriculture the same way anymore. We’ve had some training to find ways for agriculture and factories to coexist. Now you can’t simply pump water into your fields or into fish-ponds. It has to be treated […] with a fermented mixture of herbs, such as rangjut or slaid-pungpan or even the left-over water after you clean your rice [nam sao kâao]. We need to recognize these changes. In the water. In the air. If we see that water is becoming worse, or that a company is polluting, we’ll go to the authorities and report it. We do our best to manage those situations. We’ll say, ‘You can’t keep doing that. You’re polluting the water for everyone and it’s hurting.’ Factories need to recognize that they are situated here with us, among farmers. Usually, factories will listen. Some are understanding, but some are stubborn. In other cases, it’s hard to know what’s causing problems. Now it seems like there’s something in the air that hurts the crops. For example, with galangal, if it’s a pest, it’s a slow process and usually doesn’t kill the plant. But now the leaves will turn brown and shrink really quickly [what was described as burnt leaves, or bai-maai mâi]. But I don’t know what’s causing it.
While other families echoed Chalong’s thoughts and were regularly preoccupied with known and unknown issues, the region also suffers changes in precipitation patterns, storm intensity and extreme weather events (worsened through the loss of mangroves), water issues brought on by droughts or downpours (where inadequate water absorption rates or increased impervious surfaces contribute to runoff), floods that carry point and non-point source pollution into fields and aquafarms, acidification of coastal waters, warming temperatures, among other conditions. Farmers throughout Thailand are subject to changing climate systems. Yet, the degree of negative impacts varies. Modeling shows that provinces connected to the Chao Phraya River basin will experience acute and chronic negative effects and inconsistent agricultural outputs now and in future (Attavanich 2013). Importantly, efforts to adapt and respond to such climatic variations are constrained by limited household capital, diminished intergenerational familial care, and reduced socioeconomic support from the state.
The combination of ethnographic and Landsat data demonstrates the ways in which state development and urbanization policies create vulnerabilities for families tied to agrarian economies in urbanizing landscapes. The erosion of state support for smallholder families in part extends from the challenges of delivering social protection to an increasingly diverse Thai society, further frustrated by tightening government budgets. Additionally, priorities placed on urban expansion and industrialization reflect a Thai development ethos rooted in post-agrarianism and transitioning to high-income economies. This translates into some Bang Bo farmers being viewed as relics of the past or confronting an erasure from the landscape. During an interview in the Ministry of Labor, a government official flatly stated that the province and district had no farming activities. This positions many smallholder families at a precarious juncture: on the one hand, attempting to continue primary sector work with reduced state support or with the uncertainty tenancy brings, and, on the other, entering into off-farm work (regularly informal and unstable) in efforts to provision for oneself and family more fully.
Returning to the framework of sustainable livelihoods discussed above (e.g. Chambers & Conway 1991; Scoones 2009)—in short, one that is robust, resilient, and durable in the face of varying shocks and stresses and provides livelihood opportunities for future generations—a conceptual contradiction emerges if such a designation is mapped to long-term agrarianism in Bang Bo. Smallholder families face a bundle of sociocultural, political, economic, and ecological challenges that have deepened under the pressures and spatial alterations of urban development. This includes high levels of indebtedness, reductions in state support, an exit of younger generations and aging workforces, land fragmentation, and stresses from pollution, ecological degradation, and climate instabilities. The degree to which families have confronted and adjusted to such negatives demonstrates families’ imagination and resiliency. Further, these families have played important roles in Thailand’s economic transitions and blurring the boundaries of rural and urban geographies. Diversifying household occupations, accessing and building capital through education, taking hold of new market and cash crop opportunities, or pursuing new farming practices and cropping strategies—in all agrarian families have created dynamic sociospatial connections and substantively contributed to Thailand’s economy. Additionally, families have derived some sociocultural and economic benefits in the process (e.g. accessing new educational opportunities, entering new markets, or seeing family members exit agriculture for more prestigious employment, which can buoy a household’s finances during periods of uncertainty or contraction).
However, questions remain on the long-term viability of such livelihoods in fragmented landscapes or urbanizing spaces. Research has shown that in Southeast Asian nations, several variables may inhibit the accumulation of smaller agricultural plots into larger scale farm operations through leasing arrangements or land purchases, which could reinvigorate agricultural production and create stronger advantages in global markets (e.g. Formoso 2021; Lowder et al. 2016; Masters et al. 2013). In particular, the combination of farm and off-farm incomes along with diversified livelihoods allow agrarian families to persist under structural constraints and changes that might sufficiently disincentivize future participation in such economies. Given the fragmented nature of smallholder production and the continued reliance on dwindling parcels of land across generations, these livelihoods face persistent vulnerabilities and arguably fall short of meeting the basic requirements of sustainable livelihoods.
Notably, as urban expansion and ribbon development continue in Samut Prakan, a gradual but irreversible process of livelihood alteration has taken hold. The adaptive and mitigative strategies used by smallholder families have in part supported, rather than opposed or reversed, the sociospatial and economic transformations created through urban planning. By incorporating diversified livelihood portfolios into agrarian families’ economies—what has become a relatively consistent approach seen across regions of Thailand and in countries undergoing similar pressures (e.g. Dayley & Sattayanurak 2016; Drahmoune 2013; Fan et al. 2019; Inwood & Sharp 2012; Kelly 2011)—it is debatable to what extent families have (willingly or unwillingly) smoothed the political deployment of an urban bias in state development planning. In effect, politicians have been able to point to the successes of families’ adaptive strategies as justification to continue development policies that dispossess agrarian households of land, resources, and livelihood options, advancing precarity and vulnerability for many people.
The urbanization of Samut Prakan and intergenerational unsustainability of smallholder agrarian production require that the state attend to agrarian families’ specific needs. Given the widespread deployment and reliance on urbanization within state development, research must address the ‘fundamental transformations in livelihood pathways into the future’ (Scoones 2009: 182). Having considered the economic dislocation and spatial displacement occurring through urban planning, this research highlights three recommendations to improve urban expansion and agricultural production. First, government should ensure the creation of productive, high-paying jobs and generate pathways for agrarian families to receive relevant training and education for entry into new labor markets. Widening the accessibility of and facilitating enrollment into vocational training and higher education (e.g. the Ministry of Education’s Bor Wor Saw certificate) can smooth livelihood transitions and provide access to growing technical fields. Second, employment in urban centers requires enhanced worker protections and strengthened social safety nets, which would offer safeguards from shocks such as job loss or ill-health (e.g. Cook & Pincus 2014; Rigg et al. 2018; Yang et al. 2020). This may reduce both persistent areas of poverty and people’s anxieties on the fragility of urban work. Over time, some families may walk away from low-income, constrained farming systems as familial safety nets. Lastly, in so doing, opportunities emerge for the state or private organizations to aggregate small agricultural plots into larger scale farm operations through zoning measures. This change in scale would open avenues to incentivize younger generations’ entry into agriculture (e.g. Formoso 2021; Jansuwan & Zander 2021) as it could have globally competitive production, advance innovative agricultural practices, valorize labor in primary sector economies, and further increase yields and sustainability at the national level.
In the case of Thailand, development policies must address the alteration and upheaval of livelihoods tied to primary sector economies in urbanizing landscapes. This includes understanding that while the benefits of urbanization may accrue to some, urban expansion also creates new precarities within labor markets and livelihoods. Policymakers must mitigate and remove those negative effects over time. It is hoped that by drawing attention to the complex socioeconomic and cultural dynamics of urban development, practitioners and government officials will widen their analytical lens and view what is needed for a country’s sustainable, inclusive, and moral development.
1The first author has conducted ethnographic research on domestic migration since 2009. While the data herein primarily focus on those interviewed during the years noted above, the understanding of domestic migration and Thai labor markets is informed by other research in the central and Isaan regions.
3Similar findings occurred in Thawi Wattahana district, on the western edge of Bangkok. Menakanit et al. (2022: 73–74) found that the construction of primary and secondary roads fragmented the landscape and disaggregated vegetable production, which could lead to a ‘complete loss by 2055’.
The authors thank everyone in Thailand who provided their time, patience, and support during the collection of ethnographic data. Without your insights on and creative responses to urbanization, this work would not have been possible. The authors also thank two anonymous reviewers and the editor and guest editor for their constructive and insightful comments, which strengthened the quality of this article.
G.G. conducted ethnographic fieldwork and quantitative and qualitative data analysis, including the manuscript’s preparation. P.T. analyzed all Landsat data and provided analysis on these datasets. S.S. assisted in ethnographic data collection and contributed to the drafting and revising of the article.
The authors have no competing interests to declare.
Landsat images were obtained via the Landsat 5 Thematic Mapper (TM), Landsat 7 Enhanced Thematic Mapper Plus (ETM+), and Landsat 8 Operational Land Imager (OLI), accessible from the United States Geological Survey (USGS) Earth Explorer data portal (https://earthexplorer.usgs.gov/). Ethnographic data are not publicly available to ensure compliance with institutional review board regulations and to ensure the anonymity of research participants.
Ethnographic data collection underwent approval for research with human subjects through institutional review boards at Santa Clara University, Missouri State University, and Georgia Gwinnett College. Given the portion of ethnographic data discussed here, research approvals include the following: 00002737; FY2016-256; and 17064. Participants’ names provided in the text are pseudonyms to preserve their anonymity.
Ethnographic research was supported through grants provided by Santa Clara University, Missouri State University, and Georgia Gwinnett College, including grant numbers JFDL0001, TTRY0019, and DPROV074.
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