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Economy, Agriculture, Forestry, and Fishing

intensive cultivation, Andaman Sea, commercial logging, land degradation, Thai government

Agriculture was traditionally the mainstay of the Thai economy. However, along with the remarkable acceleration of economic growth in the 1980s came rapid changes in the country’s economic structure. While agricultural production increased, the economic contributions of industry and services grew faster, which decreased the relative importance of farming. Agriculture’s share of GDP fell from 23 percent in 1980 to 11 percent in 1996 as Thailand moved into the ranks of the so-called newly industrializing economies.

Thailand has 18 million hectares (44 million acres) of land under cultivation. Of this total, about 5 million hectares (12 million acres) of irrigated land produce most of the country’s major crop, rice. Other important crops include rubber, corn, soybeans, coconuts, and other tropical fruits. Agricultural exports, especially of rice, were the basis for most of Thailand’s early trade. The country is still a major exporter of rice, but its agricultural trade has diversified to include rubber, cassava, fruits, flowers, and many other products.

Much of the expansion of agriculture has taken place at the expense of forest cover, which is disappearing at a rate of 0.7 percent per year. The timber harvest in 2000 was 37 million cubic meters (1.3 billion cubic feet), nearly all of which was burned for fuel. Following severe flood damage caused by deforestation, the Thai government banned all commercial logging in 1989. Formerly an exporter of tropical hardwoods, Thailand now imports much of its timber from neighboring countries.

Fisheries in the Gulf of Thailand and the Andaman Sea, along with inland and coastal fish farms, yielded 3.5 million metric tons of fish and shellfish in 1997, up from 1.8 million metric tons in 1980. Thailand is one of the world’s leading exporters of fish and seafood products.

The rapid growth of agriculture and fisheries has raised concerns about the long-term sustainability of these industries. Urbanization and the spread of irrigation have generated water shortages and spawned conflicts over water use. In dryland agriculture (farming in dry areas using methods other than irrigation), intensive cultivation has led to soil erosion and land degradation, which in turn have required farmers to increase fertilizer use in order to maintain yields. Mangrove swamps and other coastal ecosystems have been severely depleted to create fisheries, and the rapid expansion of the commercial ocean fishing fleet has reduced catches. These natural resource management issues pose major policy problems for current and future Thai governments.

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