HIGHLIGHTS

  • Prayong led a group of farmers to study the crisis and to react rationally. Raising capital from fellow villagers at fifty baht per share, they built a rubber-processing plant in Mairiang to produce high-quality latex for the better prices of the Bangkok market.
  • Prayong was soon managing a factory that produced three tons of latex a day. Neighboring communities began to notice Mairiang’s success and, in the early 1990s, Prayong helped ten of them to establish similar community-owned latex factories.
  • At the Mairiang Community Learning and Development Center, he and the other leaders orchestrated cooperation between the sub district’s rice, fruit, and rubber growers and identified other products for which Mairiang’s farmers might gain a competitive advantage.
  • The Board of Trustees recognizes “his leading fellow farmers in demonstrating that the model of self-reliant local enterprises, supported by active community learning, is the path to rural prosperity in Thailand.”

 CITATION

In the late twentieth century, “economic development” was the world’s watchword. Finding a formula to move millions of rural workers and farmers from poverty to prosperity preoccupied newly independent nations everywhere and also the countries that sought to aid and influence them. But no magic formula was found. It seems that some aspects of rural poverty are disturbingly resistant to the insights of development experts with PhD’s. Yet, in a remote corner of southern Thailand, a farmer with a fourth-grade education has made a breakthrough. This is Prayong Ronnarong.

As a boy, Prayong Ronnarong observed his grandfather, a revered local healer. From him, and from his parents too, Prayong learned the value of serving others and the respect it confers. Theirs was a world of farmers, and Prayong spent only a few years in school before becoming a farmer himself. Like others in Mairiang Subdistrict, he invested in rubber, a promising cash crop in the early 1960s. And, like the others, he suffered badly when rubber prices plummeted a few years later. Responding to this blow, Prayong became a leader.

Instead of abandoning rubber, Prayong led a group of farmers to study the crisis and to react rationally. Raising capital from fellow villagers at fifty baht per share, they built a rubber-processing plant in Mairiang to produce high-quality latex for the better prices of the Bangkok market. Prayong was soon managing a factory that produced three tons of latex a day. He became adept at drawing lessons from other rubber producers and applying them in Mairiang. Neighboring communities began to notice Mairiang’s success and, in the early 1990s, Prayong helped ten of them to establish similar community-owned latex factories. By 1996, there were over one hundred in his home province. Using the community-learning process they had adopted earlier, these farmers painstakingly developed their own Thai Para Rubber Strategic Plan. And despite government rejection of the plan, they continued to base their community activities on it.

Meanwhile, Prayong created a council of leaders to plan Mairiang’s future collectively. At the Mairiang Community Learning and Development Center, he and the other leaders orchestrated cooperation between the subdistrict’s rice, fruit, and rubber growers and identified other products for which Mairiang’s farmers might gain a competitive advantage: rice-flour noodles, shampoo, drinking water, and others. They scoured the country to learn the best practices of other farmers and to gather the advice of experts. In the process, they created a “master plan” for Mairiang that promoted not only community enterprises but also education, health, and welfare measures funded from the profits of these enterprises-including scholarships for the youth and a social security fund. Today some nine hundred families are its direct beneficiaries.

The number of its indirect beneficiaries is much higher. In recent years, key elements of Prayong’s community-crafted master-plan approach have been adopted as part of Thailand’s economic and social development programs. They are now being applied across the country, and Prayong is frequently on call to explain how it is done.

The key, he says, is to identify “a small group of like-minded people who are willing to do something” and then to support them in every way possible. Indeed, this has been Prayong’s role and today, at sixty-three, he continues to embrace it. Despite a certain celebrity and even trips around the world, he remains true to his roots in Mairiang, avoiding fancy hotels and other luxuries such as an automobile. “It’s not money that makes me happy but to do something I really want to do,” he says. “Developing the people comes naturally.”

In electing Prayong Ronnarong to receive the 2004 Ramon Magsaysay Award for Community Leadership, the board of trustees recognizes his leading fellow farmers in demonstrating that the model of self-reliant local enterprises, supported by active community learning, is the path to rural prosperity in Thailand.

 RESPONSE

Chairman and Trustees of the Ramon Magsaysay Award Foundation Distinguished Guests, Fellow Awardees and Dear Friends.

It is a great honor for me, an ordinary farmer from a small community in Southern Thailand, to be named Ramon Magsaysay Awardee for Community Leadership. I would like to thank you on behalf of my community members, my fellow farmers, for your recognition of what we have been doing and struggling for during the past decades to improve the quality of life of the poor and disadvantaged people in the rural areas.

I was fortunate to be born in a Southern community, where people love learning. I inherited this spirit from my family and community. Although I finished only the 4th grade, I have been learning my whole life in what I call a ?Life University?. I have been learning by doing, by interacting with other people from all walks of life.

My environment was and still is, as most of Southern Thailand, dominantly rubber plantation. In 1969 rubber prices dropped drastically. It was the year we started to seriously search for solutions from rubber problems, which were linked to all other problems. From our small community in Mairiang, the network of people expanded to other provinces of the South, and from that day to today, 35 years of lessons learned have crystallized into a development paradigm, including a way of thinking, of acting, of valuing based on a particular view of reality, which I would like to put into four simple words:

1. Learning. One of the most important principles I have been using during the past decade is ?know yourself, know your community, know the world which has an impact on community life?. Know yourself means to be aware of what one is doing and where one is going, and why. For the community, there is a need for a learning process for all community members, so that all may be aware of themselves, of the changes happening in the society and in the world.

2. Self-reliance. During the first period (about 30 years ago) our community struggled by itself, practically without any assistance from outside, to solve rubber problems. We got together and shared our concerns, and we realized that by so doing it was not sufficient to find solutions. We decided to go out to learn from other people and other places, and from the larger world. Three years later, we succeeded in drawing lessons learned and decided to set up a community rubber processing factory, managed, and owned by the community. That enterprise gave us confidence. We can now face any problem on our own.

3. Freedom. Past experiences taught us that we have to rely on ourselves, make our own decisions, and use our own resources, without depending totally on others? initiatives and resources. We learn that success is the result of our free decision, being ourselves in learning, in choosing our way of life and development.

4. Social relationship. We realize that we need to establish relationships and collaboration with all parties. Mairiang has established relationships with other communities in the form of a network. At the local level, we have a network of rubber, fruit and rice growers. We also collaborate with the Village Foundation to develop models of community rubber factories, community health scheme, and community enterprise, and a strategic plan. All these have been well received by the government and adopted into the national policy. We have established the Mairiang Community Learning and Development Centre. Gos, NGOs, academics and people from the private sector from outside the community come to complement what we have initiated and invested with our resources. We make the main ?contribution?, they provide the ?counterpart?.

I am aware that this Ramon Magsaysay Award is not directed to me personally, but as a member of a community, a community leader in Thailand. I am only one small part of the network of communities which expand day by day. This precious award is the price of our common efforts and accomplishments. I will deliver this means of hope and encouragement back to all the members of Mairiang and the communities in my country, Thailand.

 BIOGRAPHY

All his life, Thai farmer Prayong Ronnarong has lived by the rhythm of the rubber tree. It takes seven years for new trees to start producing latex. So, as a young man, while nurturing his saplings, he grew cash crops and took on odd jobs such as sea mining. And when disaster struck, as it did in 1962 when a typhoon devastated rubber plantations in southern Thailand, he started the seven-year cycle all over again.

But if things went well and the trees matured, Prayong would wake up in the very early hours to tap each tree, finishing at daylight and then processing the sap into rubber sheets. When he had enough sheets, he took them to rubber traders, who would grade the rubber. “It’s not we who would tell them ‘this is worth this much,’” says the farmer. “They would set the price and weigh the rubber sheets. We said, ‘This is one hundred kilos.’ They said, ‘No, it’s only ninetyeight kilos.’ And we had no choice but to accept.”

Prayong still lives by the rubber tree, but these days, he and other farmers in the subdistrict of Mairiang (population: 7,691) have more control over their lives. They have formed a cooperative to improve the quality of their rubber, run their own community rubber-processing factory, and sell their rubber at a price they set themselves. Learning from Mairiang, ten other communities have formed their own rubber-processing facilities and now work with Mairiang on joint marketing, sales, and other projects.

(For the complete biography, please email biographies@rmaf.org.ph)