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A Bright-Green, Poisoned Landscape

by Philip Round

13 March 2002

I have fond memories of times spent birding in the northern plains, 12 or 15 years ago. It was there that I saw my first Thai Mandarin Duck, Ferruginous Ducks and Baer's Pochards at Ban Lung Tua, Bang Rakam District, Phitsanulok, in 1983. On another such trip in the late 1980s, Ms Bubphar Amget of RFD Wildlife Research Division and I made a record count of 596 Baer's Pochards at two sites combined, Ban Lung Tua and Bung Boraphet. In 1989, on a BCST trip, we recorded Northern Lapwing and huge numbers of duck on Lung Tua's fishponds. In those days, when I had no personal transport, it was hard to survey more than a tiny proportion of any area. But the bits of northern plains wetland I saw excited me tremendously, since they were full of birds, having numerous native trees scattered among the paddies. I felt sure there were many exciting treasures to find. Maybe Thailand's last Clamorous Reed Warblers, or perhaps even the odd vulture? Who knows? Perhaps even a small population of the near-mythical White-eyed River Martin could be clinging on somewhere? Indeed, there have been reports, albeit unconfirmed, of one or two birds being seen around Sukhothai in the past year or two.

It was therefore with a sense of high expectation that Andy Pierce and I, together with Stephen Rumsey and John Willsher of The Wetland Trust, made a tour of Sukhothai Province wetlands during mid-December. Our trip started from Phitsanuloke town where we all met up, and where we found our first duck flock, 2000 Lesser Whistling Ducks, on a small pond on the city outskirts, on the way to the airport. But when drove to Bang Rakam to search for Lung Tua's duckponds, we were disappointed. Sadly, Lung Tua himself died a few years ago, and his fishponds and duck sanctuary were no more. The site was actually unrecognisable, owing to the kratin yak trees planted along the few raised roads, which screened the views over the paddies. Although the December landscape seemed as watery as ever, there was one very marked difference. Instead of fields of dry stubble and marshy fields where the old-style floating and deepwater rice was still being harvested, were acres and acres of bright green, newly planted, irrigated "super-rice". This is something that was totally absent on my previous trips. It also, incidentally, explains why the Yom River runs dry, and there is a perpetual water shortage. Even before Lung Tua passed away, I had heard that he had difficulties obtaining sufficient water from the Irrigation Department to keep his ponds flooded. Such huge quantities of water are required for irrigated rice, that there was nothing left over for a poor fish farmer!

As we motored on towards Sri Satchanalai the unbroken emerald green expanses were more or less birdless apart from occasional egrets and there were precious few of those! We found a few bits of traditional paddy stubbles here and there which, in contrast to the avian desert elsewhere, teemed with Barn Swallows, Black Drongos and other insectivorous birds.

The single best wetland site we found was an uncultivated marsh around the outskirts of the newly constructed Sukhothai Airport. Scanning the site from a raised bund, we counted 1200 Little Ringed Plovers flying in to roost on the runway. So obviously there were some birds coming from somewhere. There were also a further 5000 Lesser Whistling Duck and 400 or so Garganey roosting on a water body in this area.

A lake a few kilometres to the north, Bung Mae Rawing, was disappointing, owing to part of the site having been turned into a picnic area and the lakeshore developed. There were about 2000 Lesser Whistling Duck and a couple of hundred Intermediate Egrets in a swamp at the NE corner. The surroundings were dominated by lotus, however, with very little Phragmites reeds or other tall marsh vegetation. Bung Mae Rawing has gained some prominence recently as the location of a recent reported sighting of White-eyed River Martin. We staked out the site on two evenings, and while about 5000 Barn Swallows gathered in the evening but didn't roost at the lake and moved off west.

Bung Chorakhe, west of Bung Mae Rawing, looked more promising as it was surrounded by dense growth of reeds. There, we found a roost of ca. 100 harriers, probably all Eastern Marsh Harriers. Although thousands of swallows gathered over the marsh they did not roost here either. As these flew off eastwards towards a roost (which we never did manage to locate, but which presumably lies somewhere between Bung Mae Rawing and Nong Chorakhe) we estimated 1000 Sand Martins among the Barn Swallows. This is the largest count I have ever made in Thailand, though one wonders how big the roost of Sand Martins was at Bung Boraphet in the days when the site supported hundreds of thousands of swallows, wagtails, weavers and buntings.

Although we found a few things to look at, overall bird numbers in the paddies of the Sukhothai area were disappointingly low. The various bits of rough growth we found here and there held a fair few Long-tailed Shrikes, with totals of up to 40 birds per day, which was mildly encouraging, since this is a species which has declined very sharply in the southern central plains, around Bangkok. But with no idea of what the numbers in the north might have been, 10 or 15 years ago (when it was such a common bird one hardly bothered recording it, regrettably), it is quite plausible that the numbers of Long-tailed Shrikes around Sukhothai today are many fewer than formerly. And where were the Red-whiskered Bulbuls? Although the extensive areas of tall marsh grasses in this well-watered landscape should have been ideal for them, we found none. So where were they? Had they been reduced to vanishing point by trapping for the bird trade?

It wasn't until our sixth day systematically working around the area that we found a few Grey-headed Lapwings. Red-wattled Lapwings were also thin on the ground: we saw just one or two in the same period. In the case of the latter species, though, it is likely that human persecution (taking eggs and young for food) has exerted more of a toll than habitat modification.

The contrast between the relative sterility of the bright green, irrigated, high-yield paddies around Phitsanuloke and Sukhothai, and the richness of traditional paddies, was brought home to me when, a month or so later, I made my annual visit to Doi Saket District, Chiang Mai Province. There, the paddies are still planted with a traditional variety of glutinous rice, and at the time of my visit in January were classic dry stubbles, with wet patches, and some burnt areas, on which a few water buffaloes grazed. This area still teemed with birds. As soon as I stepped out of the vehicle, my ears were assailed with the song of Oriental Skylarks: I estimated a minimum 10 pairs in one small area of a few hectares. Flocks of Red-throated Pipits were on view where the stubble was burnt low enough to see them, as were a few migratory Richard's Pipits and the odd pair of resident Paddyfield Pipit. A Yellow-legged Buttonquail was flushed; there were 10 Grey-headed Lapwings on a wet patch, along with Common and Pintail Snipes. Other birds included Indochinese Bushlark, Bluethroat and a couple of Chestnut-eared Buntings; many Brown Shrikes, Pied Buschchats and Stonechats. In other years I have also had Small Buttonquail and Australasian Bushlark there.

A lot of attention is given to conservation in forests. Yet scant attention is given to the conservation of biodiversity in farmland, and especially in rice paddies, which are as much wetland as farmland. After all, cultivated and settled areas of one sort of another occupy more than 60% of the land area of the country, and still support a great deal of smaller wildlife. Rice paddies are a particularly important habitat for birds, both migrants and residents; waterfowl and a variety of smaller, insectivorous and granivorous birds. Some of the concentrations of migrant waterfowl on rice paddies in Thailand, such as egrets, pratincoles, other waders and ducks, are enough to qualify as internationally important.

We tend to take rice paddies for granted, accepting the old adage, dating from the Sukhothai era, of "in the fields there is rice; in the water, there are fish". But in Thailand, as elsewhere, insidious forces are ceaselessly pushing for greater agricultural intensification. This means two or even three crops of irrigated super-rice per year, instead of one crop of floating or deep-water rice as formerly. Whereas traditional rice obtained all the nutrients it required from river-borne silts, which flooded the fields from time to time, and from the dung of animals which grazed on the fields in fallow periods, modern rice varieties, grown under a tightly controlled water regime, require applications of chemical fertiliser instead. This increases cash outlay, so farmers have to maximise yields, increasing the size of fields, grubbing out those areas of marginal swamp vegetation, and using more herbicides to kill weeds, insecticides to kill plant hoppers and other insect pests, and rodenticides to kill rats. They may also net and kill birds, or even poison them, so as to minimise losses from that source too.

Fewer and fewer young people are prepared to work on the land. A declining rural labour force means that rice farms require increased mechanisation, more spraying, carried out by an ever smaller number of hired hands. The whole cycle moves from a low-expenditure, moderate output system, to a high-expenditure, high output system. But this does not the benefit the small farmer, trapped by market forces, whose profit margins are so small. He may get into debt, and be forced to sell his land to a larger landowner, who can maintain profits by applying intensive rice farming to an ever larger areas. So who benefits from agricultural intensification? Not the farmer, as we have seen; not the consumer, who, even if he or she wants to consume traditional, organic rice can scarcely find it. Neither is there any shortage of rice, either for export or for home consumption, so why do we need to grow more and more of it under an increasingly stringent regime? The main beneficiaries of agricultural intensification are the agrochemical companies who constantly seek to increase their profits by selling ever more herbicides and insecticides, and the large agro-industrial food-processing establishment. According to the Division of Agricultural Toxic Substances, Department of Agriculture, imports of herbicides into Thailand trebled in quantity between 1987 and 1994.

A continuation of present trends will see massive diminution in biodiversity in the rice paddy zone. Rice cultivation, of the "poison-green" sort, will continue in the best irrigated areas, productivity being increased at the cost of the environment, as ever larger quantities of agrochemicals pour into the waterways, and rice fields are turned into sterile deserts that support scarcely any living things apart from the rice itself, and the most resistant of pest species. There will be few fish, frogs or crabs, and no weeds to sustain the insects, which are the prey of insectivorous birds such as drongos, shrikes and swallows. Overall, the areas of rice paddy will diminish. Those areas taken out of cultivation might support a few marsh birds before they are reclaimed, and turned into factories or housing estates. But many rice farmers will instead turn to growing soybeans, vegetables and other crops, which require even larger applications of pesticides. In these areas there will be few birds at all, except from a few common and ecologically tolerant species.

Changing land-use patterns are highly complex, however, and it is not so easy to predict precisely what will happen. A few species might benefit from the mosaic of rice in different stages of cultivation, and increased surface water, that can be found around the central plains now throughout the year. (Due to irrigation, there is no "dry season" any more, at least as far as the rice paddies of the southern central plains are concerned.) I would guess that Cattle Egrets have increased their numbers, even though numbers of domestic water buffalo, with which they were once associated, have plummeted. Little Egrets may still be doing quite well. And, it seems to me that significant numbers of Asian Openbills are now present around Bangkok and the lower central plain throughout they year. Possibly they have even benefited from the introduction of the pest "cherry snail" Pomacea, which is ravaging growing rice in some areas. But we have very little idea of what is really going on, as there is no systematic monitoring of this last, and most important, of Thailand's large waterbirds.

I can pick on a few species that have certainly declined, though again, due to absence of systematic monitoring, hard data are scant. The most alarming declines have been shown by wintering Black Kites, which once roosted in their hundreds in stands of Borassus palms around Pathumthani. Now, though the palm fields still remain, it is hard to find even one or two Black Kites. Eastern Marsh Harriers are also becoming rather hard to see, and there are fewer Black-shouldered Kites, too. Long-tailed Shrikes and Black Drongos, once among the commonest roadside birds have declined enormously. These species, which feed on large insects, are precisely those that we would predict should be affected by increased herbicide and pesticide use. The Red-backed Shrike Lanius collurio, for example, once a common farmland bird in southern England, is now extinct as a breeding species.

Another Thai bird which may have been adversely affected by changing cultivation patterns is the Oriental Pratincole. This species migrates into Thailand in January or February, nesting on the hard-baked earth of paddy stubbles. With increased irrigation, and, now, the absence of any significant fallow period in the rice-growing cycle, many nesting areas must have been lost. Since this species feeds as an aerial insectivore, it would likely also be impacted by declining insect populations.

Clearly, there is a pressing need to implement some studies of birds in rice paddies. This is where amateur birdwatchers could make a contribution. If you have a favourite birding area among the marshes and paddies of the central plains, why don't you go there more often? Make a map of the area, and start to plot sightings of common birds in relation to field margins. Over one breeding season, repeated visits could reveal numbers and locations of territorial species, such as Long-tailed Shrikes and Plain Prinias, and usage by a range of waterbirds. This is exactly what is done by the Common Bird Census in UK, where 40 years of such studies carried out largely by weekend birdwatchers have, in combination with other studies, been used for the development of an integrated population monitoring scheme for birds.

Emerald green rice paddies look pleasing to the eye, are frequently shown on posters designed to promote foreign tourism. But their superficial beauty cannot hide the fraying of Thailand's rich rural tapestry, encompassing landscape, tradition, culture and biodiversity, into a threadbare, agro-industrial ragpile.

Copyright © 1992-2012 John Wall