Social and Cultural Aspects of Land Inheritance and Transactions in Thailand

Discussion Paper Report No.: ARU 52
Research Unit, Agricultural and Rural Development Department
World Bank 1986.

by Charles B. Mehl

Summary and Conclusions

The patterns of land inheritance and transactions in rural Thailand have been influenced considerably by the long history of an abundance of easily available land. The extent and frequency of migration -- with contributed to the relative lack of farmers' attachment to particular plots of land -- can be traced to early, pre-commercial Thai society in which the state often moved people to open new agricultural areas. After the commercialization of the economy from the mid-19th century, commoners newly freed from the legal bonds of servitude to the ruling elite were encouraged by the state to migrate voluntarily to expand the area of commer-cial agricultural production.

The ideal pattern of inheritance ever since farmers have been able to own their farmland, has been for the parents to provide equal shares of property to all their children. This assumes an adequate supply of land for the parent to be able to give each child enough to live from, and enough land left to clear for each child to expand. Their farm area as their own family grows. The major variant from the ideal -- in which most or all of the land is given to a family's daughters -- coincides with the pattern of family development. Newlyweds tend to move in with the bride's family: the parents feel a greater responsi-bility to the daughter and her family still living with them than to the son who has moved out to live with his wife's family.

The high mobility of the Thai farmers has contributed to a fairly fluid land market. Original settlers in an area frequent-ly claim the land there as their property, then sell it tot those who follow. Those moving out of a village will often well their land to siblings or other relatives who remain behind. The land market exists even in areas where the government prohibits the use and sale of land.

The patterns of land transactions have changed considerably as the land frontier has contracted. Parents are reluctant to divide their holdings to below an economically viable size, as they would be forced to do if they gave their land to more than one child as inheritance. More often than not, one or two children are given the land, and the rest of the siblings are left to fend for themselves. As the land available to clear becomes scarce, farmers are less likely to sell this land volun-tarily and migrate to find new areas to farm. As land prices increase, purchases are more often made by families with major non-farm sources of income, from family members working overseas or in well-paid jobs in Bangkok. Tenancy increases as it becomes the primary means for many farmers to expand their farm area. Most rental arrangements are informal, verbal agreements made year to year, providing little security for the tenants.

Security of land holding is a major concern of farmers. Where available, the government system of land registration tends to meet the farmers' needs. Nor Sor 3 or Nor Sor 4 certificates not only give (usually adequate) demarcation of the holdings and adequate legal protection of ownership, but they also allow the farmers full rights to sell, rent, and mortgage the land. The ability to mortgage the land is considered by farmers among the greatest advantages to having lands registered at these levels. With either Nor Sor 3 certificates or title deeds, the farmers can borrow from formal landing institutions at relatively low interest rates. Farmers with unregistered lands or those regis-tered below the Nor Sor 3 level have most of the formal credit market closed to them: they must borrow from relatives, neigh-bors, or local merchants usually at usurious rates.

Conflicts arise between the state policy of control over land ant the farmers' own patterns of land use in areas that have been declared public lands by the state. The two conflicting tendencies -- one on the part of the state, the other the farmers -- are based on historical patterns of land allocation and use. Before the late 19th century, the state had full legal control over land and its allocation. In the years since, the state has tried to maintain some semblance of this control over large parts of the country, over all lands registered below the Nor sor 3 level, which until recently included most of the agricultural land in the country, and over areas officially designated as public lands, especially the 160 million rai of reserve forests of which some 30 million rai have already been cleared by far-mers.

By law, the farmers using these public lands are illegal squatters. They have no rights to use, and thus no rights to exchange or rent these lands. Where the government has granted these farmers the right to use the land, as in the Agricultural Land Reform Office and the Forestry Department programs, farmers are still prohibited rom buying, selling, or renting the land. This inability to exchange it legally also limits their access to formal credit -- the land cannot be mortgaged. Yet despite the government prohibited, farmers continue to exchange and rent their lands freely.

The patterns of land transactions of the farmers in the public lands is the result of the trend toward individual control over land which began with the commercialization of Thai agricul-ture in the mid-19th century. Farmers were encouraged since then to buy, sell, and rent land, and to migrate to clear the forest to expand the country's agricultural area. They did so through-out the past century with little government oversight or inter-ference.

It is the government which is attempting in the areas of public lands to revert to the past social and cultural patterns of total state control over land allocation. In contrast, the farmers have developed forms of land inheritance and transactions and their own systems of land tenure which are consistent with the commercialization of agriculture and the system of socio-economic organization in contemporary rural Thailand. If the government expects to maintain some control over the use of what are now public lands, it will have to adopt a policy which gives farmers in these areas adequate rights of possession, including the rights to buy, sell and mortgage their own land.