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.