The business world today is all about finding a niche and creating a competitive advantage. However, unlike large corporations, smaller players like farmers and local craftsmen often do not have the resources to conduct research or develop innovation that is difficult to imitate. So, how can they compete in the current global world? Fortunately, as Thailand is blessed with abundant food and water as well as fertile soil, farmers can readily reap the bounties of the earth, especially local fruits that only grow in specific regions. Similarly, artisans can take advantage of the local craft passed down through generations as a source of livelihood. 

Thosapone Dansuputra, Former Director-General of the Department of Intellectual Property, sat down with us to talk about geographical indications (GI), a protection that not only gives Thailand unique and inimitable advantages but can also be further developed sustainably on Thai soil.

In public understanding, the Department of Intellectual Property’s purview revolves around intellectual properties and patents. How will these signs help entrepreneurs?
The notion of intellectual property (IP) was conceived to give an advantage to those who invent something that has never been created before, including new products or brands. IP laws shield registrants against competition and grant rights to the inventor or the originator. While the laws will certainly be beneficial for these people, it is important to strike the balance between the rights that the inventor enjoys and what the public will get in return, which may be in the form of new products or additional alternatives. At the same time, IP laws also help motivate people to invent something new. 

As there seem to be different types of protection, which one serves Thai people the best? What I think best suits Thai people’s temperament and our long history of art and culture is geographical indications (GIs). The name might not tell you much, so let me give you some examples. In Thailand, GIs have actually been around since ages ago. We all must have heard of Muang Non durians and Bangmod oranges. These names are our geographical indications. They serve to distinguish these local products from others.

In many countries, GIs have been used for over 20 years. The World Trade Organization (WTO) has prescribed that each country must put in place legal measures that protect their GIs. Essentially, the system involves the registration of products whose names readily indicate their geographical origins and whose quality or characteristics differ from those produced elsewhere. For instance, countless durian growers outside Nonthaburi claimed that their durians were Muang Non durians because there was no GI registration and no penalty imposed on them. However, those who falsely claim that their products are GI-registered are now subject to a THB 200,000 fine.

Why do you think GIs will work Thailand?
I think GIs will benefit Thailand in the long term, considering our long history of art and culture. Our system will be similar to those in Europe, where their cultural roots are tied to a number of products, such as wines and cheeses. People across the world are willing to pay more for GI products. In addition, Thailand might not be able to compete with others when it comes to other kinds of protection, such as copyrights and patents. GIs, on the other hand, protect existing reputation and historical value. In addition, once a production is registered, it will be protected forever as long as it meets the prescribed standards. No one can compete with you.

The rights granted by geographical indications are limited to the residents of each locality. How do GIs benefit communities?
GIs grant communities the right to carry on their culture and develop it to the point where it becomes valuable and benefits them in developing their quality of life. GIs also ensure that consumers enjoy authentic products from the source of origin. GIs also mean that communities are protected from competition, as the law prohibits others from producing the same product. As the supply becomes limited, the price naturally increases. A clear example is the durians of Nonthaburi. Last year, only some 900 durians were produced, so there were only these durians that could be called Muang Non durians. However, there were tens of thousands who wanted to get hold of them. Another case in point is Tubtim Siam pomelos, grown at Pak Phanang in Nakhon Si Thammarat. Over 10 years ago, before GI registration, each pomelo sold for only about THB 80, but now each goes for THB 500-800. With a clear source of origin as well as specific quality and characteristics, GI products have helped solve the problem of low agricultural product prices and increase security for communities.

Does this mean that we need to boost consumer demand at the same time?
That is something we need to do at the same time. We hope to stimulate consumer demand by communicating correct information about the special characteristics of GI products that consumers can expect. This is because the price of a GI product depends on the public understanding of these distinctive characteristics. For example, a variety of GI orange much sought after might not be the sweetest, but it might have a unique flavor. Consumers need to recognize how oranges from different sources are different from one another. This is an arduous task. There is no way that government officials sitting in their offices at the Ministry can obtain all this data. Therefore, we have implemented local mechanisms for this purpose. The government also understands the significance of this initiative and has assigned local representatives to oversee the project, as locals know their products best. In some provinces, working committees have already been appointed to list products that should apply for geographical indications. This is where each community needs to identify the distinctive characteristics of their local products.   

Before the GI application is approved, is there an inspection by a committee?
In some provinces, the committee is appointed as soon as the application is submitted to ensure that the product meets the required standards as closely as possible. Throughout the process, the applicant will be assisted by mentors provided by the Department. After the product is registered, the next step is to monitor and keep the quality and characteristics consistent with the specifications at all times. This includes, for example, how sweet or sour the product is or how it is manufactured. In addition, In addition, the committee is also responsible for protect the GI and prevent infringements. For example, if a tree that bears GI fruits is replanted elsewhere, the fruits that are produced later will not have a claim to the GI. This is because the product must be tied as closely as possible to the geographical characteristics of the area, such as the soil, weather, moisture, and slope. An example is the volcanic durian of Sisaket. Thanks to the volcanic soil that has poor water holding capacity and low air moisture, the volcanic durian tree grows at a slower rate and bears fruits whose flesh is distinctively silky. These unique characteristics are due to the geography and can be accounted for.

What are the penalty for infringements of GIs?
There are penalties imposed by legal measures and by measures designed by each community to protect their GI. France has the world’s oldest GI system, applied mostly to wine and champagne. Because of their robust GI system and high consumer expectations, producers are forced to control their products painstakingly. Therefore, producer associations have been formed to limit the annual production in order to control the price and quality. For instance, if they have specified that only 100 kilograms of grapes are required for winemaking that year but they happen to have produced 200 kilograms, the excess 100 kilograms will be thrown out. However, this requires cooperation among community members. Unlike intellectual properties where rights are granted to an individual, GIs grant rights to an entire community and create a way of life where they protect their own interests.

In terms of GI frauds, we have encouraged each community to come up with its own protection measures. A very impressive case is the Muang Non durian. The local durian growers have made it clear that the authentic Muang Non durian can only be bought in the orchards and anything sold outside is not. Also, local farmers can, for example, put up signs saying that the product sold at lower prices in roadside stalls is not their GI products because their trees are not bearing fruits this year. These are examples of protection measures that communities can take to deal with fraudsters. An advantage to this approach is that it creates a sense of protectiveness in the community; we cannot feel protective of their product for them.

Does that mean an association is required to apply for GIs?
Most producers of GI products are small producers. Therefore, they need to form a cooperative or an association for self-regulation to control their production volume, exchange knowledge, solve problems, and make GIs truly theirs. As GIs are community-driven, the community must be very strong. Once a GI is registered by a member of the community, everyone in that community is entitled to the use of that GI as well as long as their products meet the required standards. The product of any individual producer can make or break the reputation of the community. It takes only one bad producer to cause the whole community to lose all their customers. As such, self-regulation is vital to their livelihood and security.

What kind of products should be registered for GIs?
Agricultural products, especially those produced in large quantities and sensitive to environmental and seasonal factors, are prime candidates. Another type of products that should apply for GIs is cultural products and local handicrafts. Thailand is among the few countries where GIs also cover handicrafts. However, we need to make sure that our products, such as silk and wickerwork, are tied to the geographical characteristics of the area, such as through the use of certain local materials. In addition, the significance and distinctive characteristics of the GI product must be publicly recognized. For instance, with Lamphun’s Yok Dok silk, we need to identify the features of the product that are tied to that specific geographical location, such as the silk, the dye, and the traditional production method.

Although Thailand’s GI law was introduced in 2003, there are currently only 107 products in the registry. I think at first, people had no idea how GI could benefit them. However, as more products were registered, we started to gain more cooperation from communities because they could sell their products more and at higher prices. Last year, 19 more products were added to the registry, which is considered a success. There are also dozens of applications pending approval. For some of these applications, we are in the process of working with the communities to clearly define distinctive characteristics or explain them scientifically.

How is the Department of Intellectual Property facilitating GI registration?
We go to every single province. Admittedly, it is hard to make people understand what GI is, why the application process is difficult, and why it is necessary. We need to show them through examples and walk through the steps with them. Once their products are registered, we also help with publicity and sale. For instance, we organize GI Market each year to create a marketplace for GI products (This year’s GI Market will be held on July 24-30, 2019 at Central Rama IX). Recently, we worked with the Department of International Trade Promotion to host a pavilion at THAIFEX and invited buyers to view GI products. In addition, we have hosted seminar sessions for Thai entrepreneurs with guest speakers from organizations that oversee GI standards in other countries. We have also been working with private businesses, such as Tops Supermarket, to open up new distribution channels for GI products, which will be seasonally rotated.

What is the outlook of GI registration in Thailand?
The Cabinet has aimed to increase the economic value of GI products by tenfold from the current THB 3-4 billion. This presents a considerable challenge as GIs are confined by location. Since GI products can be produced only in the registered geographical origin, the only way to increase productivity is to increase the number of farmers or producers. Furthermore, additional efforts will be required to raise awareness of the value of GI products to improve sales. At the moment, we are trying to register at least one GI product per province, and we have succeeded in 68 provinces. For Bangkok, one of the GI products is the Bangmod orange. Right now, the orange farmers are facing drastic landscape changes, as the orchards along the edges of the area have been sold to condominium developers. We truly appreciate the dedication and the love that these farmers have shown to their Bangmod orange. Another GI product of Bangkok is the Bang Khun Thian lychee, which previously sold for THB 200 and experienced crop failure for 4-5 consecutive years. However, after it was added to the registry, the harvest improved, and all the lychee was sold out in the first two weeks for as high as THB 1,000 per kilogram.

I believe that GI registration truly benefits communities. It is also becoming more apparent that GIs can serve as a springboard for them as well. For example, with the cooperation of local businesses and residents, a community can be developed into a tourist destination, where visitors can experience local culture, visit orchards, and observe the production of local goods. GI products can bring opportunities for development for communities. On the other hand, as consumers, you need to help out as well. You have to recognize that a GI product is more expensive because of its distinctive qualities and limited production. Also, if you do not enjoy any GI product, you can make suggestions. We will then relay them to the community and work with them to solve the issue. This way, we can help local producers carry on their legacies.

You can apply for a geographical indication at the Geographical Indication Office, the Department of Intellectual Property. or Thailand

Story: Patcharin Pattanabunpaiboon and Sansanee Lao-arun I Photo: Peera Disttakorn