After finishing her latest rice harvest, Sripai Kaeo-eam hurriedly cleared her fields and planted a new crop in late August — ignoring a Thai government advisory to restrict further sowing of the grain this year to conserve water.

"This crop is our hope," said the 58-year-old farmer in Thailand's central Chai Nat province, pointing to her green paddy seedlings only a few inches tall. Sripai, who is trying to dig her way out of more than 200,000 Thai baht ($5,600) of debt, is motivated by the global spike in rice prices, which are close to their highest level in about 15 years after India — the world's biggest shipper of the water-intensive grain — curbed exports. Farmers across the agrarian heartland that makes Thailand the world's second-largest rice exporter should be poised to benefit.

Instead, the amount of land under rice cultivation in Thailand decreased 14.5% in August compared to the same month last year, according to previously unreported government estimates. The figure has declined every year since 2020. Thailand's centuries-old rice cultivation system is under severe stress from climate change, unsustainable farm debts and a lack of innovation, according to interviews with two experts and a review of government data.