Every year between February and April local farmers in Northern Thailand and neighboring countries burn huge amounts of vegetation to clear fields and get rid of agricultural waste. The result is a serious, regional smog problem that causes discomfort and health issues for millions of people. So far, government and community efforts to combat the issue have been ineffective. These are the views of one expat living in Northern Thailand on the efforts to tackle an extremely complex issue…
EVERYONE seems to have their own perspective on the problem of burning and smog in Northern Thailand that happens, almost invariably, at this time of year. Many complain about the government and lack of enforcement of burning laws, but few have any real recommendations that don’t border on the ridiculous.
One person suggested that all you need is a couple of helicopters flying around full-time to douse the fires before they get out of control. Okay, that takes care of his village, now what about the rest of the region and our neighbors. In a search for simple solutions we focus on over-simplified explanations of the problem.
Some say all the smoke comes from Burma and Laos. Others blame big agribusiness and the growing of corn in areas like Mae Chaem. Some say it is the rice farmers who are the culprits or perhaps the slash-and-burn hill tribe people. Yet others blame their neighbors for burning their trash. Many think it is the government’s fault, due to greed and corruption, or the educational system is to blame.
A few foreigners here in Northern Thailand have cobbled together a poorly thought out petition to demand the end of the burning. I am sure it made them feel less helpless, but I am equally sure it will have no effect.
Composting of all the waste has been suggested but we are not talking kitchen scraps here. There are literally mountains of vegetation left over after the harvest. The corn harvest leaves not only stalks on the steep mountain slopes but also mountains of discarded husks at the processing sites.
Others suggest plowing the stubble back into the ground. Unfortunately many of the hillsides are far too steep for heavy equipment. Even the hiring of the larger tractors necessary to plow waist high rice stubble back into the earth is expensive and would make the growing of rice even less profitable for small farmers. There is also an argument that burning helps control pests and disease, leading to a better crop.
As it is, villagers in my area can’t make a living growing rice but do it based on a longstanding tradition that one must grow their own rice. It is okay for city people to buy rice from the store but it is not the done thing in the village. To make a living they must go to find work in the cities and scavenge what they can from what is left of the natural environment. Each year they encroach a little more into the forest. They strip the streams and reservoirs of fish. They burn the undergrowth in hopes of stimulating an abundant crop of wild mushrooms that can be harvested and sold at roadside stands.
Villagers are not immune to the seduction of modern conveniences and want what we all want. They want transportation, communication, entertainment, electronic conveniences, a better house and perhaps a leg up for their children by sending them to better schools. Everything costs money and the rural populace have limited options compared to their big city brethren.
As bad as things are in our village they continue to burn daily. People will complain about the smoke in a very general way and then go off and light another fire. Around here fires are not started by faceless figures in some remote location but by friends and neighbors. Pointing fingers at individuals is only done in extreme cases. The extreme interdependency in the village is the adhesive that bonds them together and makes things work. At the same time it is what often holds them back when it comes to making changes.
One villager, for example, lost 70 rubber trees, by his estimate, due to his neighbor’s burning which got out of control. He asked for something like 70,000 baht (US$2,380) but I heard they may have negotiated that down to around 30,000 baht. Chances are the firebug doesn’t have the money so will try to avoid payment or he will have to borrow the money. That will lead the culprit to further disregarding rules and regulations in an effort to scrape together a few more baht here and there.
I am not claiming to have the answers to this problem. However, some of the suggested punitive measures focused exclusively on the poorest members of society and could be at the very least counterproductive, and potentially even destructive and destabilizing.
Until someone can come up with affordable alternatives that don’t further burden the poor and take into consideration the complexity of the issues that lead to this yearly burning and the resulting pollution, we are destined to suffer with this problem for years to come.
Article published courtesy of ‘Village Farang’. To read more about village life in Northern Thailand, check out Village Farang’s blog