ON Sunday, some 250 to 300 people gathered in front of Chiang Mai’s Three King’s Monument to protest against the smog enveloping the city caused by burning in the surrounding countryside.
The good-natured rally started at about 5pm and went on for half an hour. Despite the Thai government’s ban on public meetings of more than three people, there was no police or military presence because the organizers had been previously given permission to hold the rally for half an hour.
Art Pawat from the ‘Bye Bye Smog’ group that helped organize the rally said: “We only decided to do this one week ago because we are facing big pollution in Chiang Mai after Songkran.” (The Thai New Year festivities that run from April 13 to 15.)
Every year from about February until the seasonal rains start, Chiang Mai is covered in a smog mainly made up from smoke particles that have rolled down off the surrounding hills as a result of farmers burning organic agricultural waste and forest fires. This usually occurs around May.
Art said that the smog problem had noticeably worsened over the last 10 years and that the smog was even worse this year after Songkran finished on April 15 because on that day, the government’s 60-day restriction on open burning expired.
He said of the rally’s goal: “Our aim is to raise awareness about the problem of us suffering from smoke. Whoever is in charge should rethink how they deal with the problem.”
He also said that this year, for the first time, the Air Quality Index (AQI) for particulate matter of less than 10 microns (PM10) had on some days been recorded as exceeding 200 micrograms per cubic meter.
This exceeds the international safe PM10 level of 50 units used by both the European Union and the U.S. It even exceeds the Thai government’s dangerously high PM10 safety threshold of 120.
The U.S. government officially says that PM10 levels of 120 are unsafe for sensitive groups and that “children, active individuals, elderly adults and those with heart or lung conditions should limit activity or exertion.”
It classifies PM10 levels of 201 to 300 as very unhealthy and recommends that at those levels, “all individuals should avoid activity or exertion.”
Watcharapol Daengsubha from Greenpeace Southeast Asia, who also attended the rally, said that most of the pollution was caused by farmers burning agricultural waste.
He told Asian Correspondent: “60 percent of fires come from agriculture and most of that is from corn [maize] production. [The fires come] from clearing after growing corn and from expanding forest land to grow more corn. They [the farmers] burn because it is too hard to clear the land by machine because it is too steep.”
The corn is used as livestock feed, for which demand has been steadily growing.
Watcharapol explained: “In Thailand, meat consumption, particularly poultry, has increased rapidly and they now export poultry, especially to China and Japan.”
This has meant that cultivation of corn has increased greatly in northern Thailand over the last few years, which has led to more corn waste and subsequently more burning and unbearable smog.
As Thailand has developed, the demand for meat has increased, as is the case for most developing countries. But if farmers continue to burn agricultural waste, while people’s quality of life improves in the rest of Thailand, it will deteriorate in Chiang Mai and the north due to the smog, which will cause health problems not only in the present, but in the future as well.