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A petition on air pollution

March 14, 2012

Yesterday late afternoon and evening we had thunder and a few drops of rain, but less than what could be measured (<0.5 mm). Rumours have circulated that governmental cloud seeding is in progress, i.e. the spraying of clouds with chemicals to induce rain. That in turn is due to the illegal and man-made fires of farmlands and national parks. The wind yesterday was southwestern, the direction of the monsoon, and so this could have been an early natural rain, nothing remarkable.

Although fire is a natural part of the dry forest ecosystems of northern Thailand, the burning of the same spot year after year for decades is not natural. Many native trees around Dokmai Garden do not regenerate because although mature trees are strong enough to stand a fire, a seedling is not.

If you are fed up with the fires and smoke simply sign this petition on air pollution. If you hesitate, consider the following:

These are some common answers from northern Thai farmers on why they like to burn up northern Thailand:

1. We have always done so.

2. Fire will remove cobras, fire ants and other pests. (True, but fire will remove everything else too, such as orchids and butterflies. In a thriving and biodiversity-rich garden, village or forest pests are scarce).

3. Fire will remove weeds. (Weeds always come back. Mowing or grazing will do the same job).

4. Fire will promote the formation of the Thai truffle , Astraeus hygrometricus, an important cash crop for forest dwellers. (Ongoing research will resolve the question. It is likely fire simply removes the vegetation so that the cracks revealing the growing truffle is easier to spot. Dogs can be used instead of fire).

5. A gentle fire each year will reduce the amount of accumulated fuel and so prevent dangerous fire storms. (This is the only intelligent answer in my ears. However, fire storms are not likely in arable lands and urban areas where fuel can and should be removed by other means).

6. A fire releases ashes rich in nutrients which benefits agriculture. (True, but such nutrients easily wash out with the rains. Fire removes the organic matter too, which is important for binding water and as a food for worms which keep the soil aerated. The leaf litter is needed as a root and soil insulation against heat. Traditional slash and burn meant moving to new land while the small burnt patch recovered. Due to overpopulation there is no virgin land to move to, the same spot is burnt repeatedly. Thai agronomists do not consider fire as a proper land management method and Thai farmers from other regions say fire worsens the growing conditions. ).

7. A fire opens up a landscape and promotes grasses which is good for cattle. (True, but keeping cattle inside national parks is illegal. Many illiterate cowboys also burn land which belong to other private people and let their cattle graze there without asking for permission. Wild grazing mammals such as water buffaloes and deer were adapted to forest foraging, while modern zebu cows need soft grass).

These are the reasons for not burning up northern Thailand:

1. Starting a fire on a dusty and dry day, at 37 °C, and simply walk away is a hazard, not a prevention.

2. Annual fire on the same spot for decades leads to biodiversity decline, i.e. less plant and animal species can survive.

3. The haze and the breathing problems affects the long term human health. Asthma and other respiratory diseases, as well as lung cancer and nasopharyngeal carcinoma have a high incidence in Southeast Asia (Laos, Burma and Indonesia are burning too).

4. The haze scares away tourists and foreign settlers go abroad, which has a bad effect on the legal economy of northern Thailand.

5. Fire ruins the agricultural conditions by turning the soils into concrete, speeding up mineral nutrient leakage and depriving the soils of water holding organic matter.

6. If the carbon dioxide hypothesis is a correct explanation for global warming, then we need to store carbon, not release it. About 80 000 square kilometers are affected by burning in northern Thailand. However, in the short run it seems the temperature cools down 1-5 degrees due to the haze, just like after a volcano eruption. Smog and haze was once very common in industrial areas of the world possibly resulting in an unnaturally cold climate. One estimate claims that 200 million farmers on Earth are involved in slash and burn agriculture.

7. Forests, and healthy forests with logs and leaf litters in particular, reduce landslides and flooding. Slash and burn affects many people downhill.

If the Thai law forbids fires, and if most provinces in Thailand obey the law, how come it still goes on in a gigantic scale in northern Thailand?

The people who burn up their national heritage (the national parks) are poor and uneducated, but this fact is only part of the answer, because the equally poor region Esan is not pyromanic. The lawless attitude, or attitude of independence from Bangkok, is an important part of the answer. Northern Thailand, Lanna, used to be a kingdom separate from Siam until 1899. The northern Thai language and the many hill tribe languages are different from Central Thai language. Many people in northern Thailand have never traveled outside their village, and so a Bangkokian is almost as exotic as a Swede. Being told what to do from the central government arouses ridicule. I have had a report of a village head telling his villagers over the morning loudspeakers that although Bangkok says fires are illegal, the village head will not interfere with their traditions. Illegal burning is sanctioned by the local low-level authorities, and so is other crime (illegal logging, illegal trade with endangered organisms, land encroachment, voting fraud etc). It also seems that the detrimental habits of many uneducated locals are encouraged by the numerous savagists operating here, sabotaging the Thai government’s pedagogic efforts.

Education and taxation of land will continue reducing the numbers of uneducated small scale farmers. Education in combination with a gradual ban of fires and a strict law enforcement will change the methods of those who remain. Teachers and police from other Thai regions may contribute in making a difference in the former Golden Triangle. Signing the petition above may remind the central government of the problem.

A comment on burning in the Mekong region by the French explorer Dr Clovis Thorel “…a barbarian, transitory method that is destined to disappear with the progress of civilization”. He made the comment about 150 years ago. It is still valid.

Eric Danell

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5 Comments leave one →
  1. John Hobday permalink
    March 14, 2012 1:23 PM

    My wife has land in the hills near Doi Mae Salong. The surrounding hills have remnant forest patches but ares mostly covered in 10 foot weeds and scrub, cleared annually by fire to plant corn and hill rice, for which they either get a pittance from the local millers or the use to feed themselves and their livestock.
    Every dry season the hills are ablaze with huge fires to clear these weeds. Can anyone suggest how very poor farmers can clear their land for the growing season without burning.
    Cutting and ploughing is expensive. Herbicide and ploughing is also expensive. Labour is very expensive.
    Ideally the area should be terraced and row cropped. The steepest slopes and the gullies should be natural wildlife sanctuaries and corridors, but who will provide the labour, the expertise, and the money. It should be the government but elephants will fly before they get off their butts.
    And so the cycle will go on until burning is banned and then these people will fill the slums of our cities.

    • March 14, 2012 1:41 PM

      Yes, poverty has to be exterminated and that should be via education. Educated people can get better jobs than forest agriculture. I guess this is what Clovis Thorel meant with civilization. The road is long…

    • March 14, 2012 1:59 PM

      In my hometown in Roi-Et in Esan we never burn to get mushrooms, and we never burn governmental or other people’s land. By continuously working with the arable soil you avoid weeds without using fire. We used water buffaloes for plowing, that was a cheap solution still applied in Burma and Cambodia. Only rich farmers could buy tractors. I think that the Thai government’s generosity towards poor people in allowing them using governmental land for limited farming is a good temporary solution, until their children with better education can find better jobs. The many royal projects have contributed with a lot of new agricultural knowledge in rural societies such as Doi Inthanon. I agree such projects should be expanded and it is the politicians who decide the budget. A petition may remind them to allocate more money to exterminate poverty.

      Ketsanee

  2. David Cooke permalink
    March 14, 2012 1:59 PM

    I wish you the best of luck with your campaign, I hope you can make a difference. The “We have always done so” argument is the most difficult to eradicate. Education seems to be the key, for most Thais forests are places to visit for a picnic and get out of the sun. Having visited reserves in the region of Kanchanaburi I was most impressed by the beauty of these places, less impressed by a total lack of documentation or attempts to enlighten. Efforts to label trees at the entrance of one park had obviously been made at some time but these were very erratic and difficult to find, I didn’t see anybody, Thai or tourist, that seemed to be at all interested in this. People turn up as tourists, get taken by tour operators to the local beauty spots, shepherded to the next restaurant (-“my cousin”) and nothing is achieved. I should have thought that there would be a big market for plants, plant books, guided tours, and the rest. But “they don’t do that”.

    • March 16, 2012 8:34 AM

      Yes, and books are difficult to produce because only a handful of people know about Southeast Asian flora and fauna. However, we are trapped in time. I am sure this will change. Thank you for kind remarks.

      Cheers, Eric

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