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Herbicides or fire?

September 4, 2012

Although illegal, fire is the dominating weed control agent in northern Thailand. Fire is linked to biodiversity decline, air pollution, respiratory disease and impoverished soils since the lack of organic matter reduces the water holding capacity and the density of earthworms, resulting in compact, concrete-like soils.

An emerging alternative, almost equally simple as fire, is the very frequent use of herbicides. The common Paraquat herbicide is indeed toxic to humans and Roundup is dangerous to human skin. I have seen with my own eyes Thai children play in the herbicide clouds administered by unprotected and poorly trained staff in fruit plantations. Driving along the canal road towards Chiang Mai town sometimes reveal long stretches of brown vegetation killed by herbicides of reasons unclear to me, interrupted by green stretches along the gated communities where more educated and well situated people live.

Instead of writing a long blog I simply refer to the simplified Wikipedia articles below and their references. As a responsible land owner one should consider every alternative carefully. If you do select herbicides, show respect by not spilling over to farms and gardens where the owners have selected non-chemical gardening. Do not leave the selection and administration of herbicides to analphabetic workers. Personally I believe mowing is better than both fire and herbicides, and grazing animals or shady trees would be even better alternatives when possible.

What about mechanical tools? Sickles are commonly used for rice harvesting, but they are very bad for your back. I have tried to find a scythe in Thailand but failed. Sometimes I simply use my bent pruning saw as a mini scythe, a quiet and chemical-free alternative to manage weeds. That alternative also keeps my heart in good condition and reduces obesity, without gym machines and medicines. Next time I go to Sweden I shall bring back a scythe.

Paraquat (many other tradenames are used)

Glyphosate (Roundup and its many Chinese copies)

Eric Danell, Dokmai Garden

What is quality of life? A scythe is perfect for controlling weeds in small areas: cheap, non-pollutant, non-chemical, silent, keeps your heart strong and provides exercise to reduce obesity. A group of neighbours can use this tool together and keep chatting, which is impossible next to roaring machines or through the masks protecting you from herbicide-induced Parkinson’s disease.

Photo: Yvonna Gailly, from Swedish Wikipedia.

(Precipitation report: 7 mm today on September 4th)

13 Comments leave one →
  1. Pieter Bekkers permalink
    September 4, 2012 1:23 AM

    Scythe. Please photograph the original product next to a ruler and then photograph the finished products for all to see. You could turn that into another great stand alone blog here. Keep up the good work Eric.

  2. David Cooke permalink
    September 4, 2012 7:01 AM

    Don’t forget that you will need the special anvil and hammer to beat out the edge of the scythe which must be of the correct quality of steel. I don’t know about Sweden but in Switzerland it is very difficult to buy a good quality scythe these days, I still have the one I bought 40 years ago, which is adjustable and I have occasionally found better to use in thickly growing very fine grass.
    I’ll be interested to read about your teaching a Thai how to use it! My son in law refuses even to look at mine…
    I agree about indiscriminate use of weedkillers but have occasionally used it in special circumstances.

    • September 4, 2012 9:19 AM

      I have used the Swedish scythes with wooden handles. They work very well. Unfortunately you can only buy these from antique dealers now. The modern scythes have metal handles, but I believe that for the termite-infested tropics that is a good option. As can be seen from this Swedish website where scythes are sold, there is a thicker blade for more sturdy vegetation:

    • September 4, 2012 11:07 AM

      Absolutely, there are occasions when a herbicide might be useful, such as killing a tree growing between two houses, by applying a herbicide into holes drilled in the stump. It is important to carefully analyze the situation.

      Through no fault of their own, many Thais have not received the level of education we have benefited from in the West. It is never easy to try to explain to someone who may never have read a book in his life that the way he is doing something is wrong. Without proper and courteous instruction he is likely to generously spray herbicides as if they are water.

      That is very common here, even among innocent Westerners who supervise from abroad, trusting the local worker knows what he is doing. Their lack of knowledge is hard to imagine for someone who grows up in a society with good education, but when you realize this, you will make the right decisions for you, your workers and for the environment.

      The original wording of this comment was kindly revised by Matt Owens to fit readers born in an English-speaking country. Since I am Swedish and Ketsanee Thai, neither of us have the fingertip-feeling for some English words. For instance, ‘oriental’ is a pejorative expression in USA, but not in England.


  3. Malcolm permalink
    September 4, 2012 7:17 AM

    I see local people using rice sickles attached to long handles as effective scythe substitutes – assists with the back problem of that tool.

    • September 4, 2012 10:51 AM

      That is most interesting Malcolm! I have never seen those, nor has my Thai family from Esan. They say you have to use sickles and hold the rice by hand. Inevitably large scale rice production will be managed by the modern Japanese machines, but for small properties and home gardens (up to 4 rai) I think scythes or Malcolm’s tool would be fine. Kindly let me know in what areas you find these long sickles, and what is the Thai name for the tool?


      • Malcolm permalink
        September 4, 2012 11:42 AM

        My Thai wife says the rice harvesting tool is called a keo (rising tone). With the long handle (usually the normal tool tied very securely to a length of bamboo with rubber tire tube strips) they call it a darm keo. The name in other areas could be different as with many words in the local (A. Fang, Chiangmai) dialect.

        I saw one being used the other day by a gardener at the local school – he was cleaning up an overgrown flower bed. I observed his action as being slightly different to the cutting action of a scythe. As your wife points out, the rice tool uses a combination cutting/sawing action. This was reflected in what the gardener was doing, even with the long handle, but as normal weeds and grass are softer than rice stems, it was not necessary to hold it with the other hand ie. similar to a scythe.

        Rice harvesting is still done here either with the normal short handled version, or increasingly by mechanical harvester as in our own rice field.

      • September 4, 2012 11:53 AM

        Most interesting! In fact, we have a sickle fastened to a bamboo pole too, but our workers use it for cutting down banana leaves. They say it does not work for cutting weeds on the ground. I should imagine it works well for fleshy and green weeds.

  4. David Cooke permalink
    September 4, 2012 12:33 PM

    I have seen similar tools in Switzerland, handle about 70 cm long, but they were strictly for ‘buffalo jobs’ – hacking off leaves and stuff as mentioned above, not going for a clean cut. I can’t imagine the proper use of a sickle being compatible with a long handle.
    As someone who for 5 days in 1973 started mowing at 5.00 and working on a very steep slope with few breaks until it got dark, I protest about any romantic allusions to mowing with a scythe. There are mowing contests in Switzerland, but the contestants don’t work 14 hours a day.

    I have a question about using teak as a wood for tool handles in general: I spent about an hour fitting a piece of teak up as a pickaxe handle. It broke after about 10 minutes, much to the delight of the Thais watching (yes watching, as in drinking my beer and using the word Farang about every 30 seconds). Is this really the best wood to use or did I just have bad luck? Teak is also rather heavy, I should prefer Ash if I had any…

    • September 5, 2012 8:32 AM

      If a landowner has to employ somebody to help with the mowing, it does not really matter what occupies the worker. The noise and the vibrations from a machine are indeed tiresome and not romantic either.

      You might be right that teak is not the preferred wood for shafts. It is termite resistant, but actually quite soft which is why the wood carvers like it. Another termite resistant wood, but much harder, is ‘mai dhaeng’ or Xylia xylocarpa (Fabaceae). ‘Mai pradu pa’ is even harder (Pterocarpus macrocarpus, Fabaceae).

      Cheers, Eric

  5. September 22, 2012 8:26 AM

    We had an Austrian scythe here at Panya, brought over by someone from the States I think. I used it a lot last year, and much preferred it to our weedwacker. It was quieter, used no fuel, gave me a better workout, and worked just about as effectively. We didn’t have the anvil, although I did use the wet stone religiously every 10 minutes or so. Sadly, when I came back to Panya this year, the scythe had been abused and the handle was cracked. It quickly broke after that. We still have the blade around, but no handle. I have been thinking about asking the local carpenter to make one for us, but I have a feeling it wouldn’t turn out that great. I hope you have some luck getting one in Sweden!

    • September 23, 2012 7:43 AM

      Thanks Adam! If we get a good handle we may be able to make a copy. I shall let people know in advance.

      Cheers, Eric

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