It must be frustrating for the Chiang Mai Breathe Council, formed late last year, to be facing such an extraordinarily horrific year of burning this year. Let’s find out where they are at and how they are working to mitigate, if not solve, this problem.
Citylife: What was different about this year?
Sakda: It took a while, but we finally established a few years ago that the main cause of air pollution in the north of Thailand was due to agricultural waste burning. These were quick and easy burns to allow farmers to prepare their fields for the coming year, so corn stems, sugarcane leaves, rice stubbles and dried leaves and branches. This year, however, has flipped the narrative completely. The number of agricultural waste burning has reduced significantly, which is really heartening to see as it means that all the work we have put into mitigating this is bearing results. However, the current fires, especially those along the Doi Suthep-Pui National Park, which has been raging for weeks, if not months, and which has become the main contributor to our hazardous air, are intentionally set. These are fires set by arsonists or those who, when arrested, have expressed their motive as being to burn out of protest against authority. There have even been fires lit due to internal conflicts between government departments.
There has been a government drive to increase conservation forest areas from 15% to 25% of provincial areas. This means that many villagers who may have had a pineapple patch in the forest or been growing a rai of vegetables or so, have all been forced back out of the forest, their livelihoods affected. These people are the ones who, in the past, would be protecting the forest so that their patch of land doesn’t get burnt. This year, not only are they not protecting their patch of land as they don’t have anything to protect, they are also angry at being forced out and some are lighting the fire as revenge. The government’s policy and law enforcement with villagers regarding the use of forests is far too rigid. This has led to widespread clashing between villagers and government officials, resulting in fires and no cooperation between those living in the area and government bodies tasked with solving the problem.
Citylife: So how would you score the government’s efforts this year?
Sakda: There is a vast disconnect between government offices on the ground doing the work and those sitting in offices in the central government writing laws and edicts which are not flexible nor adaptable to local conditions. There has always been a top-down command system from the central government but it is clear that this isn’t working, in fact, it is exacerbating the situation. Many years ago the government had a policy to engage villagers, getting them to take responsibility for their forests. These villagers were given leeway in that they were allowed to use forest resources, within reasonable limits, and in return they were expected to protect the forest from such threats as fire. When the policy changed to start penalising villagers for all infringements, it created a tsunami of resentment. As many villagers have been heard saying, “You want to manage your forest? Here you go, here is a fire, let’s see how you solve this without us.”
What is in fact needed is for complete integration which tackles the root problems. Listen to the people. Engage the people. Recruit the people to help and give them incentives to care for their environment. Empower local organisations, so that we can make decisions without waiting for the Bangkok chain of command. Importantly, as I have said often, the solution to the problem must be consistent with the context of the area. One single government plan cannot possibly work.
Citylife: What would you like to see happen?
Sakda: Education on a local and community level must be focused, consistent and thorough. The government must also listen and not only preach. At the end of the day no one knows more about how to protect – or as you can clearly see, destroy – the forests like local people. Don’t insult them, don’t diminish and demean them. Engage them. Teach them sustainable agriculture, support ways they can make money from the jungle without harming it. Allow for local participation in the Community Forest Act. We can even do our own funding, we have enough people here willing to donate and volunteer, basically let go of the control and power and let us work to solve this problem.