Burns Like Fire

 |  April 1, 2009

We all got complaisant. Last year was a pretty good year in Chiang Mai for pollution, and with memories of gold fish, we were all caught unawares this year when the smog began its descent to smother us. Eyes streaming with tears, noses bunged up with gunk, throats parched, skin crackling and flaking and humour evaporating as fast as the humidity, it has been a bad few weeks. We have all read the statistics – Chiang Mai’s pollution level is one of the worst in Thailand, way above acceptable and way beyond danger levels – but frankly we can see, and feel, it for ourselves.

“What can we do?” Citylife’s readers email.

Well, let’s start with something. To that end, Richard Rhodes, who owns a luxury colonial style villa for rent in Chiang Mai’s Mae On District, Lanna Hill House, is a great example of action versus complaint. In 2007, his children suffered from respiratory problems and his business has been affected by the dearth of visitors during smog-season. A man of action, he invited Alex Putnam, who had been doing research on organic food production in Thailand, following his degree from Bristol University in Geography, to head up a project researching the causes and effects of deliberate fire burning in Mae On. One of their mutual concerns is that forest fires account for 18% of global carbon emissions; they are the second biggest cause of climate change. (The biggest being energy generation at a whopping 24 %.) So for the past two months Alex has been living in Mae On and conducting hands on _ and mainly legwork – research, focusing on the root cause of the fires. His results will be published in mid April (see details at end of article).

The purpose of the study is to understand the reasons and consequences of deliberate fire burning during the dry season in Mae On District so as to attempt to prevent and minimise the number of fires occurring in the region. Putnam started by collecting data on fire burning during February and March of this year, looking at the number of fires, areas under fire, and estimated carbon emissions as well as assessing and understanding the reasons behind such deliberate burning. He is now looking into consequences of such burning, including health and tourism impacts. Once published, he will use his report to mobilise government and private sectors into action…this is where, hopefully, you come in.

Mae On has been classified as a Hot Spot due to the concentration, and size, of forest and road-side fires. As a matter of fact, between the 28th of January until today, Putnam has personally seen 54 fires in the area (agriculture 7%, roadside 24% forest fires 25%, domestic 12%, and open areas 16%). While many of us are not familiar with Mae On, this area is downwind from Chiang Mai city, and north-easterly winds join the region’s fate with our very own.

By interviewing various officials and villagers in the area, he found that mushroom (specifically, northern favourite, hed tor) collection appeared to be the main reason for forest fires as a kilogramme can fetch as much as 2-300 baht, quite a windfall for poor villagers. While there is no proof whatsoever that burning encourages growth, an excuse many villagers offer for their fire starting, Putnam finds that many admit that they burn to gain easier access into the forest.

In mid-March, Putnam trekked through a deciduous forest with a local crop farmer, Som, who also doubles as hunter of squirrel and gatherer of mushrooms and bamboo during the dry season. Here are excerpts from his notes:

“As soon as we walked into the forest area, it was clear to see that it had been extensively burnt, scorched black earth spread out around us, Som tells us that some fires get out of control and burn larger areas than intended. As we trekked through a dry Dipterocarp forest, Som began collecting wood, explaining that even though it was illegal he was confident of not being caught. The area was covered by large swathes of bamboo, essentially a grass, which indicates its competitiveness against local trees in land degraded from multiple fires. We reached a clearing which had an eerie feel to it, almost warlike as if it had just been ravaged by a napalm bomb! The only signs of life were new grass shoots which reminded me of burnt roadside verges that become colonised with new grasses, perfect for cattle grazing, and reason for most road-side fire burning…We reached our highest point of the trek, bordering on a National Park, and noticed less signs of burning. Som explained that fires are started at the base of the mountain, then gain in width as they ascend [hence the lines one sees creeping up Doi Suthep this time of the year], finally dying out as they reach the top…Towards the end of our descent we were surprised to see forests with green trees high as 30 metres. Som explained that this was the communal area around the village and prohibition on burning was understood amongst the villagers…We turned around, however, and noticed a fire creeping towards us.

We headed back out of the forest when all of a sudden, when we thought we had seen enough degradation for one day, Som knelt down on the path and lit the verge. We stood, astonished, as another blaze took hold. Som announced that this was now his land, and it was not illegal to burn to prepare the land to plant a crop of maize. Som, then walked off, leaving the fire to tend itself. When I asked him about the complaints about fire burning, he replied, “It’s just our normal way of life, we have used fire for many years. The issue about smoke is a recent occurrence due to the late rains and hotter air temperatures. It doesn’t last forever. When the rainy season comes the conditions will improve.”

And that was that.
Putman explains that many areas in Mae On have little to no forest fires because villagers have had bad experiences of deforestation in the past and combined with educational campaigns this has led to stronger community forestry management, proving that with strong leadership, results are obvious. Unfortunately it requires bad experiences…once burnt, twice shy…as well as education to mobilise action.
Another complication is that authorities often feel compassion towards villagers who are so poor that burning and gathering jungle products is their only means of likelihood, knowing that the 5-10,000 baht fine is simply too high a price for them to pay.

The local Tambol Administrative Organisations, and National Park authorities simply do not have the budget or resources to combat this widespread problem. In some areas, when community leaders have taken action, and local bodies shown interest, they have been very successful in mobilising support from villagers, and it is these success stories which Putnam is looking into, and soon plans to ask for our city’s community support to implement. Year-round education and awareness initiatives focusing on prevention, not knee-jerk reactions, can really go a long way to helping all of us.

For more information, or to join Rhodes and Putnam’s efforts, visit their web site, www.e-photoframes.co.uk. You can also follow their progress by reading their blog at www.e-photoframes.co.uk/blog . Our own site, www.chiangmaicitylife.com will also have a link to their report when it is published.

For more information on stats you can visit the Pollution Control Department’s site to track pollution levels in Chiang Mai http://www.pcd.go.th/AirQuality/Regional/QueryAir.cfm?task=findsite.