Lazy, Hazy (Hack, Hack) Days of Summer

 |  February 2, 2018

With summer just around the corner, it is time for Chiang Mai residents to prepare to mask up to confront the seasonal haze caused by forest fires and agricultural crop burning.

Bummer! But don’t give up hope! There’s good stuff going on – and you can be part of the solution!

Tackling the Forest Fires

Forest fires are a big source of haze that every Chiang Mai resident can see. They have occurred naturally for millennia – every 5 to 7 years. Our annual fires are unnatural. They result from human activity driven by economic forces. Some, for example, start when burning fields in forests get out of hand. Many others are set intentionally by mushroom gatherers who find it easier to locate their valuable prizes against black ash than brown leaf litter.

It does not have to be so. Led by a local monk, Baan Omlong in Samoeng District has been working to stop wild fires in the local forest. Villagers have taken ownership of their forest. They have dammed local streams to preserve moisture, planted trees, and created firebreaks. Fire-watch teams monitor the forest during the vulnerable summer months.

Their efforts have paid off. Baan Omlong has not had a forest fire for 3 seasons. Mushrooms and wild plants are thriving in the regenerated forest, creating more income for local residents.

Open Field Burning

A second, large source of haze not easily seen from Chiang Mai is open field burning. In North Thailand, farmers burn at least half a million metric tonnes of crop waste annually. This produces more than 3,000 tonnes of haze – as much as 223,572,777,000 cigarettes or approximately 40,000 cigarettes per inhabitant.

“That’s a lot of cigarettes,” observes Dr. Michael Shafer, Director of Warm Heart, a local nonprofit foundation that works with local farmers and government officials to tackle the problem of haze burning fields.

Cash from Field Trash

“Farmers don’t burn for the fun of it,” says Shafer. “They burn because they have no alternative way to clear their fields to plant the next crop. We asked ourselves ‘What would be a better alternative?’ The obvious answer was money. So we found a way for farmers to make cash from field trash.”

This took a bit of doing.

The key to the Warm Heart solution is something called “biochar” that no one – least of all poor farmers – has ever heard of.

What’s biochar? It’s super charcoal made by heating biomass – for example, crop waste – very hot without oxygen. The process is carbon negative (it removes CO2 from the atmosphere) and produces no haze.

But biochar was a Western thing. The machines were big and high tech – not stuff for farmers’ fields.

What to do?

With initial support from the US State Department, Warm Heart developed low-tech, low-cost biochar machines farmers could make themselves and trained farmers to use them.

“This was all cool, but didn’t do much to reduce the haze problem,” Shafer admits. “We needed to create a social enterprise solution that would engage whole communities.”

Quenching Mae Chaem’s Smoke

Mae Chaem District is gorgeous. It lies on the backside of Doi Intanon, the highest peak in Thailand, Its landscape is mountains, dark forests – and immense fields of corn. Farmers in Mae Chaem burn 95,000 tonnes of corn waste annually. Mae Chaem haze tends to settle, that’s right, in Chiang Mai.

To test the “biochar solution,” Warm Heart took on Mae Chaem. Its program won the 2017 World Energy Globe Award (Thailand) and the support of the Canadian Fund for Local Initiatives. The project paid local farmers for biochar made from corn waste. A Chiang Mai community crowdfunding campaign, Stop the Smoke!, raised 1,000,000 THB to fund purchases from farmers who made 150 tonnes of biochar and enthusiastically demonstrated their willingness to biochar not burn!

What Do You Do With All That Biochar?

But a successful solution to the haze problem must pay for itself. “Our problem,” Shafer admitted wryly, “was what to do with success. I mean, what would you do with 15,000 bags of charcoal, even really cool charcoal?”

Luckily, biochar is more than just cool charcoal. For example, as Thailand shifts toward organic export crops, biochar-based fertilizer is ideal, because it restores soils degraded by overuse of synthetics and locks up pesticides before they enter the food chain. As climate change disrupts rainfall, biochar improves water retention and reduces irrigation requirements. As factory farming increases sickness among pigs and chickens, biochar in animal feed reduces intestinal illness, the stink of manure and its attractiveness to flies.

To capture these benefits – and to make good use of all of that biochar – Warm Heart developed a line of biochar-based products from soil additives and foliar sprays to sustainable briquettes and animal feed supplements. Sales fund new Warm Heart projects.

What Next?

Shafer is the first to point out that Warm Heart is not the story. One successful skirmish does not win a war. What is required is that hundreds, thousands of farm communities across North Thailand recognize the value in biocharring not burning. This will not happen by itself. It requires three things. First, it requires an aggressive training effort. Here the Ministry of Energy is taking the lead. Today it offers trainings and free biochar machines.

More difficult, winning the war on haze from crop burning requires a hot – but protected – biochar market. Farmers will not make biochar unless they can sell it immediately. Today, however, there is no demand for biochar; organizations such as Warm Heart struggle to market biochar products. Without easy access to buyers – in the village – farmers will not biochar. But once there is a demonstrated market for biochar, large-scale producers (e.g., lumber mills with huge quantities of saw dust) may enter, dropping the price so low that farmers will no longer biochar. When they do not, they will burn.

The biggest challenge of making the biochar solution work, however, is teaching thousands and thousands of villages how they, too, can organize to produce biochar

Making a Better Future: 50 in 5

This is Warm Heart’s focus today: building a model business that any farm village can organize profitably.

“If you just let the future happen,” says Shafer, “you won’t like it. We have a vision of a cleaner, healthier future – and we are working hard to make it happen.”

What does this cleaner, healthier future look like? Fifty percent less haze over Chiang Main in five years. “We have a plan. It may be overly ambitious, but at least we have a goal. We may fail, but by God, people know where we are aiming, what we are doing and how well!”

Getting to 50 in 5

Entering year two of 50 in 5, there is good news. The Ministry of Energy has joined the effort with a campaign to produce biochar briquettes from crop waste. Today, 65% of North Thai people cook with wood or charcoal. Charcoal production is smoky, and wood and charcoal smoke when used. Biochar briquettes are smokeless, and burn cleaner, hotter and longer than charcoal, suggesting that the Ministry’s program should reduce crop waste.

In Mae Chaem, Warm Heart is operating a larger project than in 2017 and is acting as the Ministry of Energy’s sales agent. Crop waste reduction and biochar production in Mae Chaem should double in 2018.

Creating Farmer Co-ops: Stop the Smoke 2018

Building on last year’s success, Warm Heart has launched Stop the Smoke 2018. Funds raised will be used to purchase biochar from Mae Chaem farmers. As products containing the biochar sell, however, the profits will support the establishment of new village biochar co-ops across the North. In 2019, each of these will increase the crop waste that is biocharred and reduce the haze that fills the sky over Chiang Mai.

Stopping Forest Fires and Agricultural Burning

Both approaches to stopping the smoke that pervades our well-being every year have an impact. But to be truly effective both solutions need to spread wide and far.

Communities need to take protective actions to preserve their forests. And farmers need to end the damaging practice of open field burning.

As individuals we can help by supporting biochar products, and contributing to the “Stop the Smoke 2018” campaign to ensure they have another successful year.

To support the campaign please visit