CityNews – This past Friday 8th April, local residents gathered at Old Chiang Mai Historical Centre to talk about the dangerous smoke season in Chiang Mai and a few potential solutions to this issue.
The symposium started with a screening of Marisa Marchitelli’s documentary “Smoke: A Crisis in Northern Thailand”. This 27-minute documentary focuses on the smoke pollution as Marisa has explored it in the past year. You can watch the informative and fascinating full documentary at smokethedocumentary.com. Read more about Marisa and her journey in Citylife here.
Following the documentary, a panel of experts gave short presentations and answered questions about their work. The panel consisted of Michael Shafer and Gordon Hirst of Warm Heart Foundation, Sakda Darawan of Raks Mae Ping social activism group, and Boonkoom Boonyasopath, from the Lampang Rotary Club.
Before the panel got started, Marisa spoke a bit about her background and what began her obsession with the topic. She mentioned that with the film and events like the symposium, she hoped to raise public awareness about the issue and help organisations join forces in the fight against smoke pollution.
Entertaining and eloquent, the first panelist Michael Shafer made a brief presentation on what he believes to be one solution to one of the many sources of smoke pollution. As the president of the Warm Heart Foundation, Shafer describes himself as the “superdad” of Phrao and cites the many children he cares for with the Foundation as the reason for his interest in the issue. Shafer started by explaining the problem of forest fires, and how for a long time people have assumed it’s the government’s job to solve the issue.
“I don’t think the government is going to be able to do something about forest fires,” said Shafer. He explained how the government’s current plan is to arrest and punish those who are burning crops, but this has never been enforced.
Schafer explained how he believes the real problem here is that for these very poor, corn has been a huge boom for them, the biggest boom since opium. Schafer reminded the crowd that we, as city dwellers, drive this need for corn. Getting rid of the need for corn would only destroy the lives of thousands of poor farmers and drive them into slums in the cities.
A solution to this conundrum is the production of biochar when burning crops. By using special ovens to burn the corn stalk, farmers can produce the useful and environmentally healthy biochar. Check out a Citylife story about biochar here.
Shafer explained how biochar could benefit all involved; farmers, corporations like CP, and all those who breathe the air. He also explained how easy it would be implement, not having to use government intervention or taxpayer dollars. He noted that CP would gain a considerable amount of profit, but “they already own everything.”
Hirst, an engineer from the Warm Heart Foundation, spoke after Shafer. He began by sharing his optimistic outlook on the haze issue.
“This year people aren’t just complaining, they are talking about solutions.” Hirst shared his excitement for the lasting solutions being discussed this smoke season.
Boonkoom Boonyasopath, president of the Lampang Rotary Club, introduced the Rotary Shredder, which uses diesel fuel to either speed up the decay process or create fertiliser. These portable shredders can shred 1.5 tons in only 8 hours with only 100 baht worth of diesel. Boonkoom described how these shredders can help the economy and the fertility of the soil.
Lastly, Sakda Darawan talked about the reasons for the smog and how a strategic PR campaign could be a potential solution. Darawan began with an anecdote of a recent trip to Singapore where he saw smoke from burning leaves, only to find out it was coming from the Royal Thai Embassy. He explained how he believes the burning practice is part of Northern Thais’ genes, and how it is a tradition in their culture. When the audience chuckled, Darawan insisted it was not funny.
Darawan then explained how effective a PR campaign could be, especially with the younger population. Although his plans were vague, he claimed that this campaign could be done within two years with the proper funding.
After presentations, Marisa began the question and answer portion of the evening.
A man from the Lampang Rotary Club got up to the microphone to explain a bit further the smog problem in Lampang and how they have been working against it. For example, he explained how they had successfully used drones to track hot spots in Lampang. Additionally, he explained the Thai point of view to the many expats in the room, explaining how these burning practices are one of the only way for farmers to survive.
Next, an expat named Dan stood up and explained his frustration with the lack of solutions. He explained how the problem doesn’t seem too complicated to be solved, and that we should beware of people who want us to believe it is a complex issue. Shafer responded from the point of view of people who are trying to change things regarding the smoke issue.
“Deal with what you can deal with, and deal with it how you can deal with it. You can’t get anyone else to do things.” Shafer explained.
Darawan also responded, saying that he believe we can change things if we are consistent and make our voice heard.
Another member of the audience suggested using social media campaigns to raise complaints about the issue. He explained how he believes social media would be more effective in convincing people it was a bad idea. He said that in the village he lives in, he often “does unacceptable things” when he sees people burning crops.
Marisa asked “Have you tried talking to them nicely?” and explained her successful interactions when she spoke to villages who were burning with respect.
Overall, the symposium had a friendly and welcoming feel. Many expats spent their time socialising before hand and during the breaks, making it feel somewhat like a high school reunion. To have so many residents in one room talking about the issue and solutions is a huge step forward for Chiang Mai. With continued dedication and public awareness, these solutions could be used in practice next year, helping to make the air cleaner for all of us.