CityNews – 17th March 2016 US Consul General Michael Heath hosted a group of about two dozen interested parties to a panel discussion after watching an updated version of Marisa Marchitelli’s film Smoke The Documentary.
“We can all see that the pollution is better this year than last,” said Heath in an opening speech, “but whether, or how much, that can be attributed to the government’s efforts we are unsure.” The US Consulate General says that the United States government has recently donated 70,000 USD to Warm Heart Foundation, a non-profit organisation which is currently pioneering the research as well as implementation of bio char as a solution to the pollution problems. Read about it here.
The US Consulate is also publishing daily reports of the PM2.5 levels on its Facebook page to keep the public informed, though says that credit for this should be given to local authorities who post original data on their site.
“Things are happening,” said Marchitelli who was interviewed in Citylife in January. “People are connecting to each other, ideas are being shared and spread about and important people are taking this seriously.” Since the release of the film less than two months ago, she said, it has been shown in local Thai schools who are considering using it as part of their cirriculum, and has inspired Chiang Mai resident Clyde Fowle, who has recently retired from McMillan Publishing, to create a Thai language lesson plan to teach children about pollution. She went on to say that she moderated a discussion recently with a group from the Young Presidents Organisation, an organisation of peers who reached great wealth or success at a young age, about the pollution problems. As a result, the group is considering launching an awareness campaign. Not only that, a journalist from Singapore’s Straights Time is currently working on an in-depth article about this issue, focusing on Chiang Mai.
Dr. Tippawan Prapamontol, with a Ph.D. in Environmental Toxology, who actively conducts research related to air pollution and health affects in the north, said that the north of Thailand has the highest infant mortality rate in the country and she believes that this is directly correlated to the heavy air pollution. Director of Warm Heart, Michael Shafer, agrees. “A quarter of the annual mortality rate in the world is attributed to the environment, primarily respiratorily related.
Dr. Tippawan also said that her job is to collect important data to be analysed and used to find the best solutions for this crisis. She went on to say that up until 2007 it was generally believed, by the public as well as researchers, that Chiang Mai’s pollution was generated within the city. “We were working on the wrong premise. We thought that it was traffic that was causing such damage, but by checking blood levels of those in the city and their rural counterparts, we discovered that the vast majority of those affected by the pollution live in rural areas.”
The director of Warm Heart, Michael Shafer agrees, “I don’t want to hear about the city people’s problems. It is the rural farmers who are really suffering. They also give a damn, they care, they just need solutions. I would suggest that we develop connections between the anti-smoke campaign and the OTOP programme, many members of which have businesses which could reduce their smoke components. Research also needs to be conducted and coordinated so that it directly ties in with efforts to combat smoke. The data needs to be relevant. And lastly, people with connections to the government or those in power, needs to convince them to follow their own rules. There is a smoking ban now, but it is the highway department or the Tambon Authority Organisations who are burning by the roads! They need to practice what they preach.”
It was gratifying to see that big business was also represented, Michael Green, Operations Manager of Alliance One, a large tobacco company based in Chiang Mai, said that his company is already in talks with Shafer from Warm Heart. “We have been mulching in Petchabun for decades, but it is hard to convince many of our tobacco farmers and suppliers to start making labour intensive bio char, it is a difficult sell. Many farmers are already following good agriculture practices already, they are partially mechanised already. Bio char, in theory and on paper, is very beneficial, that is why we are in discussions with them. However, there are still unknowns for us in terms of Ph and soil, and future detrimental effects on growth. That is where we are happy to come in and act as a research centre and try to work with Warm Heart to gather more data over longer periods, on our own plots up there. We are experimenting, rotating tobacco with other crops so that it can stimulate a normal farmer environment and then assessing what the real benefits are, both to the crop and soil and of course to the farmer and his yield. Only when this information is established can we look at bio char in a more commercial way. If everything goes to plan then the market for this will fall into place. For this to work it must remain sustainable. Everyone in the supply chain needs to see a benefit, whether financial or indirectly for the community.”
It is clear that nothing is going to happen overnight, change, sustainable change, needs to be thoughtfully, carefully and widely implemented. But it is reassuring that there is now momentum and hopefully more companies will show interest in alternative farming techniques and work towards creating a more sustainable future for us all.