One Woman Warrior: Marisa Marchitelli’s Obsession to Wake Us All Up to the Gravity of Air Pollution

The results of her investigation, so far, are shocking and alarming, while also offering glimmers of hope.

By | Mon 1 Feb 2016

Many of you may have liked the Fire Reports Chiang Mai Facebook page which was set up last year by Marisa Marchitelli. Some of you may even have seen her recent video on Vimeo, ‘Smoke: A Crisis in Northern Thailand’. What you may not know is that since April of 2015 Italian/US/Thai Marisa, 36, has been investigating and filming, all at her own expense, the ever-increasing crisis we all face with the annual air pollution, in the process bringing invested parties together to the table and raising a significant amount of awareness on this subject.

The results of her investigation, so far, are shocking and alarming, while also offering glimmers of hope. Citylife talked to Marisa about her journey, which has turned her from a curious questioner to someone who is bringing focus to an issue which affects us all.

Citylife: How did you get involved in all of this?

Marisa: I had been having some respiratory problems during the burning season over the past few years and I really didn’t know much about why I was affected, what caused it all, how serious it was or how I could mitigate it. So I started asking questions and doing research. I slowly discovered that there are a lot of resources out there, but they were hard to find and not cohesive. So my friend Shana and I decided to set up a Facebook group, aimed at foreigners, where people could report fires, in the hopes of doing our bit to help out.

Citylife: How did that work out?

Marisa: Not well. It turned into a venting mechanism for people to get rid of their frustrations without achieving anything. I discovered that many expats and foreigners had this false conception that Thai people and the authorities weren’t doing anything about the problem and that they didn’t care. I have since discovered that to be far from the truth.

In fact, just recently, I met a ranger from the Chiang Dao National Park who told me that he had a team of ten people to oversee two million rai of land. He has some extra resources during the pollution months, but being so understaffed, there is no way he can combat all the burning, poaching and encroaching onto national park land. He seemed genuinely concerned and frustrated. He said that his team sometimes came accross men with guns, chasing them when they try to stop the burning, in fear that they would lose their mushroom crops.

Back to how it all started, a retiree called Richard Bartholomew contacted me through Facebook and we started to talk about his health problems, the elderly are especially affected. This propelled me to want to learn more. Initially my interest lay only with health matters, but when I was introduced to Dr. Wolfram Spreer, Researcher and Assistant Dean at Chiang Mai University’s Faculty of Agriculture, he opened up a whole new world to me and I realised that the environmental dangers of this crisis are just as severe, if not more so. Wolfram has spent the past year introducing me to experts, farmers, government officials, doctors and everyone with some vested interest in this ongoing issue. And since I am a photographer and filmmaker, it was natural for me to start filming all my conversations and experiences.

Citylife: What were you hoping to achieve?

Marisa: Initially it was curiosity that drove me. But it soon turned into an obsession; the more I learnt the more I wanted to know and the more I realised how big and complex this issue was. Over the past year I have interviewed over 40 people, following Wolfram to far-flung villages, sitting in on meetings and learning from doctors and experts. I didn’t know what would come of it and it was only in December that I began to edit my footage. That was when I realised that I could make a film, films even, and contribute to the conversation, maybe even towards a solution. I released the film five days ago and have already had over 2,000 views, so that is good.

Citylife: How serious is this issue?

Marisa: It is critical. Nearly 450,000 Chiang Mai people were affected by the air pollution between February and April last year. There are more instances of lung cancer in Chiang Mai than anywhere in the nation. Chiang Mai University has said that it estimates the amount of money spent on health affected by this problem to be in the billions of baht each year. As to tourism, Pornchai Jitnavasathien, President of the Chiang Mai Tourism Business Association estimates the monthly loss of tourism revenue to Chiang Mai during those months to be around three billion baht per month. Then there is the long term effect to the environment. I remember driving up to a village in Mae Hong Son last year and telling Wolfram that the mountains look so pretty with the stark rock formations. He told me that that was all soil degradation, the rocks now show where trees used to be. There was one village which had had over a metre of soil erosion over the past 20 years. It takes over 100 years to recreate that soil, and that is assuming there are leaves and matters to replenish it, which there isn’t. This is how deserts are formed.

Citylife: How high are our levels of air pollution?

Marisa: The government is always talking about the PM 10, which is when particulate matter is 10 micrometres or less in diametre. The World Health Organisation (WHO) has set the safety level for PM 10 at no more than 50 microgrammes per cubic metre. For some reason, and according to the medical community of Thailand, with no justification whatsoever, the government has set Thailand’s safety standards for PM 10 at 120 microgrammes per cubic metre, more than double the international standard. Then there are the PM 2.5 particulates which are so small that they penetrate the lungs and go straight into the blood vessels. This is what exacerbates any diseases you may have; lung, heart or anything else. These particulates are extremely dangerous. WHO’s safety levels are set at 25 microgrammes per cubic metre, which is what we are at today [in mid January], and the haze hasn’t even arrived yet. It took a mother of a kid in an international school, concerned about her son’s health, to do enough research to find one web site which had an obscure link to these PM 2.5 levels here in Chiang Mai, this information is not talked about by authorities. We should all be aware of daily levels for both particulates.

Citylife: The media often accuse the farmers in the highlands and in Myamnar of causing the haze, is this true?

Marisa: No. First of all, I talked to Dr. Tippawan Prapamontol, senior research scientist at CMU’s Research Institute for Health Sciences, and she said that between February and April the wind directions indicate that only 20% of our haze can be blamed on Myanmar. And the people who are affected the most are the farmers themselves who are doing the burning. When I go and visit them and see their lack of access to health care or garbage disposal, I understand their challenges. Most of the inclines are so steep and they can’t plough or use tractors, so their work is very labour intensive. Many farmers are also elderly, their children having left the village, and they simply don’t have the strength to plant, harvest and dispose of husks and other waste without fire. Burning is their only solution. When they are given attractive agriculture packages by CP and they are guaranteed income, it is hard to turn down. When I talk to farmers, they seem to be resigned. They feel as though they have to suffer through it.

What needs to stop is the villianising of these farmers. The government has branded them criminals and if caught in crime they will be punished. This isn’t a solution. What they are doing is a generational cultural thing. It is a lack of options and education. We must help, not condemn. Afterall, they are growing food that eventually gets served on our tables. How are we helping them?

So much of the intensity of their burning is from demands from the cities; we are all culpable. When I interview farmers, many of them are too scared to admit that they burn. This makes it hard to have a conversation or to offer solutions. I want people to really understand that this is not a simple black and white issue. Unlike other pollutants, air pollution is democratic; we are all affected. It is terrifying.

Citylife: There is frustration that giant conglomerates, such as Betagro and Charoen Pokphand (CP), are to be blamed for the vast increase in burning in the past decade due to their lack of responsibility in demanding or offering support for solutions to burning by the thousands of farms it has under contract farming, is this true?

Marisa: They know full well the gravity of this situation. I haven’t felt it necessary to criticise or condemn these companies or the government, I think that it is best to be collaborative on this matter which affects us all.

They need to be presented with options. In fact CP is already encouraging farmers to switch from corn to coffee, but that is going to take at least five years to yield and even longer to see results in air quality. CP has also sponsored a massive tour of famous icon Aed Carabao to raise awareness all over Thailand on this issue, his concerts spreading the message to not burn.

Importantly, don’t forget that with erosion of the soil the yields lessen. Already, less than a decade after all the corn crops have popped up, you can see that they are being grown further apart as the land is so intensely used and lacks nutrients. CP’s income is going to be affected too, so they are motivated to find solutions. And with the north pretty much feeding the whole country, this issue is critical to all parties.

But when you consider the terrain of the north of Thailand and the fact that there are tens of thousands of farms, it is simply impossible to monitor.

Citylife: How dangerous is the situation?

Marisa: Smoke inhalation is the third cause of death in the world. Dr. Rungsrit Kanjanavanit, cardiologist at CMU’s Faculty of Medicine calculated that the same amount of people die from smoke inhalation each year as if 2,400 jumbo jets crashed, it is frightening! There are three billion people cooking with wood fired ovens or using biomass and coal, this is not a Chiang Mai problem, but a global one. Great minds from all over the world have been studying this to find solutions and we must study their solutions to see if they can be applied here.

Citylife: What solutions are you referring to?

Marisa: Biochar is one really good solution, as is mulching and compost. Wolfram introduced me to Michael Shafer, Director of Warm Heart Foundation in Phrao District who is doing great things with biochar. This is a new and inexpensive technology, easily affordable, whereby farmers can convert their waste into biochar which they can then sell and generate more income. By using a special and inexpensive biochar burner which burns off the methane, the smoke emissions disappear completely and there is no contribution to the greenhouse gas. With 2.56 billion farmers around the world suffering from smoke they create from burning crops which also contribute to climate change, the implementation of this easy and cheap burner could have a huge global impact.

Just recently, Warm Heart invited the Deputy Governor of Chiang Mai as well as representatives from the forestry department, district offices, ministries of agriculture and energy, police, the British and Austrian Honorary Consuls, and CP to witness a demonstration of biochar. It was very well received and four northern districts have already scheduled in training courses. If this could be implemented across the board it could be incredible. Farmers in Isaan are given subsidies to not grow rice, why not give farmers here subsidies to use biochar? Once biochar is made it can be used as animal feed, add in a bit of manure and it becomes fertiliser, increasing yield by 20% and there are markets around the world such as China and in Europe that would buy it. Biochar is carbon neutral. As Michael eloquently said, “If you can turn shit into money, why wouldn’t you?”

Citylife: What can we, the average person, do?

Marisa: First of all, follow the levels of pollutions closely. When they are above international safety levels, wear a mask, and not the ubiquitous ones which everyone wears, they don’t help with the PM 2.5 particulates, the most dangerous, I’m not even sure if they protect against the PM 10. You must get the 3M N95 masks from pharmacies. Michael Shafer even wears his mask to bed!

Don’t exercise outdoors, simply stay indoors as much as possible. Air filters in the home will also help a lot, you should pretty much live in a bubble – very apocalyptic! And it is very important to never walk away if you see a fire. Always report. People don’t think that authorities react, but they do. They may not do so immediately, resources are not limitless, but there is a strong will.

And on a more social level, we must realise that we are all culpable and that we can all help. Corn starch is in so many products, look at the sources of what you buy and boycott them if they are not environmentally friendly. Like the expose about Thailand’s fishing industry using slave labour recently, people are helping by boycotting Thai shrimps. In Indonesia they are boycotting palm oil. We should do the same here with corn starch. Buy meat from local farmers and don’t use mass produced meat. Chicken and pork are the bad ones, don’t go to Makro or buy CP, go to local suppliers, we have purchasing powers. And until you do these things, don’t point fingers at other people.

Citylife: What is next on your agenda?

Marisa: I would like to continue with this as long as the problem exists. The first movie was too scientific, I am trying to make shorter bite-sized ones aimed at the Thai audience, with a video about hed thob mushrooms, another about biochar, yet another about health, etc. Hopefully schools will pick them up, even national television.

There have already been good things that have come out of this. Clyde Fowle, a retired publisher of children’s book saw the video and is now producing a syllabus for Thai children about this issue. Matthew Baird, another expat who is an environmental lawyer, is helping me to draft a petition to the government which, when online, I hope you will all support. Chiang Mai University has asked me to translate the video on biochar into Thai with the help of Raks Mae Ping social activism group to disseminate to farmers. The Lampang Rotary Club has expressed interest in mulching for farmers and I will be contacting them soon.

The more people who step in and offer their expertise and solutions the better.

I am so deep into this issue, I can’t seem to stop! I want to start a social media campaign this burning season. Change your Facebook profile to one of you wearing a mask, if enough of us do it, I am sure it will be impactful, lets also use the #chiangmaismoke tag.

To follow Marisa’s efforts, lend your support or contact her for any reason, visit:

To check PM2.5 levels in the Chiang Mai area, click here to see how.