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Local Scholars Say Chiang Rai’s Ban on Burning Won’t Work

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Farmers believe that fires will improve the soil.


CHIANG RAI – The choking haze in Northern Thailand may be easing somewhat, thanks to the summer storms. But that is definitely not an excuse for all sides to stop addressing the issue.

The focus, in particular, should be on locals’ participation and corn-farm companies.

The government's ban against fires for land clearing will never work because it is a part of the local way of life
The government’s ban against fires for land clearing will never work because it is a part of the local way of life

Let’s look at the corn farms first. Why? Because research shows corn farmers usually burn old plants and weeds to clear their land during the first quarter of the year ahead of the farming season. Their activities in effect cause hot spots that pollute the air.

With more than 5 million of the country’s 7 million rai (1.12 million hectares) of corn farms concentrated in its North, northern provinces have inevitably been struggling with the smog problem around February and March every year since 2007.

Research also shows the more expansive corn farms become, the worse the air pollution is.

Jongklai Worapongsathorn, director of Chiang Mai’s natural resources and environment office, said yesterday that forest fires played a very minor role in the smog problem.

“Most hotspots come from corn farms,” he said.

Assistant Professor Suthinee Dontree, a lecturer at Chiang Mai University, said satellite images from 2007, 2010 and 2011 showed that hotspots covered more than 40 per cent of Chiang Mai’s Mae Chaem, Hot, Chiang Dao, Omkoi, Chom Thong, Doi Tao, Fang, Chaiya Prakan and Mae Ai districts during the smog season.

Besides the many corn farms in the North, there are expansive farmlands in neighbouring Myanmar.

“Corn farms in Thailand’s upper North, Myanmar and Laos must have spread over 10 million Rai of land,” she said.

At the height of the smog crisis this year, Thailand even had to ask for cooperation from Myanmar in helping prevent its people from clearing their farmland with fires.

Thailand has also accepted the help of Singapore’s Chinook helicopters for the mission of spraying water over the smoke-filled North.

Many airlines delayed flights because of reduced visibility.

Many locals in nine northern provinces including Chiang Rai and Chiang Mai have to don face masks to go outdoors during these smog-filled days. Locals have been warned not to exercise in the open air.

Several people have come down with respiratory problems.

And all the while such troubles go on, companies making profits from corn farms do not have to shoulder any responsibility.

While authorities have to work hard fighting the smog, those companies run their business as usual. Locals who have signed farming contracts with them may face the risk of arrest and a fine for clearing land with fires. But that does not affect the companies one bit.

So it is high time that all sides require those companies to help prevent the smog problem. These companies should advise local farmers on how to run their farms better, alongside authorities. They have to show responsibility.

According to research by Dr Nion Sirimongkonlertkun, a lecturer at Rajamangala University of Technology Lanna Chiang Rai, and Sarawut Pongleerat, a lecturer at Far Eastern University, the government’s ban against fires for land clearing will never work because it is a part of the local way of life and is deeply rooted in the widespread belief that fires will improve the soil.

Both the government and the private sector must make serious efforts in educating local farmers about how fires will destroy the soil surface, ruin the environment and harm their health.

Where possible, they should also encourage farmers to grow other crops for sustainable living.

They must also encourage local participation. Those living near or in forest zones must help prevent and extinguish forest fires. Since they live the closest to the forests, they are in the best position to prevent the problem.

Locals living near farms or elsewhere must also keep watch. If they detect any fire, they must alert authorities to contain the fires at the onset.

Don’t wait for the authorities to act alone. Their efforts to arrest farmers who clear land with fires or prevent people from entering some national parks have already proved ineffective at stopping the smog crisis.

Make real efforts today to address the smog crisis. Or else, haze will blanket Thailand’s North again next year.

– By Chularat Saengpassa

Hmong Slash and  Burn Hillside in Laos

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