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Toxic Haze Over Northern Thailand Still Lingers as Regime Seeks Neighbors Help

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BANGKOK – Speaking after a cabinet meeting on Tuesday, Gen Prayut said the bush fires and haze in the northern provinces have diminished, though the situation also depends on neighboring countries.

“I yesterday wrote to Laos and Myanmar asking them to help us tackle these problems,” said Gen Prayut.

He said Thai officials on the ground are also working with their Myanmar counterparts to deal with the issue, including sharing equipment to douse fires.

On April 2, 2019 Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha affirmed the government was ready to support the integration of related agencies’ work to tackle the haze problem in seven days.

However the toxic haze problem that has been engulfing the North of Thailand for over a month with Chiang Mai claiming the top spot as the city with the worst air quality in the world, has become the new normal.

More than 8,600 residents in northern Thailand have sought treatment for haze-related respiratory illnesses since January, according to the National Health Security Office (NHSO).

Since February, air concentrations of PM2.5 pollutants in the northern provinces have soared beyond the safe threshold set by the government and World Health Organisation (WHO).

Recently, PM2.5 levels in Chiang Mai’s Mae Taeng district reached an alarming level of 492.57 microgrammes per cubic metre (µg/m³), 10 times the safe limit imposed in Thailand and 20 times the safe limit of the WHO.

In Chiang Rai’s Mae Sai district, the PM2.5 level has remained above 100µg/m³ metre since March 13.

Yesterday, the PM2.5 average in nine northern provinces was between 47 and 123µg/m³ in Chiang Rai, Chiang Mai, Lampang, Lamphun, Mae Hong Son, Nan, Phrae, Phayao and Tak. The highest level was reported in tambon Jong Kham of Muang district, Mae Hong Son, according to the Pollution Control Department.

In Chiang Mai the worst hit Province, the governor still refused to declare the area a natural disaster zone, which will give the choking city access to comprehensive aid from the central government.

It’s against bureaucratic rules and regulations, the governor insisted.

People can’t breathe, but the government has yet to step in — because here, red tape comes first.

That, sums up what is actually killing Thailand. No, not the haze or the wildfires. The real killer, is the country’s inefficient bureaucracy.

It explains why the authorities have never raised the issue of Agro Giants’ role behind the wildfires in the highlands. This is why state officers resorted to blaming politics for the wildfires in the Chiang Dao Wildlife Sanctuary, leaving the locals to brave the blaze mostly on their own.

This is also the reason why these mandarins are suddenly busy when junta leader and Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha eventually visited Chiang Mai and ordered authorities to resolve the haze and forest fires in the North within 7 days.

What’s with sudden the rush to action? The answer is simple — the air needs to clear up before top Asian ministers and central bankers come to town for a summit this week.

It is not about the government suddenly realizing the health impact of the haze on the people or the environment. It is about the most important thing in this country — saving face.

Will the haze comply though? Will those dignitaries still need to wear safety masks to avoid Thailand’s worst-ever haze?

One thing is certain, the forest dwellers — as always — will be blamed for the haze and wildfires. A few days after the PM’s ordered officers to get tough with poachers and forest burners, Chiang Dao forest authorities arrested two villagers for the possession of firearms and bush meat. They announced loud and clear that poaching is the main cause of Chiang Dao forest fires.

Is it really? What about the expansion of Agro giants’ corn plantations in the wildlife sanctuary?

The loss of massive swaths of forested areas have made the air drier and temperatures higher, which increases the risk of forest fires.

Massive deforestation, expanding corn plantations, and post-harvest burning. These are the ingredients for a toxic haze.

Doesn’t this count as negligence on the part of the government? Does this make them accomplices to the crime?

Increasing domestic condemnation has pushed agro giants to expand their operations into neighbouring countries, which further intensifies the haze crisis in the North. Haze, after all, knows no boundaries.

Last year, Chiang Dao also saw less rainfall than in previous years. This is caused by climate change and global warming, which cause extreme droughts and more intense and frequent wildfires.

What is the government’s doing to prepare for what’s coming? What are the mandarins doing, apart from arresting poor forest dwellers while letting those agro giants destroy our precious forests for the animal feed industry?

Despite the state’s propaganda against forest dwellers, they are always on the front-line when it comes to fighting forest fires. Why? Because they have to protect their homes.

Yet, our authorities treat them as criminals. Local villagers are routinely threatened with arrest, physical intimidation, and eviction order, when the government should be cooperating with them in the fight against forest fires.

The recent promulgation of a more oppressive forest law has further intensified state repression and is fuelling further resentment against the government.

Can our forests be saved by this policy? I doubt it.

Is there a way out? When I asked Nikom Putta, a veteran wildlife and forest conservationist based in Chiang Dao, he did not have to think for a moment. “First and foremost, stop expanding the corn plantations,” he stressed.

Mr Nikom, however, said that evicting forest dwellers is not an option, as many of them had been living in the same area for generations. What is needed instead is an eco-friendly and sustainable model for agriculture.

He added that the government should also promote more sustainable farming practices and stop vilifying local models — such as the Karen’s rotational farming — as slash-and-burn farming. “There is a need to understand the role of natural fires in forest ecosystem,” he urged.

At present, forest fires are reviled. In fact, mixed deciduous forests need naturally-occurring fires to foster regeneration which, in turn, sustains the food chain for entire ecosystem, said Mr Nikom.

This natural balance, however, has been destroyed by political centralisation which robs forest dwellers of land security, promotes the cultivation of cash crops on the highlands, and punishes local forest management practices.

“We need a model that can sustain the health of our forests as well as the locals’ livelihoods,” he said, before adding that local communities must be empowered.

“Forest communities must have a say,” continued Mr Nikom. “Because naturally, people will protect their sources of livelihoods.”

Land security guarantees, he said, can be given to communities that use resources from the forest in a sustainable manner and cooperate with the government’s conservation efforts.

While to a lot of readers, this may seem like common sense, but the fact of the matter is, the official decision is to completely ban the use of forest resources. Any permit to use and/or occupy forested areas are issued in a strict top-down manner, which is prone to abuses.

In short, the top-down, authoritarian bureaucracy is killing our forest — the most effective tool to help prevent climate change from causing more severe natural disasters.

As long as our bureaucracy continues to work with profit-seeking corporations, the future is grim. The next administration, set to be run by the same leader and the same authoritarian, centralised bureaucracy, will continue many environmentally-destructive projects — and the list of projects is really long.

We need decentralisation, transparency and accountability to save the environment and get Thailand out of the rut. Because of our vapid and oppressive officialdom, the environment is experiencing a slow death — and so are we.

By Dumrongkiat Mala