This article was first published in Tribe, our digital magazine. It’s a better reading experience and doesn’t have ads. You can download it for free on iPhone and Android.
Chiang Mai is a beautiful city, nestled in the mountains of northern Thailand. Since October last year, I’ve been lucky to call it home.
Chiang Mai is a city full of refreshing vitality and an almost antiquated charm. But this town also has a dark — and very smoggy — side.
I didn’t know how bad it would be until moving here myself, but now its dark side is affecting my life personally — along with everyone else who lives in the region.
Chiang Mai now holds the unfortunate title of being the most polluted city on earth in March 2021. It achieves this infamous title on a yearly basis between February and April when it enters the “burning season”.
During Chiang Mai’s burning season, thick and stifling fog settles over this gorgeous and picturesque town. The mountain is hidden behind a wall of smoke on most days and it’s going to stay this way until the heavy rains come in April.
Click the play button below to see the impact of the burning.
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Here’s the frustrating thing.
The fires aren’t natural.
They are deliberately lit by farmers employing a slash and burn method of crop rotation, and to a lesser extent by local foragers looking for the valuable “hed thob” mushrooms, a much sought-after and valuable black mushroom which only grows during the dry season and is hidden beneath the dry undergrowth and fallen leaves in the forests.
Hunters also intentionally burn down forested areas to force game out into the open where it can be killed more easily.
Why do the farmers, hunters, and foragers burn the fields when it has such an obvious negative impact on the health of citizens in the region?
Given how frustrated I am with the air I’m breathing right now, I decided to conduct some research into the motivations behind the burning.
What I unearthed isn’t just restricted to the burning that’s happening here in Thailand.
Chiang Mai’s burning season is a microcosm of a much deeper issue faced by people all over the world. It ties into who owns the land where we grow our food and how we want to organize our economies.
The impact of air pollution in Chiang Mai
Before I get into the causes, I want to emphasize just how serious this issue is for people who live in Chiang Mai and the surrounding provinces, especially Mae Hong Son and Lampang.
Breathing in the air at this time of year is very, very bad for you.
Chiang Mai residents are inhaling small particles of dust from all the fires as well as factories that burn up crops to process them on a daily basis.
The small particulates of pm10 and pm2.5 get their names from their width in micrometers. They are poison for human beings, causing DNA mutation, heart attacks, increased rates of lung cancer, and early death.
In short, people are getting sick and dying at slowly increasing rates.
In terms of environmental impact, the news is similarly dire.
According to the Warm Heart Foundation, Thailand’s burning season results in over 200,000 tons of particulates and 24 million tons of greenhouse gas being pumped into the air.
That’s a huge impact on the air we breathe so that corn flakes can have enough frosting on them and boutique restaurants can sell their black mushroom soup at sky-high prices.
However, with over 4.5 million acres of sugarcane land and around 400,000 sugarcane farmers, it’s no exaggeration to say that the sugar industry is also vital for the Thai economy, and the pricey mushrooms can be a financial lifesaver for rural villagers.
Why all the burning?
The main factor causing the air pollution is the slash and burn agricultural practices used by the majority of Thai sugarcane farmers.
Burning for the exorbitantly priced hed thob mushrooms is estimated to contribute to 18% of the burning — but most of the burning still comes from local agricultural practices.
So why do the farmers persist with slash and burn practices?
They do this because it’s much easier and more profitable to harvest sugarcane this way.
Cane farmers burn off the extra parts of the plant that can’t be made into sugar and then deliver the easily gathered and ready-to-process stalks to the factory. Rice farmers also burn off the remains of rice stubble after harvest in order to prepare fields for the next round of crops.
This isn’t just a problem in Chiang Mai and certain areas of Thailand. It’s a global crisis in which corporate agriculture prioritizes production and profits over environmental health and crop quality.
Places like Brazil and Florida’s Everglades region, for example, also have an epidemic of air pollution and particulates billowing into people’s lungs between October to May. It’s something that organizations like Stop the Burning are doing their best to address and elicit a political response.
Slash and burn agriculture is especially widespread in Southeast Asia.
In addition to being a quick and thorough method for clearing out weeds, farmers use the burnt left-overs for fertilizer.
Land is generally used for a monoculture crop such as sugarcane, palm oil, or rice and ceases being fertile after a few years.
The fertility comes back after about a decade, but the practice of slash and burn agriculture kills off biodiversity and harms the ecosystem in long-term ways. In addition, the practice results in huge carbon dioxide emissions into the atmosphere, contributing to the disastrous effects of global climate change.
Blame the farmers? Not so fast
On the face of it, it’s easy to oversimplify and blame the sugarcane farmers and foragers for being ignorant or reckless. After all, they’re the ones sending up most of the smoke billows into the atmosphere, right?
The truth is a lot more complicated and morally ambiguous. Most sugarcane is harvested by burning it because it is cheaper and faster.
Many poor farmers don’t have access to machines and it’s much more expensive to use labor to extract the sugar by cutting each stem and separating out the usable sections from the leaves.
Although unburnt sugarcane fetches a higher price, proper harvesting ends up being less profitable for most farmers once they factor in the cost of obtaining machines and devoting the required labor to picking it.
Add to the equation the fact that farmers are locked into high-pressure contracts to get the product to the mill and dealing with shortened growing seasons due to droughts caused by climate change and you have a recipe for fast and dirty farming.
As one of Thailand’s top crops, sugarcane production and processing provides 1.5 million jobs and generates more than $5.8 billion USD in revenue per year. Thailand is the second-largest sugarcane producer on the planet behind Brazil and is heavily subsidized by the government which also has a quota and price support system.
Attempts to ban burning from the Thai government have done almost nothing to stop the practice. Farmers simply wait until nighttime and to get the fires blazing or run away from the fires when they start to get more mushrooms.
As a sugarcane farmer called Garn who works in Thailand’s northeast Udonthani province puts it:
“No one wants to burn sugarcane, but it’s the only option we have sometimes.”
No other way to survive
Thai sugarcane farmers are caught in a vice grip. Prices for sugarcane are going down and government subsidies have decreased.
While machinery to extract sugar from the crops would increase productivity and stop the necessity of burning, the majority of farmers are simply unable to generate the surplus funds required to invest in mechanization.
When you consider shortened growing seasons caused by climate change you have a recipe for disaster.
“This year we’ve been hit by a drought. If we don’t burn, we’ll go bust. The labour cost is high and we don’t have the machinery to cut the sugarcane – it’s expensive,” explained Noi, a sugarcane farmer in Khonkaen.
Subsistence farming just to scratch out a living and use whatever methods will bring in the money is a matter of survival for many Thai farmers.
As Chainarong Setthachua writes for the Isaan Record:
“Farmers must be able to move beyond a subsistence-and-survival mode if they are to develop better methods of harvesting.”
Leaving the wellbeing of workers as an afterthought leaves them exposed to merciless market forces where they are motivated to do anything they can to raise short-term profits and cut labor down.
“The main barrier that the air pollution policy faces is the burden on the farmers to carry the increased costs of not burning sugarcane,” said Agapol Junpen, a researcher at King Mongkut’s University of Technology in Bangkok.
“If there is no financial assistance or machinery available for sugarcane farmers, the same pattern will repeat where the percentage of burned sugarcane increases gradually each year,” he added.
A sustainable economy that ignores the farmers
The Thai government has long recognized the problem of air pollution in the northern regions and sought to alleviate it. They have set out a strategic vision to transition to a bioeconomy in order to stabilize commodity prices while also gaining some level of energy independence.
The proposed bioeconomy would support the emergence of an industry for converting the sugar from sugarcane fields into biofuels. This has the significant benefit of stopping the need for burning the sugarcane.
If Thailand was able to transition to supporting a bioeconomy, it would also potentially reduce air pollution levels.
There is a major problem, however.
While the potential financial returns are enormous, the benefits won’t reach the people whose behavior most needs to change: the farmers.
Currently there is a 70:30 revenue sharing scheme in place under the 1984 Cane and Sugar Act . This ensures that 70% of the revenue from sugarcane goes to the farmers and 30% goes to the mills.
Even with 70% of the revenue from sugarcane farming going to the farmers, they still struggle to generate the surplus required to move away from the slash and burn methods of production that cause so much environmental damage.
At present, there is nothing like the Cane and Sugar Act in place with Thailand’s emerging biofuels industry. Farmers are completely cut off from the increasing profits of biofuels, leaving them with little incentive to change their methods of production.
“If farmers are able to get the benefit from the sugarcane bioeconomy, it will increase the [environmental and financial] sustainability of growing sugarcane by also receiving benefits from electricity or bioplastic production,” said Chartchai Chotisan, a sugarcane scientist and leader at the OCSB Cane and Sugar Promotion Center in Udonthani.
“The sugarcane price has been dropping, so farmers want to have a share of the byproducts of sugar production that can help to increase their income.”
The Thai government’s vision of sustainable change is industry-driven and leaves the sugarcane farmers stranded to shoulder the financial burden of changing their ways.
This leaves the farmers with little choice but to continue burning sugarcane fields as a means to eke out an existence. As sugarcane burning becomes increasingly regulated in the years to come, the farmers will have little alternative but to find other means of making money.
Rather than investing in the methods of production required to convert sugarcanes to biofuels, farmers will likely continue with their slash and burn methods of production, turning to more lucrative sources of revenue.
An obvious alternative source of revenue for the farmers will be the hed thob mushrooms which command such a high price during the burning season.
Hed thob harvesting has become a lifeline for many small communities in Thailand, especially after large logging companies cut down forests which were important to the spiritual beliefs of various ethnic groups like the Karen.
Now that the connection has been severed, the young generation is especially keen to light up the groves and gather the profitable fungi.
Although experts point to an earlier cycle of “pre-burning” as a way to avoid the massive and hazy fires of today, there is a long road ahead to education and implementation when it comes to improving the heb thob harvest method.
Stuck between a rock and a hard place
In northern Thailand, it seems there are two main options to address the air pollution during burning season.
On the one hand, we can put our faith in Thai government regulations that aim to outlaw burning. On the other hand, we can hope for “economic development” and a “sustainable economy” that emphasizes biofuels and energy independence.
Both of these directions have significant benefits. But they also both ignore the economic needs and motivations of the farmers themselves.
Unless the people living on the land are the direct beneficiaries of progress, they’re going to be left to fight for their survival, and they’re not going to go along willingly or smoothly with revolutionary industry-wide changes.
“Preu”, a Hmong man from Nan province, uses the slash and burn method of crop rotation and also hunts for mushrooms and other plants in the forest. He says he will do whatever it takes to continue earning the cash he needs to live a good life.
“I won’t lie and say that I haven’t burned the first,” he told the Bangkok Times.
“I intended to burn only small areas just to find mushrooms. I would put 10 incense sticks on the ground and walk away. One time there was a big fire which took many days to die out.”
“Da”, a Hmong woman, also uses the slash and burn farming method. She says the technique saves time and is the only economically viable way of farming in the mountainous terrain.
“Not only can I get rid of the leftover trees from that plot of land, I can also get free high quality fertiliser to use on my next crops,” she says.
The root cause
Prayong Doklamyai, the vice-president of the Northern Development Foundation, explained to Bangkok Times that the root cause of these issues began 100 years ago when the government granted logging concessions to Thai and foreign companies in the North’s mountainous areas.
“When local tribal people saw how the government allowed these companies to come to their village and cut down the trees they had tried to protect for generations, they felt as though they had been betrayed,” he says.
When all of the large trees had been cut down, concessions and rights for the local tribal people stopped. In 1985, a law was passed that required only 25% of all land in the region to be protected, with 15% allocated as “productive forest” that was fully open for commercial logging and agriculture.
Most hill tribes lived within the 25% of land designated as a protected area. They were banned from engaging in any type of burning or agricultural methods, even when these methods were based on their traditions and beliefs. They were forced to move and work on the land owned by logging and agriculture companies.
Watcharapong of Chiang Mai University explains that Thailand’s approach to fire management has been to impose a blanket ban on all burning activities. They adopted this approach based on Western strategies of effective backburning and fire containment.
When fires do occur after years of no burning, they spread with far greater ferocity. It means that when local farmers employ slash and burn methods on the farms or by foraging for wild mushrooms, it’s more likely for the fires to spread and cause more air pollution.
Watcharapong conducted a major experiment with a village in the Chomthong district of Chiang Mai. He wanted to see whether allowing limited backburning operations before the dry season could help keep the problem under control.
“Early burning works very well, because we burn the forest when there are less dry leaves. Then when the dry season does arrive, there will be less fuel for the fires to consume, so there is less smoke and less damage.”
Watcharapong says that if this approach was implemented across the whole region, the haze and smog problem would disappear completely within five years.
“If officials and people in the cities try to understand the nature of forest fires and locals’ lifestyles, they will then realize that controlled burning is necessary,” he says.
Transitioning from monoculture to permaculture?
Whichever way you look at it, sugarcane burning is on the way out.
Thailand has said it aims to stop the practice completely by 2024, following Brazil’s promise to stop by 2030. Australia, another major sugarcane producer, has already phased out sugarcane burning for the most part.
As Paul Tullis notes for Bloomberg:
“Dozens of scientific studies have purported to show harm or risk to the health of those who live near sugarcane fields in Brazil, Mexico, Hawaii, Louisiana and elsewhere, and concluded that eliminating the practice led to improved health outcomes. “
But outlawing sugarcane burning and transitioning to more environmentally friendly methods of sugarcane production treats the symptoms of the problem. It is unlikely to stop the slash and burn agricultural practices as local farmers find an alternative source of income in mushrooms, hunting or lighting fires at night and getting around authorities.
What’s really needed is a shift from a “whatever it takes” and “slash and burn” methods of agricultural production to something that takes more care of the land.
For as long as quick profits and industry-driven change is given priority over the health of the land and air and the wellbeing of workers, we will continue to struggle with these endemic problems.
Slash and burn farming doesn’t just harm the air we breathe, it also harms the respiratory system of the land. Its soil quality and water circulation dry out and wither away. The “pump and dump” capitalist mindset is all about results and output, leaving no room to breathe.
How can we take back stewardship and control of our agricultural land from current methods of production that don’t have humanity’s health and best interests at heart?
I think it needs to come from a combination of permaculture practices and restoring land rights to indigenous with a history of managing the land and keeping the ecosystem in balance.
What is permaculture?
Quite simply, it’s an approach to agriculture that puts the ecosystem first. It’s not just about how to exploit the to extract more crops, but thinks of the whole water and soil system.
Permaculture brings into practice philosophies of rewilding, planting a diversity of crops and regenerative agriculture that leads to long-term, healthy communities and economic approaches instead of just short term crop banging strategies.
I understand that my final remarks are speculative and may come across a little naive. I’m new to Chiang Mai and facing an issue that local residents have been suffering from for decades.
But struggling with the air I’m breathing in Chiang Mai isn’t a unique issue. Air pollution from agricultural farming practices impacts communities around the world, especially when agricultural farming practices see the land as something to be exploited.
As this article is appearing in Tribe, Ideapod’s digital magazine, I think the next step is to continue building upon these ideas by exploring positive examples of agricultural land reform, along with deeper dives into the topics of permaculture, indigenous land rights and grassroots community activism.
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