The day the burning ban began last month, haze blanketed the mountains and valleys of the North. In the weeks since, the situation has not improved.
People have complained loudly – and nothing practical has been done. Many ask why the government made such a big deal out of PM2.5 in Bangkok and is silent now. Who cares? The reality is the government did not DO anything in Bangkok – just as it is not DOING anything here. This is inexcusable. True, the haze problem is big and complex. But it is not insoluble.
What’s the problem? No one thinks about the actual causes of the haze. People complain during the burning season, but even then, they don’t ask about underlying causes. As former Transport minister Chadchart Sittipunt observed during his recent Chiang Mai visit, the haze comes from farmers burning fields and the resulting forest fires, plus forest fires set by mushroom gathers. We have known this for years, so why do we allow it to go on and on and on?
We have tried threats and bans, police, jailing, soldiers and shooting. Nothing has worked. Isn’t it time to ask, “Why not?” The answer is simple: Because none of these policies addresses farmers’ and mushroom pickers’ needs. Why not stop to ask the farmers and mushroom gatherers why they burn? Maybe if we understood their motivations, we could also figure out how to get them to behave differently.
Why burn? After spending a lot of time talking to poor farmers and poorer mushroom gatherers, here is what I have learned. Farmers burn their fields because they have no other way to clear before planting. If we can provide them a better alternative, they won’t burn. What would be a better alternative? A way to make money from their old crop waste. Poor farmers are actually happy not to burn. In fact, they welcome the opportunity to convert their crop waste into a saleable product instead of, well, wasting it. Not only that, but the training required is minimal; the equipment is cheap and they can make it themselves.
The result is no smoke, no greenhouse gases, no smog precursors and a valuable product. The solution What’s the problem? There is no market for their product. The government recognises that making it will stop small farmers burning and that the product is incredibly useful, but it does nothing. What might it do? Create a market by being a market and so demonstrating value. The government could simply buy a lot, not for charity, but for its own practical use. This stuff can be used as a powerful organic fertiliser (the Office of Land Development already uses it). It can be made into briquettes for cooking and heating that do not smoke or smell, that light faster, burn hotter and longer than wood or charcoal. (The Energy Ministry already touts it.)
It can be spread on fields, football pitches and in fishponds to decontaminate them. All of these are important. All of these ought to be done; none are being done locally or nationally. If the government adopted any one of them now, it would provide the initial market that would give farmers the incentive not to burn. It would also demonstrate value and bring private actors into the game. Rising demand would further increase farmers’ incentive not to burn but to profit. Would it be worth it? Put it this way.
North Thailand produces about 2.5 million tonnes of corn annually – and about 10.8 million tonnes of corn waste. Farmers burn about 40 per cent of that annually, generating 27,000 tonnes of PM2.5. That is 27 million kilos of haze and each kilo represents the same amount of smoke as 71,429 cigarettes. This analogy helps explain why North Thailand has the highest incidence of lung cancer in the country – and why I think it is inexcusable that for years we have turned our backs on such a simple, sustainable way to eliminate the haze caused by crop waste burning. Forest fires What about forest fires? Who, you ask, would burn a forest for mushrooms? I’ll tell you.
The poorest people in the mountains who want to make several months’ income in a few days picking mushrooms that are easier to see against the black ash. According to the National Statistical Office (2018), the average, monthly household income of such a family is Bt11,162; average household size is 3.9. In other words, the average potential forest-fire starter makes an average Bt95.4 per day. A fast mushroom picker working a fire-blackened area can collect better than Bt5,000 worth of mushrooms per day. That is 52 times his/her normal daily income. Burn a whole mountain? Think of the potential riches. Food. School uniforms. Maybe a motorbike.
Can we protect this essential income and the forests simultaneously? Yes, provided the government plays its part. Mushrooms are valuable because there is a rich export market. What to do? Regulate. Permit local sales, but control sales outside of the North. What if mushrooms for sale outside had to be certified as picked in sub-districts where no fires are reported? The incentive to burn disappears and locals become stewards of the forests.
Governments have implemented such systems for much more difficult items including foreign currencies in countries facing liquidity crises. Yes, the government has a critical role to play, but one far different from the heavy-handed role it has attempted for years. Today, it might try a less aggressive, market-based strategy. These simple measures can do much to reduce haze during the burning season. – Special to The NationMichael Shafer is director of the Warm Heart Foundation in Phrao, Chiang Mai.