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Bangkok fiddles whilst Chiang Mai burns – who’s behind the annual smoke season?

Tim Newton

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OPINION

In the December 2020 outbreak of Covid in the seafood markets along the coast of Samut Sakhon Burmese migrant workers, many of them entering Thailand illegally, bore the brunt of the blame. The Thai media reported widely that it was the fault of the illegal migrants. But the source of the migrants, trafficking gangs working for larger corporations to bring cheap labour into the country, was little reported.

Similarly, the farmers in Thailand’s far north are weathering much of the blame for the burning of bio-waste, crop preparation and pre-harvesting of sugar cane, and the clouds of smoke and smog it causes. Again, there has been little focus on the multi-national corporations and conglomerates who put the famers under incredible pressure to provide quick and cheap crops, and grow food to feed livestock before they are slaughtered for their other products.

Charoen Pokphand is Thailand’s largest and most prominent agriculture business.

In the CP document “Maize Factsheet 2021” it says…

“…since the severe haze crisis in 2015, joins society in all sectors to solve the problems that arise, and also realises the importance of social and environmental responsibility.”

Maize remains the largest component of animal feed. It is mixed into food for chickens, pigs, ducks, cows and even fish. Wheat and soy are also part of the mixture for the livestock menu, again grown almost entirely in Thailand’s north for local livestock consumption.

“Maize Factsheet 2021” also lists the CP policy “not to encourage planting in mountainous areas or conserved forest areas”.

The document say all the right things, in the usual corporate gobbledegook, but the proof is in the pudding and that proof floats across the skies of northern and northeastern Thailand every day during the annual crop-burning season, roughly from January to April each year. Inconveniently, the season fits in with the lighter north-easterly airflow, the reversal of the wet season monsoon, which blows the smoke and air pollution south into central Thailand, Bangkok, and sometimes even further south.

The previously lush, green mountainous regions of northern Thailand turn into a choking hell from the maize, sugar and rice plantation burn-offs. Despite CP’s carefully curated words, the problems in the north becomes worse each year.

Today (Sunday, March 21) Chiang Mai ranks the world’s 4th worst air pollution in the world, a ranking it often tops this time of the year. The rankings are put together, in real time, by AirVisual.com.

Bangkok fiddles whilst Chiang Mai burns - who's behind the annual smoke season? | News by Thaiger

Bangkok fiddles whilst Chiang Mai burns - who's behind the annual smoke season? | News by ThaigerThe ASEAN Agricultural Commodity Outlook report in 2016 reported that maize (corn) plantation areas in Thailand increased by 77,880 hectares between 2008 and 2015. But even the 4.6 million tonnes of corn produced in 2015 still only provided 90% of the nation’s demands – there was none left over to export. The demands for livestock feed have increased yearly since then with a resulting increase in air pollution. And severe cases of respiratory disease.

Last week it was reported that over 250,000 people are suffering from respiratory and related diseases in Thailand’s north. Suwanchai Wattanayingcharoenchai, director-general of the Department of Health, was quoted in Bangkok Post saying that the medical issues are due to excessive PM2.5 dust particles in the atmosphere as a result of local wildfires and burn offs that have produced heavy smog in the region.

He says that the seasonal smog, often blanketing populated areas like Chiang Mai, has “greatly affected people with respiratory diseases, with young children and the elderly being the most vulnerable”. Ailments like asthma, eye infections and coronary artery disease have been attributed to the increase in pollution which has seen over a quarter of a million people undergoing medical treatment at hospitals and clinics. And that’s only since the beginning of 2021. Most of those suffering from respiratory problems fall into the age group between 45-54 years old. Read more HERE.

A recent Greenpeace report attributes 14,000 deaths last year in Thailand to air pollution. Dr Rungsrit Kanjanavanit, a cardiologist at Chiang Mai University, told Bangkok Post he wasn’t surprised.

“PM2.5 is more related to adverse health effects because it’s so small that it can enter the bloodstream, similar to smoking,… every 22μg/m³ of PM2.5 is equivalent to everyone, including newborns and the elderly, smoking one cigarette.”

A 2013 study indicated that, for every 10μg/m³ increase in PM2.5 particulate, there is a 6% increase in total mortality in overall population and 1.03 years of shortened life-span.

Watch our story about the annual smoke and smog problem in Thailand’s north…

Last week The Thaiger broadcast the daily Thailand News Today from Chiang Mai and Jett, the presenter, noted that the looming and sacred mountain of Doi Suthep, with its hilltop temple in easy view from much of the city centre, had vanished and unseen much of the recent weeks.

Northern farmers have a long tradition of burning their agricultural waste, but the worsening smog and haze has grown progressively worse in the last 2 decades, in concert with rising corn prices and pressure on smaller farmers to switch to the agri-business crop. It was an easy sell for the farmers, as corn could quick cash as it could be harvested in just four months, ready for another planting.

These farmers sell their corn through contract farming arrangements or directly to the Charoen Pokphand group.

CP not only guaranteed the purchase price, but also subsidised some of their start-up costs, which would be deducted from the harvested crop profits. Corn crops also produce stubble, husk and other bio-waste, which weighs at least as much as the corn it produces. All that needs to be disposed. And that means burning because the smaller farmers have no means to mechanically reduce and process the waste into re-useable, recyclable product.

In 2016 the Singapore Armed Forces sent 2 specially equipped helicopters to help fight the fires in Thailand’s north. Charoen Pokphand, also behind the growing of corn in Vietnam, Laos and northern Myanmar – was singled out by Singapore reporters. The conglomerate denied responsibility for the haze at that time but responded to the international criticism by cancelling farming contracts in Mae Chaem, to the west of Chiang Mai city near the Myanmar border, a notorious “hot spot” for crop fires in the province.

Farmers who were getting paid 16 baht per kilogram for the corn five years ago now lament that they only receive 12 baht per kilogram.

But, although it is clear that Charoen Pokphand have at least contributed to the annual smoke and air pollution problems, there are plenty more fires being lit just over the borders, in Myanmar and Laos. In both cases the governments have done little more than pay lip service to any attempts by the Thai government to tackle the regional problem.

In the meantime Bangkok fiddles whilst Chiang Mai burns. The northern capital, with enough problems relating to the lack of tourists, is now having photos of its worsening smog problem broadcast around the world – hardly the sort of advertisement it needs right now.

The NASA/Firms fire maps, in virtually real time, show that Thailand’s north, and the farming zones directly across its borders, are the most active in the world.

Bangkok fiddles whilst Chiang Mai burns - who's behind the annual smoke season? | News by ThaigerBangkok fiddles whilst Chiang Mai burns - who's behind the annual smoke season? | News by Thaiger

 

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16 Comments

16 Comments

  1. Avatar

    HermannTheGerman

    Sunday, March 21, 2021 at 6:18 pm

    I don’t think I will go back to Thailand anymore. I don’t want to live in a country where corrupt and incompetent officials can’t solve any problems and you have to fear being thrown in prison when speaking up publicly.

    If you look at the last pictures on the world map you can only see parts of India, Thailand and many African nations that burn off crop. Thailand has the status of a third world nation for me now. I will stay in Germany where I can think and say what I want and and I don’t have to buy 10 air filters for my house and still wear a pollution mask just so I don’t get lung cancer.

  2. Avatar

    Investor Ken

    Sunday, March 21, 2021 at 10:59 pm

    Thanks for reporting this environmental vandalism by CP.
    You are a brave and courageous organisation.
    Yes please shame them into action.
    (its hard to boycott a company that controls all our food)

    Gee, I wonder why the government is silent on this?

  3. Avatar

    James R

    Monday, March 22, 2021 at 1:44 am

    I know many people who move from Ching Mai to Hua Hin every year for four months until the smoke has gone.

    Why does the government not buy a large number of tractors which can be hired by the farmers for a few weeks while rotating the crops ready for the next season?

    That way the farmers will not have a large expense to pay and it will be good for the country as a whole.

  4. Avatar

    Issan John

    Monday, March 22, 2021 at 9:44 am

    There’s no shortage of tractors in every village, James R ? – that’s not the problem!

    Like sugar cane, the problem is how to dispose of the waste – but with corn, rather than cane, at least there are solutions although there’s more waste.

    There’s very little crop rotation, though, BTW – the soil just isn’t good enough.

    TBH I doubt whatever Thailand does in isolation would make much difference as you only have to look at the fire maps to see where the problems lie, but at least Thailand could have a clear conscience (if not clear skies).

  5. Avatar

    Joe

    Monday, March 22, 2021 at 11:59 am

    Investor Ken the reason the government is staying silent is because they have business interests in CP.It’s like the fox guarding the chicken coop. The army has business interests all over Thailand, every big project and they have a finger in the pie.

  6. Avatar

    Mark

    Monday, March 22, 2021 at 2:10 pm

    Good article!

  7. Avatar

    Steven Collins

    Monday, March 22, 2021 at 3:20 pm

    There is a website called WARMHEART WORLDWIDE which explains on what can be be done with corn and sugar cane waste. That is to turn it into Biochar.
    Now if it took me 2 minutes to find that out on Google. Why can’t the so called the government department take a look as well.
    The whole procedure on what is required to set up the machinery and the training required to the plant is all there.

  8. Avatar

    Bob

    Monday, March 22, 2021 at 6:57 pm

    Stop blaming Thai farmers – that is WRONG. The blame is forest fires and farmers buring in Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar. Fact. There are fires and burning in Thailand but it is nowwhere near the amount of fires across the borders. I have been watching the NSAS site dailt since December, and when the bad smoke was it Bangkok the fires were huge in Cambodia. Then it was Laos and back and forth them two – and lately it has been Myanmar and that is why Chiang Mai is now so high. If there was a ‘wall’ stopping all smoke from Laos and Cambodia and Myanmar then the problem in Thailand would be much much lower. Those 3 countries do not have UN air quality standards and they dont have AIQ meters – there is a reason for that. STOP blaming Thai farmers – they aint the major problem – it is the neighbours. Fact.

  9. Avatar

    dispensed

    Monday, March 22, 2021 at 7:18 pm

    With tourists gone and not expected to return in full numbers for several years, Thailand will become increasingly dependent on, you guessed it, this kind of agriculture. But hey, at least you don’t have to worry about a small risk of dying of covid.

  10. Avatar

    Colin G

    Monday, March 22, 2021 at 7:24 pm

    Someone will be along shortly to tell you that this is not feasible, or not economic, or not possible in Thailand.

    Truth is that doing nothing is by far the cheapest option – as long as you don’t into account the environmental, health and social impacts, that is…..

  11. Avatar

    Issan John

    Monday, March 22, 2021 at 8:06 pm

    Agreed absolutely, Steven C. It’s not as easy with sugar cane but corn waste is cheap and very simple and a lot in Issan and the North still cook on charcoal, not gas – you’d also save the smoke generated turning wood into charcoal.

    Win – win!

    No idea why it’s not been tried and pushed – there doesn’t seem to be any downside, just benefits, and remember this has been going on for years.

  12. Avatar

    Issan John

    Monday, March 22, 2021 at 8:12 pm

    “… the reason the government is staying silent is because they have business interests in CP”.

    Actually, Joe, it’s the opposition (the Vejjajiva family) that “have business interests in CP”, not “the government”. Not so much “business interests” as direct ownership!

  13. Avatar

    James R

    Tuesday, March 23, 2021 at 1:05 am

    Issan John

    Other countries seem to deal with the problem very well so why can’t Thailand?

    Giving up and saying people are not using the tractors or the soil is no good etc is not an excuse.

    It is probably down to money as it is easier and quicker to burn the waste instead of recycling it.

    Ps, deaths here due to the virus are down to 17 a day and falling almost exponentially, probably down to less than one per day on average next week so a good time for you to get to Blighty, jab in the bum and then back on the plane sharpish like.

  14. Avatar

    Issan John

    Tuesday, March 23, 2021 at 3:43 pm

    “Other countries seem to deal with the problem very well so why can’t Thailand?”

    Look at the fire maps in the article, James R, and it could hardly be clearer that whatever “other countries” SEEM to do, they DON’T “deal with the problem very well” with ALL the countries that are to Thailand’s North, East and West having far WORSE fires (Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Myanmar, Bangladesh, etc).

    THEY are “the problem”.

    That may not suit your agenda, James R, but the evidence could hardly be clearer.

    I’m not suggesting “giving up and saying people are not using the tractors or the soil is no good etc” as “an excuse”.

    What I said was that your two suggestions are useless: the farmers already have ample tractors available and don’t need to rent them from the government, and the poor soil makes crop rotation a non-starter.

    Steven C’s suggestion was an excellent one which I not only endorse 100% but had already commented about, but yours were just uninformed nonsense.

    That isn’t my “excusing” anything or suggesting “giving up”, it’s just trashing YOUR suggestions – nothing more.

    “It is probably down to money as it is easier and quicker to burn the waste instead of recycling it.”

    More absolute rubbish – read what Steven C wrote, look at the website he referenced, and at “biochar” which I’ve commented on before, and it clearly has NOTHING to do with “money” as it’s a cheap, easy alternative and source of income.

    If it’s down to any one factor it’s down to a lack of education, NOT “money”, which is what’s disappointing.

  15. Avatar

    James R

    Wednesday, March 24, 2021 at 2:29 am

    Issan John

    I stand corrected then it seems, Thai people according to you are not capable of using a tractor, Thailand according to you is incapable of doing anything to help itself.

    As Issan and many northern areas are the least educated then maybe they can hire tractor drivers from the south to show them how to move a few levers on the tractor.

    Talking of helpful, your excuses are not at all helpful in solving even part of the problem.

  16. Avatar

    funny coz its true

    Wednesday, April 21, 2021 at 9:50 am

    its the farmers that are subsidised by the government, criminal negligence. So glad we left Chiang Mai

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Tim Newton has lived in Thailand since 2012. An Australian, he has worked in the media, principally radio and TV, for 41 years. He has won the Deutsche Welle Award for best radio talk program, presented over 10,000 radio news bulletins, 3,900 in Thailand alone, hosted 650 daily TV news programs and produced 2,100 videos, TV commercials and documentaries. As founder of The Thaiger, Tim now acts as the Content Manager and head-writer, whilst supervising the growth of the YouTube channel. He's reported for CNN, Deutsche Welle TV, CBC, Australia's ABC TV and Australian radio during the 2018 Cave Rescue and other major stories in Thailand.

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