The right to breathe: severe air pollution, the unseen culprit


Every year after the rainy season, the cool weather brings another culprit that steals the livelihood and health of many locals living in Chiang Mai and ethnic groups living in the mountains: severe air pollution known as PM2.5, a measure of particulate matter.

According to the United Nations, every human being has the right to breathe clean air, but that is hardly the case in Chiang Mai, a popular province in the north of Thailand that has been deemed a “fresh-air escape from Bangkok”.

Blamed by some as the sole villains generating smog and pollution, the ethnic villagers known as Paganyaw have been living in the mountains of Chiang Mai for more than 100 years, and crop burning has always been their way of life.

"The big problem is villagers and officials both set unauthorized fires in the forests,” said Bunnaroth Buaklee, chief strategist for the Northern Breath Council, referring to forest fires set by villagers and forest park rangers that are not registered in the FireD app, the official channel to inform the authorities of planned burnings. 

The right to breathe: severe air pollution, the unseen culprit

These fires are hard to control and extinguish because there were no calculations of the wind and humidity, causing a larger area of the forest to be burned than necessary.

He pointed out that the real culprit isn’t shifting cultivations. Out of 60,000 rai of agricultural land allocated for burning, only 13,000 rai are for crop rotation. These traditional crop-cultivation methods ae not affecting the environment as much as burnings for cultivating forest goods such as mushrooms, sweet vegetables and honey.

There are many factors causing pollution: cars, rice farming, sugarcane cultivation, sugar production, and the livelihoods of people in the Northern region.

The right to breathe: severe air pollution, the unseen culprit

Sixty percent of the Northern region is forested area, and many people such as ethnic groups, park rangers and Chiang Mai locals are involved with the forests. Dust issues arise from various sources, and it's a complex issue to address. Each problem has to be tackled separately.

The head of the Northern Breath Council said villagers living in the forests have the right to live off forest goods. There have been many disputes because of this, but they have the right to sustain themselves. Communities also have the right to benefit from the forest, such as foraging mushrooms and wild vegetables. These rights are supported by legal principles.

Bunnaroth added that Thailand has laws but lacks regulations. Article 65 of the National Parks Act states that communities near forests should be able to harvest forest products because they are also owners of the forests.

“Forest fires, 89% of them, are not agricultural burnings. This issue gets minimal coverage in the news when you look at the big picture. However, when it does become news, only 5-10% of the story is explained because it sells, but it doesn't solve anything.”

He added that there are regulations that burning should be done only as necessary, but there are no clear definitions of what constitutes necessity.

The government opened registration for the BurnCheck app in October 2021, but not a lot of agricultural farmers use it. In Chiang Mai, there is the FireD app that some people are using.

In terms of legal burning practices, both through the fire registration applications and managing fuel in forests, reports and registrations are significantly less common than actual occurrences of burning.

The right to breathe: severe air pollution, the unseen culprit

Bunnaroth explained: “A large portion of burning happens illegally, and it's evident that there needs to be an improvement in law enforcement to address this issue. This could involve better prevention methods or stricter enforcement to prevent or apprehend those engaging in illegal burning practices.”

Blamed for causing pollution

Nanthawat Thaingtrongsakul, head of Ban Mae Lan Kham village, said villagers knew of the allegations and explained that the Paganyaw knew how to burn crops correctly, insisting that every crop burning was calculated from humidity and wind, and burnings usually lasted only an hour.

The villagers will start cutting and clearing the land in February, and in March, they will start burning crops. They explained that in the following 10 months they would be able to use the land for farm animals, crops and cultivation.

The right to breathe: severe air pollution, the unseen culprit

Each plot will be used for a whole year before being left alone to let nature grow back for six to seven years before villagers would burn the plot and use it as farmland again.

But the tribe is afraid that the new Clean Air Bill would not take into consideration their way of life and change it forever.

This was what they know, this is what their parents and great-great grandparents knew, and it revolved around cultivating the land through burning and raising animals for food. 

The right to breathe: severe air pollution, the unseen culprit

They emphasised that coming down from the mountains was an immense challenge in itself and they also lacked the necessary skills for urban employment, and the cost of living in cities was prohibitively high.

Nanthawat said: “Do we have to adapt to the new bill? We don’t have the education or knowledge to work in the city. We’ve always lived like this and done things this way.”

He said it costs a lot of money and time to go down to Bangkok to talk to government officials. It is also difficult to write letters to the government.

The right to breathe: severe air pollution, the unseen culprit

“We’re not saying that there is no fire at all; in our village only 200 rai out of 40,000 rai are burned. We just want to use fire for our shifting cultivation farms.”

Nanthawat said if he been given the choice from birth, he wouldn't have chosen to be born in the mountains. Instead, he would have preferred to be born in a city environment, where he could access education, rights and opportunities that would pave the way for a stable career.

Clean Air Bill: When is it coming?

The Clean Air Act is under way and it is hoped that will become the key strategy for Thailand to get rid of smog. There are certain obstacles and many drafts of the bill from various counterparts that need to be considered.

Buntoon Srethasirote, chairman of the Strategic Transformation Office's Clean Air Act working group, said: “There are currently seven drafts for the Clean Air Act, one from the people, one from the government and the other five from the political parties…. We are currently in the process of trying to combine all seven drafts and hope within the near future we will only have one.”

The right to breathe: severe air pollution, the unseen culprit

When asked about the role of major agriculture companies in the fires, he explained that many have implemented projects to help reduce burning. Companies buy sugarcane leaves from farmers so they do not need to burn them. They also use contract farming for 80% of sugarcane farms in one province, prohibiting burning in those agreements.

While corn is also burned, he explains that some companies monitor food sources using satellite imagery to ensure compliance with European regulations banning burned products.

Potential solutions that could be added to the bill include using technology like drones to locate fires faster, providing economic incentives for sustainable practices, crowdfunding alternative livelihood programs, and educating communities. 

Buntoon emphasised the importance of cooperation across different ministries and levels of government to address this complex issue effectively.

The fact that multifaceted problems need to be addressed to different parties involved might make this bill drag out, but the health impacts on local Chiang Mai communities from high levels of air pollution is a serious problem.

Another aspect is the traditional livelihoods and practices of forest-dwelling communities that are being affected by laws and regulations aimed at reducing burning, but Buntoon stressed that the government is working with these groups.

The right to breathe: severe air pollution, the unseen culprit

The biggest challenge would be enforcing regulations in remote, mountainous areas inhabited by ethnic-minority populations.

The underlying issue and main problem all parties want to solve is improving living conditions and health outcomes for people affected by air pollution. The proposed solutions from all seven bills aim to balance environmental protection with sustainable development and cultural practices.

When asked when the problem will be solved, Buntoon said: "This has been in the national scheme for five years, but we're hoping to solve it in about three more years."

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