Paradise is Still Burning ...

Seems like everyone is venting their spleen over the burning in Northern Thailand so why not me.  What I have noticed is that everyone seems to have their own limited perspective on the problem.  Most rant on about the government and lack of enforcement, while few have any recommendations that don’t border on the ridiculous.

One guy suggested that all you need is a couple of helicopters flying around full-time to douse the fires before they get out of control.  Okay that takes care of his village, now what about the rest of the region and our neighbors.  In a search for simple solutions we focus on overly simplified explanations of the problem.

Some say all the smoke comes from Burma and Laos.  Others blame big agribusiness and the growing of corn in areas like Mae Chaem.  Some say it is the rice farmers who are the culprits or perhaps the slash and burn hill tribe people.  Yet others blame their neighbors for burning their trash.  Some seem to think it is all the government’s fault, due to greed and corruption, or the educational system is to blame.

A few foreigners have cobbled together a poorly thought out petition to demand the end of the burning.  I am sure it made them feel less impotent but I am equally sure it will have no effect.  I heard of one guy who got perhaps a little too vocal in his criticism of his Thai neighbors and their penchant for burning so his wife took him for a holiday down south to avoid the linch mob coming over in the middle of the night.  She seemed genuinely concerned.

Composting of all the waste has been suggested but we are not talking of kitchen scraps here.  There are literally mountains of vegetation leftover after the harvest.  The corn harvest leaves not only stalks on the steep mountain slopes but also mountains of discarded husks at the processing sites.  Some say plow the stubble back into the ground.  Unfortunately many of the hillsides are far too steep for heavy equipment.  Even the hiring of the larger tractors necessary to plow waist high rice stubble back into the earth is expensive and would make the growing of rice even less profitable for small farmers.  Many indeed argue that burning helps control pests and disease, leading to a better crop.

As it is, villagers in my area can’t make a living growing rice but do it based on a longstanding tradition that one must grow your own rice.  It is okay for city people to buy rice from the store but it is not the done thing in the village.  To make a living they must go to find work in the cities and scavenge what they can from what is left of the natural environment.  Each year they encroach a little more into the forest.  They strip the streams and reservoirs of fish.  They burn the undergrowth in hopes of stimulating an abundant crop of wild mushrooms that can be harvested and sold at roadside stands.

The locals are quite ingenious in searching out leaves, bugs, frogs, crabs, snakes, fish, mushrooms and countless other edible delectables to supplement their diet without adding to their financial burden.  The environment ends up paying a price though.  Villagers are not immune to the seduction of modern conveniences and want what we all want.  They want transportation, communication, entertainment, electronic conveniences, a better house and perhaps a leg up for their children by sending them to better schools.  Everything costs money and the rural populace have limited options compared to their big city brethren.

As bad as things are in our village they continue to burn daily.  People will complain about the smoke in a very general way and then go off and light another fire.  Around here fires are not started by faceless figures in some remote location but by friends and neighbors.  Pointing fingers at individuals is only done in extreme cases as one cannot afford to do anything that could lead to being ostracized from the community as a whole.  The extreme interdependency in the village is the adhesive that bonds them together and makes things work.  At the same time it is what often holds them back when it comes to making changes.  They are mired in tradition and superstition unable to step over the threshold into a truly modern world.

One villager for example lost seventy rubber trees, by his estimate, due to his neighbor’s burning which got out of control.  He asked for something like 70,000 baht but I heard they may have negotiated that down to around 30,000.  Chances are the firebug doesn’t have the money so will try to avoid payment or he will have to borrow the money and go even deeper into debt.  That will lead the culprit to further disregarding rules and regulations in an effort to scrape together a few more baht here and there.

As you can see I am not claiming to have the answers to this problem.  I suppose I am suggesting that foreigners who think they have the answer are a bit more daft than I am.  I’m sorry guys but we are guests here and what we think or want carries very little weight.  Punitive measures focused exclusively on the poorest members of society, especially when they are the backbone of that society, are in the very least counterproductive and potentially destructive and destabilizing. 

Until someone can come up with affordable alternatives that don’t further burden the poor and take into consideration the complexity of what leads to this yearly burning and the resulting pollution, we are destined to suffer with this problem for years to come.  In my estimation, the talk and histrionics will continue until the rain comes.  Hopefully that will be soon.

With the government’s focus being primarily on the floods there will be no money allocated to the burning in my estimation.  If we are lucky some flood related initiatives could help stem the encroachment into the mountains as there is an overlap there between the burning and the floods.  The wife and I suffer from the smoke just like everyone else but I dare say we are not so simple as to think there is a simple solution to this problem.  So there you have my take on the burning of paradise.  Nothing will happen.