Breathe... if you can.
Citylife: Why has it taken so long for such a group to be formed, considering this problem has been around for decades, and has obviously been getting so much worse in recent years?
Sakda: We just didn't have any leadership. There were no standards set. We were still confusing PM 2.5 with PM 10 and wearing the wrong masks as recently as 2018. It took so long because there had to be a public groundswell to the point of a climax and that point was reached in the incident that nearly saw you get sent to jail! That was the climax. The pollution in 2018 was extremely bad, and when the incident with you happened, people became aware and angry, and that was when the authorities finally conceded and set the standards for PM 2.5 as well as making sure the correct masks were used. [Ed. The incident in question was widely reported in the international media and can be found on Reuters (among other media) under the title "Thai editor faces charges over picture of kings wearing masks"].
Citylife: What was going on in the past to address and solve this issue?
Sakda: We have to accept that the management in the past never tackled this issue properly or deeply. It was all by rote, a routine. They would do some PR and set up committees but it was never serious or sincere, just something to tackle and address for a few months every year to appease people without going to the root cause.
Citylife: You appear to be more positive now about this. Why?
Sakda: We are lucky that the latest governor comes from Chiang Mai and it is obvious he really wants to fix this permanently. We have never had this level of support from a governor before. Something extraordinary happened last week. The governor had asked the district heads to send a report as to how they planned to tackle this issue. Unfortunately, some didn't respond. In public he berated them and demanded that they raise their game. This level of oversight has never happened before. The district heads now have a few days to send all the data to the central command post, which the governor has set up.
Citylife: With only ten members and a starting capital of 30,000 baht, what does the Breathe Council hope to achieve?
Sakda: I am in charge of communicating in English with tourists and expatriates. Other members of the Breathe Council work on liaising with the governor's office, putting pressure on it and helping the staff to communicate with the public. Other members work on getting corporations and big businesses on board. All we can do is act as an umbrella organisation and hope that we can help connect, communicate and facilitate. What we would love is for sub-groups to form in many areas and then we would help to maintain the focus and the communication. With support we have also been able to organise awareness raising activities and initiatives to reduce burning. Just recently a group of artists came together to have an art exhibition, donating their proceeds to us, which has replenished our coffers.
We have also worked with Chiang Mai University who have identified 23 sub- districts with the potential to earn more income through other crops and products. With this survey we have managed to sign MOUs with all 23 sub- districts for them to replace corn crops. Now if we can expand this across the north, and also help them to find markets for their alternative crops, then that would be great.
Citylife: What are the challenges?
Sakda: [Laughing] Where to start? Lack of resources is the main problem. For instance, we don't even have a budget to travel to all 23 sub-districts. But thankfully CMU has done all the work and identified replacement crops for these villages, so we try to use technology to reduce costs. Then there is a lack of real data. So many researchers have looked into the various aspects and effects of this problem, but no one has compiled and correlated the data, so all we can do is rely on what is given us and what we find out for ourselves. We started off with a 30,000 baht budget donated via our Line group which will cover three months of administrative costs. The rest of it comes out of our own pockets.
Citylife: What can we feel positive about?
Sakda: Well apart from the governor, who incidentally has never said no to any of our requests, and even cycled around the moat himself for our Clean Air for Everyone campaign recently, there is Circle 33. Central government has appointed Circle 33 army base as the main coordination centre. And for the first time they are flexing their muscles with other organisations such as the Land Transport Department which has been pressured to crack down on exhaust fumes and other polluting vehicles. The Bank of Agriculture and Agricultural Cooperatives has been looking at offering credit lines to farmers who have changed their crops from corn to more environmentally sustainable crops. These incentives are excellent. And overall there is so much more awareness. The hotlines set up by the Land Transport Department and the governor are very busy and now open 24 hours a day.
Citylife: What do you think the solution is?
Sakda: Fire and humanity have always gone together. It is just a matter of co-existing properly and that is why we are working very closely with Warm Heart Foundation. This organisation encourages farmers to turn their corn waste into biochar, a process that destroys the biomass and produces no smoke. The resulting charcoal can be sold to make even more money. This is an effective and tangible solution. We need to open markets to support biochar. If the public is offered a good alternative to burning and managing waste, agricultural or otherwise, then this will go a long way.
Citylife: You are working on multiple fronts. How do you prioritise?
Sakda: Yes, you are right. Another project is to support fire fighters and their families. But right now we are just focusing on this year's impending crisis. Once that is over, we will shift our focus to education. The ideal solution would be for other people to come and support us, set up sub-groups and committees focusing on the many facets of this problem. If your readers want to get involved, please tell them to get in touch with me through the Facebook page: Chiang Mai Breathe Council.
CLEAN AIR FOR EVERYONE?
Where's the smoke from? First, most smoke around here comes from burning corn waste. This is hard for people living in Chiang Mai to believe because as you sit here, what you see is burning mountains. But if you look around the world today, continent by continent, there are massive fires of crop waste. Today, we worry about Thailand but next will be Vietnam and China. By June, the smoke from rice straw burning will blanket Beijing. Then the fires will move to Mexico, Peru, Bolivia, jump the Atlantic and burn across Africa. Then it'll be the Near East, India and Pakistan before again returning to us. It's always burning crop waste: corn, rice, wheat.
Here in Thailand, corn growing has exploded. Corn is a dirty crop. Only 22% is grain. The other 78% is waste that here mostly gets burned generating the PM 2.5 haze we suffer. The second source of smoke around here is forest fires, mostly crop waste fires that have escaped from corn fields in the forest. Unfortunately, some people set them deliberately (often for pay) to collect mushrooms. Why? Mushrooms are brown; burned ground is black. It's easier to see them.
Behind the burning lies a single problem: poverty. According to the Thai National Statistic Office, the people who grow corn on our mountains live in families averaging 3.9 members, almost 40% of whom live on less than 10,000 baht a month, less than 2,500 baht per person. You can earn that in half a day picking mushrooms. You grow corn; you can survive. Poverty is the underlying cause.
Some - just some - of our smoke comes from our neighbours - foreign and Thai - because of our geography and weather. Under certain conditions, smoke will make a big circle up from Myanmar or Laos and down our valley. Then there's smoke blown up from sugarcane plantations in the south. Unfortunately, today the government is telling growers in central Thailand to switch from corn to sugarcane. This will increase the smoke by returning us to when sugarcane was the largest source of smoke in Thailand. It has been overtaken only recently as corn has expanded rapidly to supply animal feed for meat and dairy. We are feeding the fire with our own desires.
Nobody talks about forest loss. Many of Thailand's problems today start with the destructions of the forest. The North has long suffered huge losses of forest. All these bald mountains were forested until they were burned to clear them for corn. Those missing forests are also destroyed watersheds where the rainfall does not penetrate the soil. It runs in sheets straight off the sun hardened clay. It doesn't stick around to grow crops. It floods Bangkok. Bangkok's floods can be blamed on the expansion of cornfields in the North where everything is drying up. If we don't protect those forests, we are all going to be very thirsty very soon. The only solution is to protect our remaining forests from being burned to plant corn.
Another big source of smoke is cooking with charcoal made from forest wood. Charcoal produces a huge amount of smoke while it 'chars' for seven days. This charring is inefficient, yielding only 7% of the weight of the wood in charcoal, and then charcoal burns dirty when used. For the 60% of people who cook with charcoal, the smoke is deadly. The killer is PM2.5, particles so small that they penetrate the walls of the lungs and travel via the bloodstream to the brain, kidneys and liver. PM2.5 is a major factor in why we have the highest infant mortality rate in the country, the highest stroke and heart attack rates, the highest rate of premature death among our elders.
We need to stop crop waste burning by teaching small farmers how to convert crop waste into biochar right now. Making biochar produces no smoke and when burned, it doesn't smoke or smell like charcoal, and burns hotter and longer, too. It takes five tonnes of crop waste to make a tonne of biochar; satisfying our demand for charcoal by substituting biochar should reduce burning, clean our air and save lives.
The north of Thailand has the highest infant mortality rate in the country with the highest stroke, the highest heart attack rate, the highest rate of premature death among our elders. How is this happening? When gathered around all those fires lit daily for cooking or to stay warm...and breathing.
Edited excerpt from a talk by Michael Shafer, Founder and Director of Warm Heart Foundation at the Breath Council's Clean Air for Everyone event at Folklife Museum on 19th January 2020.