Mr. Varawut during the inspection of forest biomass materials collection in Mae Cham recently.

Economic incentives introduced to boost Northern locals’ cooperation in suppressing forest fires and PM 2.5

1,000 tons of forest biomass materials and farm residues is set as a prime target for pre-season fuel management to help lessen forest fires and PM 2.5 in nine northern provinces, long blamed as among the prime sources of the severe haze problem

The Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment, under the directive of its minister, Varawut Silpa-archa, has come up with new incentives to try to convince local people in the North to help suppress forest fires and PM 2.5, the fine dust particles that cause severe air pollution and various diseases harmful to people’s health.

The initiative, which is part of the fuel management plan jointly working by concerned agencies, would involve some economic stimuli such as price tags for unusable forest biomass or farm residues the locals help collect and turn them into biofuels, fertilizers, or other usable household items.

This, the ministry believes, could help turn local conventional practices of forest and farm residues burning that cause forest fires and PM 2.5 to a more manageable approach.

“We have learned that forest fires and PM 2.5 in the North were harsh in the past years. So, the best practice is prevention by managing the fuels in advance as much as possible,” said Mr. Varawut while recently inspecting the pilot project in Chiang Mai’s Mae Cham district.

Forest and farm residues burning

Forest and farm residues burning in the North have long been accused of sending out PM 2.5, which pollutes the air and harms people’s health.

Much of the incidents cannot be separated from people’s way of life as a number of local people in the North collect forest products and use fires as part of it. In addition, to clear farm residues, they also use fires to burn them out.

The government in recent years has recognized that such the practices have contributed to the severity of the haze problem. So, it has been attempting to divert them to a more manageable approach.

Northern locals tend to use fires to burn their farm residues and some forest areas for forest products collection from late winter to a dry season, prompting the haze problem in the North to be usually severe during this period of time.

Last year, Chiang Mai had the highest number of hot spots in the North; 2, 155.

As the winter starts, the ministry has decided to launch the initiative as part of the state’s attempt to help press down the rate of forest burning and farm residues clearance, aside from the planned authorized burning schedules, under which the locals are still allowed to burn their farm residues following the set order and agreed schedules.

The total 1,000 tons of forest biomass materials collected from forest reserves under supervision of the Royal Forestry Department and the residents’ farm residues in ten pilot areas in nine provinces including Mae Cham are set as the prime target this year under the initiative.

The Department of National Parks, Wildlife, and Plant Conservation Department has also targeted another 500 tons of forest biomass materials in some ten protected areas in the North as part the initiative.

Thanya Netithammakul, the department’s Director-General, said the challenge of applying such the economic interventions in conservation work is attractive revenues to be introduced.

At the moment, locations and distances are the major obstacles for the local residents to accomplish their new tasks. There are only some few factories to take their biofuel products and they have to travel a far distance to deliver them to the factories.

The prices offered per kilogram are still relatively low and not attractive, and they are different, ranging from 40 satang to four baht per kilogram of the collected forest biomass.

Bunnaroth Buaklee, a coordinator of the Chiang Mai Breathe Council, a gathering of local thinkers and academics to help address clean air policies in the North, said the ministry has adopted the right approach to help the state manage fuels in its responsible forest areas and forest communities as economic incentives can help convince and boost cooperation.

However, the initiative is seen as just a start because to make it work, a tremendous amount of forest biomass materials as well as farm residues needs to be collected, not just 1,000 tons or so as set.

And that’s the challenge how the incentives can convince people to help in such a tremendous task, Mr. Bunnaroth said.

Mr. Bunnaroth said the council has been in cooperation with local agencies in helping develop related policies to address the issue, and recently, it has come up with the so-called Chiang Mai Model with Chiang Mai Administration Office, under which local organisations are encouraged to take the lead and push for local management plans to manage fires and fuels in local areas so that they can be in control following conditions and timing.

Increasing levles of haze in Bangkok during the post-New Year following heavy traffic and air invesion.
Credit: PCD

Haze in Bangkok and the Northeast

The Pollution Control Department (PCD), meanwhile, has also tried to deal with the situations in Bangkok and the Northeast, where sources of the air pollution are different from the North.

In Bangkok, the prime source of PM 2.5 derives from incomplete combustion of diesel-based car engines, while in the Northeast the prime source is the burning of sugarcane leftovers and farm residues.

Some economic incentives have also been introduced in the Northeast to encourage farmers to collect their farm residues and sell them as biofuels to biomass power plants in the areas such as in Khon Kaen province.

With the new incentives, they can earn up to Bt 800 per tons of their farm residues, said Athapol Charoenshunsa, the PCD’s Director General, adding the pilot project in Khon Kaen would be expanded to other provinces.

The challenge is how to discourage sugarcane growers not to use fires to burn their sugarcane leaves to facilitate their sugarcane harvests.

The department has been in talk with some factories to apply incentives for fresh sugarcane harvesting, while improving pollution discharges from their factories, he said.

Bangkok, meanwhile, has started to feel the haze as smog has returned to Bangkok since late last month, when the air inversion in the winter season takes place, while its prime source of the pollution, diesel- based car engines have increased every year.