73-year-old Rian Thimakham of Pong Krai village in Chiang Mai province lost her son who was a village volunteer in the forest fires near the village in late March. Photo: Sayan Chuenudomsavad

SPECIAL REPORT: The Hard Lessons of PM2.5 Haze

The region of the North this year has battled a heavy PM2.5 haze caused by severe field and forest burnings both inside and outside the country with extensive losses including the casualties of forest fire control officials and local volunteers_like Tom

73-year-old Rian Thimakham could hardly sleep for weeks since she suddenly lost her son in late March. Her husband, at the same time, distanced himself from anyone, sitting in silence in their house; crying. The family was in a deep loss and grief at Vichai’s passing as 39-year-old Vichai or Tom was the only one who stayed with them at their house and took care of them. Aunty Rian said Tom was the one who fed the family as they were too old to work. 

Every day, Tom would venture out for work in a village and take every job possible, including a labour job in his neighbours’ orchards and gardens. And if not at work, Tom would patrol around the village along with his peers to check for any irregularities including illicit drugs and forest fires as he was a village volunteer.

Situated in the middle of Pong Krai Watershed Forest and sandwiched by two national parks of Khun Khan and Doi Suthep-Pui where forest fires are rampant during the dry season, Pong Krai village in Chiang Mai’s Mae Rim district is one of the northern communities highly prone to forest fires during the dry season.

It was not until March 30 this year that the community was on the verge of a blaze as forest fires from Khun Khan National Park spread across the park boundary and were about to reach the community. Upon learning about the incident, Pong Krai Village Head Sak Panthiya called in his young men to help douse the fires. Among those was Tom.

According to Uncle Sak, the young village volunteers rushed to the scene in an attempt to douse the fires in the late afternoon of March 30. They spent time dousing the fires from then till late midnight; just to learn later at dawn that one of their men was missing.

It was Tom who was found lying on a smouldering forest floor deep in a valley. The forensic result showed that his lung was choked with smoke, suggesting that he may have succumbed to it. Still, his body was seriously burnt and Aunty Rian did not want to imagine how suffered he would have before he died. Aunty Rian said Tom was the one who cooked for them. He didn’t have time to do so that day and the breakfast was their last meal together.

“I was very, very shocked when learning that Tom was dead in the fire. I couldn’t stand this and I passed out,” said Aunty Rian, recalling the incident with voices shaking and tears filling her eyes. “I could still not make up my mind and I have no idea how my husband and I will live on without him.” 

Tom’s cap was collected from the scene and Aunty Rian still keeps it along with his volunteer uniforms and belongings at home.
Photo: Sayan Chuenudomsavad

Tom was among ill-fated volunteers and forest fire control officers who have either lost their lives or got injured in this year’s forest fire incidents, of which their causes have still not been tackled effectively in the region that has been under increasingly severe threat from forest fires and PM2.5 to the point that some of its cities are already listed as the world’s most PM2.5 polluted locations. Unlike other regions, the mountainous North has been embattled with a much more complicated challenge.

According to the Pollution Control Department (PCD), which has collected data over the whole fire season from January 1 to May 28, the northern region of 17 provinces has detected nearly 109,000 (108,984) hotspots, or a 356% increase from last year’s record, which stood merely at 23,877. 

Of these, 86% of them occurred in forest areas. Only 11% occurred in open fields or farmland in lowland areas and 3% in residential areas. (In nine northern provinces with the most forest areas, the percentage of hotspots in forest areas increases to 93% while hotspots in lowland open fields or farmland account for only 4%.)

While causes or motivations of these forest fires are varied, officials concerned have pointed out that almost all of them are human-driven, relating closely to the conventional utilisation of forests and hilly farmland by the locals to sustain their farm-based livelihoods; ranging from farmland expansion, clearing of farm residues in the fields, grazing, wildlife hunting, and collecting of forest products_all are typical to seasonal fire burning elsewhere in Southeast Asia.

The thick haze still shrouded Mae Sai district in Chiang Rai province in mid-April. The North started to feel a serious impact from the PM2.5 haze in mid-February when it choked the region with a 24-hour concentration level of PM2.5 beyond the country’s maximum threshold of 91 µg/m³, defined as “health affecting”. The hardest hit was Mae Sai, where over 530 µg/m³ of the haze shrouded the town on March 27.
Photo: Sayan Chuenudomsavad

The northern fires

As the wind blew north and the PM2.5 haze in the city of Bangkok became at ease around mid-March, the attention then shifted to the North, where forest fires started in mid-January and began to pose serious health impacts in mid-February. At that time, they choked the North with a 24-hour concentration level of PM2.5 beyond the country’s maximum threshold of 91 micrograms per cubic metre (µg/m³), defined as “health affecting”, according to the PCD.

As explained by the World Health Organisation (WHO), PM2.5 is a fine particulate matter with a diameter of 2.5 microns or less that is classified as carcinogenic since 2013, and along with other fine dust, they are capable of penetrating deep into the lungs. PM2.5 itself can even enter the bloodstream, primarily resulting in cardiovascular and respiratory impacts and also affecting other organs, thus raising concerns over health impacts globally, according to the WHO.

In mid -February, the PCD projected by taking into account uncontrollable weather conditions which sometimes prompted an air inversion that the situation would last for one week or if worsening, it could continue until the end of February. But afterwards, the forest fires further intensified and hardly allowed the northern residents to have some rest from the air pollution since.

The haze sent the city of Chiang Mai to be listed among the world’s most polluted cities in early April, as measured by IQ Air.
Photo: Sayan Chuenudomsavad

According to PCD Director-General, Dr.Pinsak Suraswadi, between Jan 1 to Feb 15, nearly 19,000 (18,988) hotspots had occurred in the region, or a 118% increase compared to last year’s record of 8,698. By the end of February, the cumulative number of hotspots in the North rose to over 27,000 (27,603). At the same time, the cumulative number of hotspots in the neighbouring countries or simply noted as the Mekong sub-region also rose to 256,700 already, according to the department.

And when the region entered the month of March, it had hardly had a rest from the air pollution since. There was only a short break during March 15-22 when summer storms helped disperse the pollution, and afterwards, the air pollution started to climb up to levels far beyond the country’s safe limit of 50 µg/m³, from one to ten times or over 500 µg/m³. The highest concentration level of this fine dust was recorded at 537 µg/m³ on March 27 in Chiang Rai’s border district of Mae Sai. The WHO’s 24-hour concentration level is recommended at 15 µg/m³, meaning the dust level on March 27 was more than 35 times of the WHO’s recommended level!

As of March 30, the cumulative number of hotspots rose almost three times higher than the record in February, or to 66,070, and the hotspots in the neighbouring countries multiplied to nearly 607,000 (606,967).

People in Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai stepped out in protest against the government in mid-April, citing its failure to address the PM2.5 haze problem. Some went to court to file a petition against it.
Photo: Sayan Chuenudomsavad

When the region entered the early month of April, the air pollution seemed to be slightly eased, with the 24-hour dust concentration levels recorded between 44-343 µg/m³. The PCD then projected that the fine dust level would remain relatively high and should be under watch. Its projection was in line with the Public Health Ministry, which said the hazardous level of the dust that affects people’s health would continue through April and could be at ease in mid-May at the earliest.

By then, over two million people since Jan 1 had had their health affected by the haze already, with symptoms ranging from mild to severe effects, according to the ministry. The most notable symptoms were involved with respiratory systems, but long-term exposure could also cause chronic health problems including lung cancer, the ministry said.

At the end of the fire season, the PCD noted that the average 24-hour concentration level of PM2.5 in the North was at 63 µg/m³ or a 110% increase from last year’s 30 µg/m³. The number of days with PM2.5 beyond the safe limit stood at 112 days, or a 60% increase from last year’s 70 days, and the hotspots recorded for the whole season stood at 108,984, or a 356% increase from last year’s 23,877. 

Credit: PCD

The cumulative hotspots in the Mekong sub-region, meanwhile, stood at almost a million, or 992,718, with Myanmar contributing the most with 413,041 hotspots, followed by Lao PDR (254,734), Thailand (168,392), Cambodia (111,781), and Vietnam (44,770). This is a 103% increase from last year’s record, according to the PCD, and Thailand’s record is the highest or 267% from last year’s 45,930.

“We are not talking about the problem of PM2.5 or forest fires here. It’s actually about the unsustainable use of natural resources here and elsewhere. It’s a social and economic problem that occurs almost everywhere now and will continue on and on if we cannot address its causes or drivers clearly. Or even if we can do so, these can still pose a very challenge to us,” said Dr. Pinsak while summarising the situation this year to Bangkok Tribune.

Fires started to ravage the northern forests in early February despite officials’ efforts of undertaking pre-season fire management. Seen in the photo is Mea Ping National Park, of which over 150,000 rai were ravaged by the fires.
Photo: Sayan Chuenudomsavad

The causes

On the map marked with dots presenting hotspots drawing from reliable satellite data sources including GISTDA, which was shared on Fah Foon Facebook Page in early February, a possible breaking point of forest fires in the North was formulated by an independent aero engineering expert who runs the page.

As the “fire season” started in the region, officials concerned put efforts to prevent forest fires by undertaking pre-season fire management starting around mid-January or earlier. As analysed by the page, which educates people about PM2.5 and forest fires, the dots showing uncontrolled fires at night in Oob Luang National Park in Chiang Mai province suggested the poor regulation of the state fire management including pre-season fuel reduction burning and forest firebreaks. This then triggered uncontrolled fires by local people, who rushed to imitate the officials’ action for their own purposes; clearing the forests for forest product collection, wildlife hunting, and others.

Lower down, the fires started almost at the same time in Mae Ping National Park, which is the country’s top ten burnt scars. According to Fah Phoon’s examinations, the causes behind the fires at the park were involved with the residents’ farm-based livelihoods; ranging from wildlife hunting, forest clearing for new grazing areas, collecting of forest products, especially the popular “Poh” mushroom, and others. (Read: Long-lasting Battles in the Northern Forests)

As forest fires had occurred uncontrollably in these national parks and the PM2.5 haze rose to the hazardous level, a blanket ban was issued, resulting in a total ban or zero burning against the use of fires in the forests in the North. 

But instead of being able to halt the fires, people rushed to burn their mountainside fields in preparation for the next planting season ahead of the rainy season. This and along with other motivations prompted an outbreak of forest fires in the North. According to the page, March 24 alone saw over 200 new fires lit up all over the region.

Fires ravaged Doi Luang Chiang Dao consecutively in April. Motivations were involved with improper use of the mountain’s land and its resources including corn planting and conflicting management over eco-tourism in the area.
Photo: Sayan Chuenudomsavad

In Chiang Dao district, further north of Chiang Mai’s downtown, for example, up to 30-50% of the fires in Chiang Dao Wildlife Sanctuary during the same period were from such field burning. The officials there said there is a growing trend of turning traditional farming to planting cash crops including maize. They said they had no idea to what extent the land had already been turned into mass crop plantations, which further complicated the situation.

The popular news magazine Nikkei Asia, which investigated the issue and published the article in late April, cited such agricultural-based burning as a prime cause of the severe PM2.5 haze in the region.

Agricultural burning, the news magazine explained, is a cheap way for poor farmers throughout SE Asia to increase yields, clear waste, and expand crop areas. It is “a symptom of low-tech, labor-intensive farming methods”, the news magazine defined.

“Many farmers in mountain regions either cannot afford advanced machinery or find it impossible to use on steep slopes. Instead, they burn waste from cultivating maize and other crops – as a low-cost and efficient means of clearing fields for future planting,” noted Nikkei.

The fires from Doi Luang Chiang Dao spread to nearby communities, ravaging their fields and properties.
Photo: Sayan Chuenudomsavad

Nikkei further noted that poor farmers often have no choice, and many are caught in a recurring debt trap. They buy seeds, fertilizer and pesticides from merchants on credit at high-interest rates because banks do not consider them creditworthy, it said of its investigation.

By then, the region was blanketed with the thick PM2.5 haze for almost entire the fire season. Chiang Rai saw the PM2.5 concentration shoot up over 500 µg/m³ in late March, the highest in the country, while Chiang Mai was later listed as being among the world’s most polluted cities.

Concerned parties now have come to realise that these dramatic causes or drivers of forest fires in the North are closely related to the locals’ farm-based livelihoods. They have agreed that the existing measures including those addressed in the national agenda and action plan have far lagged behind the problem.

Forest fire control officials come up with their own plans to try to manage the forest fires as best they can at Mae Ping National Park, the country’s top ten burnt scars. The volume of the fires this year is just too huge for them to deal with.
Photo: Sayan Chuenudomsavad

The national agenda and action plan

Since Thailand came to realise the PM2.5 problem following its improved monitoring in 2019, the country then formulated the first national agenda and action plan to suppress this emerging air pollution. It’s expected to be in use until next year. Aside from a region-based approach, the plan addressed solutions for the problem and its causes based on phases of work and the sources of origin of the pollution. 

The North was highlighted along with other regions, but all the measures and plans for the region were set for an immediate or emergency period, which is the fire season only. In addition, the plan also missed addressing forest fires distinctively from the other sources of origin of the haze. They were included in the part of open or farm burning.

Bunnaroth Buaklee, a representative of the Northern Breathe Council’s knowledge and policy section, campaigning for PM2.5 haze solutions in the region, said the PM2.5 haze and forest fires in the North are complex considering the region’s geographic character of the mountainous landscape and local livelihoods, which are close to the forests.

Without deep knowledge and understanding of these characteristics of the region, the state relies too much on immediate or short-term solutions such as law enforcement against violators or issuance of a blanket ban during the fire season.

This, in turn, has devalued a management approach, which is more flexible to the circumstances. People live in different ways and in different areas, he remarked.

In several communities, local residents turn to help officials in controlling the fires in the forests near their communities. Some used to be violators who were invited to help officials and correct their past behaviours.
Photo: Sayan Chuenudomsavad
Young village volunteers try to help their senior residents in protecting their village at Pong Krai. Lack of proper training and tools still poses a big challenge for these volunteers and this is something that is not addressed in the national plan.
Photo: Sayan Chuenudomsavad

 “The haze and forest fires in the North are complex, and it’s closely related to social and economic problems in different areas. They cannot be simply addressed like in the other regions. If the burnt scars can tell us anything, it’s the lessons that we should learn from each place and start to look at the problem from there and fix it.

“I think the national agenda and plan give far less importance to the problem in the North. It mentioned the region only a few pages. Our whole thinking about the problem of the North and its causes needs to be reviewed. So does the national action plan and agenda,” said Mr. Bunnaroth.

Athapol Charoenshunsa, an acting Director-General of the Department of National Parks, Wildlife, and Plant Conservation (DNP) came to office and fixed the problem in the region when it was almost at its height. This followed a high-profile corruption case committed by the former chief who was finally sacked.

Mr. Athapol mobilised almost all of his forest fire control specialists known as Suea Fai to help local fire control offices and local volunteers suppress the growing fires in the region while trying to reduce pressure from some drivers such as the forest burning for new grazing areas. While a ban was imposed against livestock in forest areas, over 100 national parks and wildlife sanctuaries were declared closed to public access to help further relieve the pressure.

By the end of the season, at least 6.11 million rai of the protected forest areas nationwide were burnt as a result, with hotspots concentrated in the northern forests the most. 

Mr. Athapol inspects the situation at Doi Tung in Chiang Rai province during the peak of the season. Credit: DNP

As a former chief at the Royal Forestry Department that works extensively with forest dweller communities, Mr. Athapol said he understands how people in the North utilise fires and the forests and agreed that specific area-based analyses and more long-term solutions should be introduced to guide future regulation and management.

A reform on forest utilisation and land use, he said, is among the key solutions he is pushing through the department’s new legal mechanisms, including the new National Parks and Wildlife Conservation Acts that can allow co-existence in the protected forest areas with certain conditions imposed. A carbon credit scheme for forest preservation, he added, is also under consideration.

So far, forest fire control officials and concerned parties have come up with lessons-learned sessions to formulate solutions for the future, and they have proposed them to the public. Among the notable proposals is also a new Clean Air Act, which they said can provide a comprehensive approach and new mechanisms to deal with the problem. More importantly, it provides a new way of thinking to look at the problem, they said.

“In the end, it’s really about unsustainable use of our natural resources and how we can manage or regulate this,” said Dr. Pinsak. “The law will give us a new way of thinking about our problem at present as well as the new solutions and mechanisms to deal with it. It’s impossible to apply the old tools that we had 50 or 60 years ago as they are insufficient and far lag behind the problem.”

A corn plantation on Myanmar’s side bordering Mae Sai district was burnt up by the fires that spread across the border to Thailand’s Doi Chang Moob and some coffee plantations there in mid-April.
Photo: Sayan Chuenudomsavad

Beyond the border

While the cumulative number of hotspots in the northern region rose over 100,000 (108,984) by the end of the season, hotspots in the Mekong sub-region, meanwhile, were detected at almost a million (992,718), a 103% increase from last year’s record.

Hotspots in the neighbouring countries have been addressed by the government as part of contributing factors to the PM2.5 problem in the country.

According to the analyses by an ad-hoc academic working group appointed by the government to look into the problem during 2019-2021, the working group found that open burning and forest fires in the neighbouring countries were on an upward trend, sending more PM2.5 to the country. 

In Lao PDR since 2019, for instance, the burning of corn plantations in Laos had jumped especially along the Lao-Thai border in Xayaburi opposite Phayao, Nan, and Loei provinces. On the other side of Myanmar along the Salween River, farm and forest burnings were also similarly detected, including in the large corn plantations close to the border in Tak province. 

“The burning of corn plantations next to the border needs further studies to see whether or not their products are imported to the country,” the working group suggested.

NASA’s Fire Information for Research Management System shows a satellite image of hotspots in the region on March 27, when Thailand was hit the hardest by the PM2.5 haze of over 530 µg/m³. https://firms.modaps.eosdis.nasa.gov/map/#t:adv;d:2023-03-27;@101.6,13.2,5z

While the drivers of this boom of the burnings in the neighbouring countries are not yet made clear, Nikkei Asia cited food demand fuelled by China as among the critical factors behind the rise in agricultural burning in Southeast Asia.

The news magazine cited an assistant professor of environmental politics and policy at Dublin City University, Danny Marks, who has cited the phenomenon of “meatification” as the key driver behind the massive burnings in the region. The professor who has extensive field experience in the region elaborated that much of the maize grown in these three countries is turned into animal feed and exported to China where there has been a boom in meat demand.

Nikkei also made an interesting point, comparing this to “Brazilification” in the Amazon. The news magazine further explained that the large swathes of the Amazon rainforest in Brazil have been turned into low-grade pastures for ranches and free-roaming cattle. In Southeast Asia, a similar process involves burning the forest floor and undergrowth to encourage grass to grow for rough grazing and hunting, it noted.

In Laos, for instance, beef for China was cited by the news magazine as the new big-ticket export item of Laos, aside from its agricultural exports of crops such as bananas, rubber, cassava, sugar cane and watermelon_all have already resulted in massive open and forest burnings. The crops were estimated to be worth a relatively modest combined $900 million in 2021 alone for Laos, Nikkeit quoted the Laotian Times as reported. 

It further reported that just last July, Laos’minister of agriculture and forestry Phet Phomphiphak announced to the Laos National Assembly that China would import 500,000 head of cattle. And in the first half of last year, Laos had already exported nearly 60,000 bovines from its estimated national herd of 3.5 million cattle and buffalo. 

“With only 100,000 of these being raised on farms, the official policy now is to encourage cattle farming as well as herding by individual farmers who often do not own the land. That can only mean more smoke,” Nikkei pointed out.

In addition, there also has been burning in Laos to clear land for cassava, which was the most profitable agricultural product in Laos and was the leading export item in February this year, the magazine further noted.

In recent years, more and more mountainside fields in the North have been turned into mass crop plantations. There are also reports of similar expansion of such plantations in the neighbouring counties.
Photo: Sayan Chuenudomsavad

As the situation intensified this year, all eyes were on some major agro companies, including Charoen Pokphand Group, the country’s biggest agro company and the world’s top animal feed company. CP representatives were invited by concerned officials to look into the issue in April to clear concerned data, but so far, no details of the talk have been disclosed to the public.

The company has issued a few statements during the season, insisting on its prime policy of “No Mountain-No Burn-We Buy”. Under the policy, CP said the Group and its subsidiaries have developed and implemented a system to trace the origin of corn used in the production of animal feed since 2017 to ensure that one hundred per cent of its corn is not derived from forest encroachment and stubble burning. Currently, the company’s operations in Thailand source all of their corn from deforestation-free areas, it confirmed.

The system has also been expanded to its overseas operations including Myanmar, Laos and Vietnam in 2020 to ensure the procurement of corn from legal crop plantations, the company said in its press release issued in late April.

It has also improved the system by incorporating satellite imaging technology that can detect burning planting plots so that it can jointly manage the problem effectively. This, the company added, allows its staff to advise farmers to stop burning their crops or to utilize the stubble. 

In addition, the company has adopted blockchain technology to link the data from the plantations to the feed mills and to improve the speed and transparency of raw material traceability to plantation areas, helping ensure customers that their food comes from responsible sources with zero deforestation and zero burning of stubble, CP said.

“CP Group opposes the cultivation of maize for animal feed that may cause wildfires and slash-and-burn activities at the cultivated areas. The company has developed a corn feed traceability system to purchase corn that can be traced to land areas with title deeds and without forest invasions,” stressed CP in its statement.

CEO of CP Group’s Feed Ingredients Trading Business Group (FIT) Paisarn Kruawongvanich stressed; “CP Group adheres to establishing a sustainable food production system and is committed to responsible sourcing of raw materials by endorsing the key raw material procurement that can be traced and do not encroach on forest areas in line with our policy “No forest (encroachment), no (Crop) burning, We buy”. 

Some local residents, like those in Kor village in Mae Ping National Park, try to break themselves from the circle of unsustainable forest use and farming by initiating more self-sufficient farming in the village.
Photo: Sayan Chuenudomsavad

The company’s explanations, however, could not convince civil advocacy groups campaigning for clean air and corporate accountability like FTA Watch, Bio Thai, or Greenpeace.

They issued a statement calling on the company and its subsidiaries to disclose all concerned data to the public and allow the public members to access its data including the satellite data, citing the lack of data disclosure and solid evidence to prove its points. No responses have been made from the company so far.

According to Bio Thai, mass crops especially maize have been increasingly grown in the Mekong sub-region following the Ayeyawady-Chao Phraya -Mekong Economic Cooperation Strategy (ACMECS) and ASEAN Free Trade Area (AFTA), which help cut down the import tax to zero. 

While Thailand grows maize in around five to seven rai, the neighbouring countries are catching up with the trend such as Myanmar’s Shan State, which sees extensive corn plantations comprising over half of the country’s total corn plantations in the state now, Bio Thai noted.

Concern officials said they cannot say at this point about the trend of mass crop planting in forest areas both inside and outside the country as this needs further detailed studies of satellite images and related data.

The government, meanwhile, has tried to address the transboundary haze and fires outside the country. The Natural Resources and Environment Ministry had been in contact with the ASEAN Secretariat since early this year before ASEAN eventually issued the highest alert of Level 3 against the growing number of hotspots in the Mekong region on March 3, the action that apparently helped little. 

l Photos courtesy of ThaiGov

In mid-April, PM Gen Prayut Chan-o-cha called for an urgent trilateral meeting through video conference with Lao Prime Minister Sonexay Siphandone and Myanmar leader Snr Gen Min Aung Hlaing in an attempt to address the transboundary haze crisis together.

At the meeting, PM Prayut proposed “The Clear Sky Strategy”, under which the Chiang Rai Plan of Action adopted by five countries in the Mekong sub-region in 2017 to address the transboundary haze crisis was recommended to be brought back to the focus, alongside other regional measures including the 42nd Asean Summit in Indonesia. 

As noted by Nikkei, the Chiang Rai Plan follows in the footsteps of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations’ Agreement on Transboundary Haze Pollution adopted in 2002, which accomplished little. The Agreement was drafted largely in response to the burning of Indonesia’s tropical forests in the 1990s to make way for new palm oil plantations. Malaysia and Singapore became the main victims of its choking haze, and the agreement has hardly anything to do with the countries in mainland SE Asia.

For the locals like Mr. Sak, he had no idea how to solve this complicated problem either. He just wished that people will not burn the forests with nonsensical causes and that there is no more bad fortune in his village. 

“They burned the forests; to hunt, to collect forest products, or just simply for fun and I have no idea up until now what caused the fires near our village. With all the losses, it’s not worth anything,” said Mr. Sak, recalling his emotional struggle to tell a misfortune story of Tom’s passing to Aunty Rian, who now has to live with her husband alone without their son.

Read the report in Thai @SPECIAL REPORT: วิถีชีวิต ไฟป่า และบทเรียนราคาแพง

This special report is part of the Environmental Challenges in Recent Times series.