Smog dashes chances of Unesco heritage listing

Si Thep Historical Park in Si Thep district, Phetchabun. (Fine Arts Department photo)

PHETCHABUN: Air pollution caused by open burning in sugar cane plantations has jeopardised chances for Si Thep Historical Park to be listed as a Unesco World Heritage site, according to Wisan Kositanont, chairman of Phetchabun Provincial Cultural Council.

Haze from the burning has blanketed the community recently and black dust, dubbed "black snow", has been falling in the Si Thep Historical Park which is believed to have existed for 1,700 years.

"That severe air pollution might lessen the chance for Thailand to make this ancient site Unesco World Heritage listed. It shows that we lack measures to manage pollution and protect the heritage," Mr Wisan said.

The Phetchabun Provincial Cultural Council has been active in protecting Si Thep. For more than two years it led a campaign that led to the end of petroleum exploration near the ancient site.

Mr Wisan spoke of the plight of Si Thep Historical Park on Wednesday after the provincial committee held a meeting on Tuesday to discuss the air pollution, especially PM2.5 crisis caused by farmers setting fire to sugar cane plantations.

Sugar millers are said to prefer burnt sugar cane to fresh cane because production of burned produce is easier and has a lower operating cost. But the method faces growing opposition as it causes hazardous dust and particles.

Mr Wisan said sugar mill operators should intensify efforts to reduce the burning of sugar cane and if problems were not addressed, new sugar factories should not be permitted.

In the Tuesday meeting chaired by governor Suebsak Iamwicharn, it was decided there should be a buffer zone where burning of sugar cane is prohibited. Local authorities were instructed to make an announcement and increase penalties against violators of the ban within a month, according to the source.

Mr Suebsak reportedly told the meeting that the next sugar-harvesting season would be suspended if sugar factories failed to come up with measures to discourage the burning method or acquire more harvesters.

"The problem persists this year even though the authority set a rule to curb burnt sugar at 50%, yet operators and farmers do not comply. So if there are no measures, there is no need to hold a meeting [on the sugar-crushing season]," he was quoted as saying.

The harvesting period depends on an announcement by the Office of Cane and Sugar Board (OCSB) to start the sugar-crushing season during December to March.

According to the source, the joint meeting also agreed that no sugar mills should be allowed in Muang district and other districts which are next to tourist attractions. The sugar cane harvest season coincides with the high tourist season.

There are two major sugar mills in the province. One is located within 5 kilometres from Si Thep Historic Park, and another in another district. However, there are about 600,000 rai of sugar cane plantations in the province and the province estimates that almost 70% of these plantations engage in open burning.