Forests doomed by power and prejudice
After nearly two months of being blanketed by a thick toxic haze with zero national attention due to the Covid-19 pandemic, the city of Chiang Mai last week became like a "gas chamber".
The air was thick with wildfire smoke, making it difficult and dangerous to breathe as a series of forest fires raged on Chiang Mai's sacred Doi Suthep mountain, turning the skies red with a sea of flames.
At its height, the level of the hazardous ultra-fine particles in the city was 40 times higher than international standards, turning the so-called "Rose of the North" into the most polluted city in the world.
The catastrophe would have continued to be ignored by central authorities had it not been for the shocking aerial images of the forest fires on Doi Suthep that became viral on social media.
One image in particular vividly sums up the forest policy in Thailand: A lone helicopter flying through the thick haze, carrying a bucket of water to pour over a huge forest fire down below.
Is it bravery or sheer stupidity? The poor maintenance of state helicopters is notorious. Is it too reckless for the forestry bosses to send their subordinates on a potentially dangerous mission which is simply meaningless?
The public outcry sent the Minister of Natural Resources and Environment Varawut Silpa-archa to Chiang Mai. As always, the fingers are pointed at arsonists and political conflicts against the officials' limited firefighting resources.
Public anxiety and anger ran high as the fires approached the revered Doi Suthep Temple and the Doi Suthep Palace -- as shown by the aerial images of the volunteer drones team.
The next thing the mandarins did was what they are best at -- keeping the truth from the public eye.
They immediately barred the drones team from entering Suthep Pui National Park and ordered them to stop disseminating the aerial images of the forest fires because they make forest officials look incompetent.
For them, image -- however hollow it is -- comes first.
Earlier, media celebrity Wannasingh Prasertkul also received a phone call from a police officer, ordering him to stop raising funds to help firefighters because it made the governor look bad. The governor's team later said the governor had nothing to do with it.
Amid the global warming crisis, we need forests to derail natural disasters. Can we pin our hopes on the top-down, image-obsessed bureaucracy?
"The problem is deeper than obsession with image," said Somkiat Meetham, environmentalist and secretary of the Love Mae Chaem Foundation. "The real problem is the officials' obsession with power and central control."
He should know.
The mountainous Mae Chaem district in Chiang Mai was once notorious for massive deforestation. The number of its hot spots used to be among the highest in the country. Like other highlands, the indigenous hill tribes there are demonised as forest destroyers and their traditional farm rotational system as slash-and-burn cultivation. Robbed of land rights and life security, most hill tribe peoples had no choice but to take agro industry's incentives to clear forests for corn plantations. The burning of corn stalks after the harvest aggravated the smog in Chiang Mai, making Mae Chaem a big villain for city people.
In 2016, Mae Chaem became a national model for forest conservation when the number of hot spots plunged to below 20. In 2018, the military government promised to support local communities to replace corn plantations with bamboo and restore the watershed forests.
Last year, the hot spots jumped to 110. This year, the number has risen threefold and counting.
The same reason the fires are raging in Suthep Pui National Park, said Mr Somkiat.
The Mae Chaem success stemmed from the locals' determination to prove that they could reduce hot spots and restore the forests if central authorities respect them as partners in forest conservation.
Keeping their homes and land secure is the forest dwellers' primary concerns because the law can simply throw them into jail. So they negotiated with the district chief and local forest officials for a win-win scheme. In exchange for land use rights, they would launch strict community surveillance to stop new forest clearings and forest fires while they are transitioning from corn plantations to other environmentally friendly crops such as bamboo and coffee.
"In every community, there are always a few black sheep. Strict social control within the community effectively restrains them," he said.
To prevent huge wildfires, they use traditional know-how by using fires under strict control to create firebreaks. Whenever forest fires erupted, they risked their lives to stop them.
"With more state support, the community mechanisms we have created could achieve so much more. It was a pity this did happen," he reported.
With a new district chief, new governor, and a new minister at the helm, old efforts were discarded. Backed by the military government, the forest officialdom went straight back to the heavy-handed "single-command" and "burn zero" policy, using the draconian forest law to arrest forest dwellers en masse.
With widespread arrests and no room for the villagers to have a say in forest use and management, the locals feel betrayed and stop lending a hand when fires erupt.
"If the officials believe they can look after the forests by themselves, let them. This is what the local villagers feel," said Mr Somkiat.
Villagers are also resentful that the government has not helped the locals who died when fighting forest fires despite many promises.
The "zero burn" policy is also destructive. Not all fires are evil. Some are even necessary. The fallen leaves in mixed forests need to be occasionally burned to reduce fire fodder. With the zero burn policy, accumulated dried leaves over the years end up fanning up the fires until they are unstoppable. When the fierce fires start to destroy the watershed forests, the result is long-term environmental destruction.
"This is what is happening on Doi Suthep. This is why the fires this year are so fierce and disastrous," said Mr Somkiat.
Different types of forest need different management, he added. At present, the government does not even have data on where the mixed forest ends and where the watershed forests start in different terrains to manage them accordingly.
"But the locals know their areas like the back of their hands. They also know how to control the fires better than outsiders. But they need legal authority and enough resources to protect the forests. That's why efficient forest protection is inseparable from land rights and decentralisation of administrative power. "There's no other way," he stressed.
The demands from Mae Chaem not only echo similar calls among more than 10 million forest dwellers in Thailand but also from indigenous and forest communities around the world.
The United Nations' Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPPC) has recently confirmed that land rights for indigenous peoples and forest communities are key to curb global warming because community-based forest conservation is far more effective than state attempts.
The panel has also urged governments to legally recognise their land rights to save the planet and humankind.
"Yet, the forest authorities here see their power as more important than the common good," lamented Mr Somkiat.
To make community-based forest conservation possible, the draconian forest law that criminalises forest dwellers must change to allow sustainable farming and traditional firefighting efforts. Administrative decentralisation must be put in place so local communities have enough resources to protect the forests.
At present, the red tape and rampant corruption in officialdom have robbed on-the-ground firefighters of necessary and timely equipment, forcing them to seek public donations.
"For forest policy change, the city people must also change their mindset," he urged.
Like forest officials, city people tend to believe that people cannot co-exist with forest, that all forest burnings are bad, and only technology and draconian laws are the cure, reflecting their prejudice against the locals and "the poor and uneducated".
"Mae Chaem has proved those beliefs are wrong, that land rights and community-based forest conservation is the answer. Yet, power and prejudice prevail," he said.
He said most forest dwellers have now lost heart, seeing their long years of efforts wasted, their pride trampled, and their families shattered by violent forest law.
With increasing authoritarianism at the top, the Mae Chaem environmentalist is not optimistic. "If the government and the city people don't change their mindsets, things will worsen both for the forests and the country."
Former editorial pages editor
Sanitsuda Ekachai is a former editorial pages editor, Bangkok Post. She writes on human rights, gender, and Thai Buddhism.