A forest lockdown will fuel more fires
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A forest lockdown will fuel more fires

An aerial view of a fire ravaging a forest in Chiang Mai last month. Picture courtesy of Chiang Mai Volunteer Drone Team
An aerial view of a fire ravaging a forest in Chiang Mai last month. Picture courtesy of Chiang Mai Volunteer Drone Team

With strong wind and fast-approaching forest fires, a group of forest dwellers on Doi Mon Dok mountain in Chiang Mai's Samoeng District are racing against time to stop the flames from engulfing their village.

"This is the ninth time the fires have erupted near our home," said Prue Odashao, 49, a Karen grassroots environmentalist and community leader of Ban Pa Ka village. "The forest fires this year are the worst in my lifetime."

The creeks on the mountains used to serve as fire barriers and a source of water to douse the flames. Not this year. The creeks dried up long before the official hot season began in April, obviously the result of global warming.

Ban Pa Ka is not alone in its struggle to save itself. Other hill people in the mountainous North are also fighting the worst forest fires in decades.

Like their peers in Ban Pa Ka, they are risking their lives day and night braving the wildfires with only primitive equipment such as leaf blowers, axes and knives to create fire breaks. Often, they need to resort to their ancestors' traditional fire control techniques by using fire to extinguish the approaching flames. A sudden change of wind may cost them their life. Several villagers have already perished without state recognition nor support.

With Chiang Mai's revered Doi Suthep mountain on fire for months, national attention is on the plight of the city people who are suffocating in the "gas chamber" as firefighters face difficulties in fighting the near-impossible blazes.

Few have paid attention to the forest dwellers' struggles to keep the wildfires at bay. Worse yet, they continue to be blamed as forest trespassers and destroyers who must be evicted or imprisoned.

Last week, Varawut Silpa-archa, National Resources and Environment Minister, threatened to "lockdown the forests", blaming the fires on the locals' foraging for food and agricultural burning. On Thursday, Deputy Prime Minister Gen Prawit Wongsuwon repeated the same threat.

"Hearing this threat when we're risking our lives to save the forests is disheartening," Mr Prue said wearily.

It shows policymakers don't understand sustainable forest conservation, the forest dwellers' way of life, and their dedication in controlling the forest fires, he lamented.

"They just buy what forest bureaucrats say despite the consistent failures of a top-down policy that treats us locals as the enemy instead of forest conservation partners."

Under a lockdown policy to achieve zero-burn, forest officials can seal off forest areas and arrest forest dwellers at whim without respect for their traditional farming system and ancestral land rights.

While government and city people believe that a zero-burn policy is the answer to toxic haze and deforestation, the opposite is true, he said.

Apart from less humidity and dryer vegetation, the zero-burn policy over the years has increased fuel loads in the forests immensely. "A flicker of fire can easily turn into uncontrollable blazes," he explained. "This is why the forest fires on Doi Suthep have become so disastrous this year."

The government's approach to forest fires is the opposite of what the indigenous highlanders have been practising, Mr Prue said.

"When I was little, I followed my grandpa into the forest. He often stopped along the way to gather dry leaves and burn them. He sat down and patiently watched the fire until it was extinguished. I asked him why he did that. He said it was to prevent the pile of leaves from getting bigger. I didn't understand then, but I do now."

As he grew, he began to learn about the indigenous forest dwellers' various fire control methods. Ching pao or early-season burn is prescribed to reduce fuel loads. Pao chon is lighting fires to stop the wildfires. It is also a community tradition to combine forces to build firebreaks together every year to protect their homes. Some firebreaks are longer than 30 kilometres.

This fire-control knowhow is not exclusive to forest dwellers in Thailand. Interestingly, many countries have adopted their indigenous people's prescribed burns technique to protect forest ecology. Not in Thailand. Forest dwellers remain illegal under the draconian forest law and so do their traditional fire-control methods because they are against the government's "zero-burn" policy.

If city people want to tackle toxic haze from forest fires, they need to give up many false beliefs, he said.

First is the myth that all fires are bad and dangerous. Next is the belief that forest officials are the only saviours and locals are villains.

"People in the city see fires as pure evil. That's why our rotational farming system is reviled as slash-and-burn. They don't know our rituals. They don't know our know-how to control the fire and help the forest regenerate.

"For us, fires are part of life, part of nature, something we must understand so we can live with them safely," said the Karen community leader.

Public fear of fires ends up supporting forest authorities' zero-burn policy which can gravely backfire leading to more disastrous forest fires and heavier toxic haze.

"Come to our villages, see the forests, learn about our early burn techniques. It is only after this can we discuss how to agree on how and when we should reduce the fuel loads to save the forests," he said.

If not the highlanders, where did the current forest blazes come from?

The forest fires the highlanders are fighting now started down the mountains months ago, he said. "I watched them with worry, fearing that they would become out of control." They did.

The urban areas at the foot of the mountains are an open space where accidents from passers-by, tourists, or the villagers foraging for wild foods can easily happen with fuel loads ready to feed the fire. Conflict with forest officials also makes the locals turn the other way when fires break out.

With state neglect and a lack of unity in fragmented urban communities to stop the fires, the blazes gradually climbed upward, becoming fiercer and more disastrous, thanks to fuel loads from the zero-burn policy. When the forest officials started to act, it was too late.

"Up here on the mountains, we still have a strong sense of community. This is what saves us," said Mr Prue.

As the fires from lowlands move upward, the villagers joined forces to survey the areas, build firebreaks, and stop the blazes. Fathers and mothers work shoulder to shoulder. The youngsters, back from the city as a result of the Covid-19 crisis, use drones to spot smoke so the caravans of firefighters can rush there.

Firefighting often goes into the night. When the fires die off, they still keep watch by sleeping in the forest to monitor the sites for several days because the fires often come back due to the intense heat in the soil and burnt wood.

"We're doing this because the forest is our home, because we're proud of who we are. We are the forest guardians, not the destroyers. We also know that if we fail, the officials will use it to legitimise their efforts to wipe us out."

They also know they cannot depend on forest officials. Tied by bureaucracy, state firefighters only respond when their machine registers a hot spot. Also stuck with limited resources, they often cannot head to the sites until the next day. "We cannot wait," said Mr Prue. "It will be too late to stop the fire."

How best to protect the forests then? The Karen leader did not even pause for an answer. "Listen to the locals. We know our areas best. There are many types of forests. They need different methods of management. We are forest people, we know how to do it.

"Also ask what the locals want. We want support. We want land security. We want better equipment to control the fires. Is that too much to ask?"

What the highlanders want may differ from lowland farmers. "Still the government must ask them what they want and involve them in forest protection. There's no other way."

The forest lockdown will severely harm the forests, he predicted. "Admit it, the authorities don't have enough people and resources. If local people cannot enter the forests to douse the fires, what will happen? The officials stubbornly refuse to learn from the zero-burn mistakes. Will they be ready to take responsibility for the disaster ahead?"

Sanitsuda Ekachai

Former editorial pages editor

Sanitsuda Ekachai is a former editorial pages editor, Bangkok Post. She writes on human rights, gender, and Thai Buddhism.

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