Justice key to the toxic haze solution
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Justice key to the toxic haze solution

The toxic smog season is back with a vengeance. Most of February saw Thailand's air quality in the danger zone, and this month it won't get any better.

Once more, all fingers are pointed at "hotspots" caused by the hill tribes for their farm burnings. But as long as big polluters, namely the agro and fossil fuel giants, continue to escape state scrutiny and control, there is little hope of tackling Thailand's chronic toxic haze.

The smog season usually begins in March. This year, it started much earlier because the government believed moving forward the ban on farm burning to February would lower the hazardous PM2.5 fine dust particles in the air. The opposite is true. As a result of the new ban, which compelled highlanders to expedite their farm clearing, the smog season began sooner than in previous years.

The crux of the problem is the government's top-down policy and the harsh forest laws that refuse to heed local input and concerns. The highlanders have been living in the forest for generations, yet were outlawed once their ancestral homes were declared protected forests.

They also have indigenous knowledge of forest management in which they prevent wildfires through controlled burns to reduce biomass before the dry season arrives, and they have been successful in preserving the forest and its biodiversity.

However, forest authorities reject their traditional methods of forest management and controlled fires, instead insisting on zero-burning, which builds up biomass and feeds wildfires until they become unmanageable.

What's worse is that because there are not enough forest officials to fight the fires, the hill tribe people must risk their own lives to put out the flames and save their homes.

Tackling the toxic haze takes more than reducing hotspots in the mountainous North. The environmental destruction that spews the hazardous air pollutants stems from the government's failure to regulate agro businesses in the form of mass plantations and the fossil fuel industries, instead making the farmers and hilltribe people the scapegoats.

This injustice against the poor is reflected in the use of satellites to monitor the hotspots. Satellite images can only show hotspots from agricultural and forest areas, but not from cars, factories or power plants. This makes the data not only inaccurate but unjust as the big polluters are let off the hook.

This injustice is also glaring when the government blames the highlanders for using fires to clear the forests to turn them into maize plantations without touching upon big businesses that trade farm products. Through their contract farming, they make huge profits from selling seeds and farm chemicals to the farmers to buy back farm crops at a much lower cost.

And what is the point of eradicating hotspots in the country? Agro giants are freely expanding corn and sugar plantations in neighbouring countries. Since the smog knows no national boundaries, it comes with the winds to suffocate people in Thailand.

Therefore, failing to control agro giants not only makes the air unsafe to breathe, but the clearing of forests also hastens global warming, which increases the frequency and severity of natural disasters. By not regulating the fossil fuel industry, the problem gets worse.

The government's top-down policy in eliminating hotspots from farm burnings and forest fires in the mountains cannot end the toxic haze problem. Eliminating injustice can. This can be done by cooperating with hilltribe people to manage forest and fire protection. Instead of using unrealistic zero-burning, officials can monitor and regulate how and when hilltribes need to clear biomass.

Punishing the true environmental offenders is just as crucial. The government cannot turn a blind eye to allegations about officials within the Ministry of Environmental and Natural Resources embezzling the forest fire protection budget. There have been allegations of this type since 2013 and nothing has been done to probe the allegations.

Amid the bribery case in which former DNP chief Rutchada Suriyakul Na Ayutya was arrested and charged for taking bribes in exchange for promotions, related accusations emerged that officials needed to buy positions so they could reap back a profit by pocketing 30% from the fire protection budget. The government must not turn a deaf ear to this.

Corrupt officials must be held accountable. Policies that support ecologically harmful industries must be changed. The government should monitor whether farm cultivation such as maize and sugar are conducted in a sustainable manner, instead of putting the blame on the hilltribe people.

Smog and other natural calamities will persist so long as justice is ignored in favour of big businesses.


Bangkok Post editorial column

These editorials represent Bangkok Post thoughts about current issues and situations.

Email : anchaleek@bangkokpost.co.th

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