In 2009, Smog In The City envisioned a not-too-distant future for Chiang Mai. Set in 2019, Fah returns home to find her family and villagers suffering from air pollution. Following a critical level of toxic haze, the government orders a state of emergency and immediate evacuation. After her mother dies of smog-induced acute coronary syndrome, she rushes to take her family to an airport like other evacuees. While her father and brother deteriorate, a couple approaches her car for drinking water.
"Chiang Mai is not like I remember," says a foreign tourist with a fond memory of the northern city. "Air pollution has destroyed it."
As the story unfolds, Fah wakes up from a bad dream, but it offers a cautionary tale of the airpocalypse at the time of its release. After Dr Chaicharn Pothirat, a lecturer at Chiang Mai University's Faculty of Medicine, noticed that smog obscured the top view of Doi Suthep in 2007, he decided to write a script and directed a short film to raise public awareness about air pollution. Despite the scientific evidence, it attracted criticism for exaggerating the situation and damaging the tourism industry.
A few years later, Doi Suthep vanished. On March 18, 2012, mask-clad campaigners marched from the Rin Kham Intersection to the walking street in Tha Pae. Banners read "Stop gassing our children" and "Demand the right to clean air". Some showed images of hamburgers, cows, corn plantations and burning to highlight factors that contribute to the toxic haze. After all, human food is derived from livestock, animal feed, forest encroachment and burning. As a result, nobody can deny involvement.
After years of recurrent smog, legal action has now begun. On April 10, campaigners filed lawsuits in the Administrative Court against caretaker Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha, the National Environment Board, the Securities and Exchange Commission, and the Capital Market Supervisory Board, for failing to tackle annual haze in the North. After the court dismissed the last two, they appealed on May 18 on the grounds they are responsible for ensuring that business practices observe human rights and environmental principles.
An uphill battle for clean air demonstrates an attempt to redress environmental injustice that has been deeply entrenched in government policy for over five decades. In The Environmentalism Of The Poor, Prof Emeritus Joan Martinez-Alier of the Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona explains that the environmental justice movement points out the increased impact of economic growth on the environment. Industrial countries are advancing into new territories to fulfil the growing demand for raw materials or consumption goods.
"This creates impacts that have already been felt disproportionately by some social groups before there is time to redress through economic policy or changes in technology," he said.
In the age of US-led development, Sarit Thanarat launched the first Economic and Social Development Plan in 1961, but the main beneficiaries were business groups, especially Chinese-Thai entrepreneurs. According to Greenpeace Thailand, the country has since shifted from traditional to industrial agriculture, including maize cultivation. A turning point came in 2004 when the Ayeyawaddy-Chao Phraya-Mekong Economic Cooperation Strategy paved the way for a certain conglomerate to implement contract farming in neighbouring countries.
After the military coup in 2014, the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) introduced the "cash crop strategy" that promotes the cultivation of four economic plants including maize and sugar cane by offering subsidies, low-interest rates, and fertilisers and seeds to interested farmers. Currently, the free tax rate policy for maize imports from neighbouring countries and other schemes like maize price guarantee and insurance are in place.
"We are suffering from transboundary haze. After cultivation starts in November, maize is stored in Myanmar's Shan and then imported from February to August. It has flooded in since the NCPO took power. Why do we have to bear the brunt [of burning]?," said Chaiyon Srisamut, mayor of tambon Mae Sai in Chiang Rai, in a public forum at the Bangkok Art and Culture Centre last week.
While polluters are let off the hook, farmers and community residents are at the heart of environmental injustice. On the one hand, inequality plunges farmers (informal workers) into contract farming for financial security. In the face of low productivity due to monoculture farming, lack of government support for alternative cash crops and rising debt force them to continue low-cost burning. On the other hand, northern communities are more subject to health risks and economic impacts from transboundary haze.
"People from low-income backgrounds financially struggle to afford protective masks and air purifiers. It is exposing other problems that have been swept under the rug, especially inequality," said Chanoknan Nantawan of the Somdul Chiang Mai Group.
It is the despair-turned-tacit acceptance that self-protection is key to coping with transboundary haze that shrouds the North every year. But the recent victory of the democracy camp in the general election has renewed public hope for bringing about environmental justice. The Move Forward Party will now table the clean air bill and pollutant release and transfer rights for consideration by parliament. It will also adopt good agricultural practices to impose an import ban on agricultural products related to burning.
Clean air is a basic human right that is violated seasonally. In fact, Dr Chaicharn's speculative film is not far from today's reality. Some northerners have relocated to the South for a better environment. But if it continues this way, nobody can avoid pollution's far-reaching impact. By adhering to the will of voters, only the democratic government, if allowed to be formed, can reverse the country's pro-conglomerate policy and rebalance economic growth with environmental protection. Let's pray that we are not deprived of a breath of fresh air.
Thana Boonlert is a feature writer for the Life section of the Bangkok Post.