Officials in a haze

Officials in a haze

February is such a predictable month. A few days of winter linger here and there, but it is the beginning of the hot season. Warnings of water shortages come from several departments. This year, the warnings are stronger and more alarming than usual, as El Nino promises an even more dire, drier drought. And in February also comes the dangerous, choking, ever-worsening haze as farm land and forests are burnt down to make way for the new planting season.

Haze has polluted the air in parts of the North for the past week. In the coming days, it will cover most of the region. Airlines will cancel flights, schools will close, bronchial-type cases will flood clinics and hospital emergency rooms. All of this is known, predictable and preventable. That it still occurs can be put down to several faulty institutions.

Last week, the Minister of Natural Resources and Environment, Gen Surasak Karnjanarat, set up a "war room to tackle the haze problem". The government has allocated a budget of 93 million baht for its emergency efforts to fight the haze over a nine-province region in the North. It is unclear exactly what this money is meant for. Gen Surasak's war room is supposedly ready to command a task force of soldiers and officials from the Department of National Parks, Wildlife and Plant Conservation, the Royal Forest Department and the Interior Ministry. They will encourage locals to refrain from burning their fields or stagger the burning across the season.

This has become the crux of the haze problem. Gen Surasak told the media last week that local farmers "are the main cause of the haze". But they are not, and have not been for many years. While February has seen the burning of fields for many decades, it is only recently that conditions have become so bad.

The primary culprits behind the choking, dangerous pollution now enveloping the North are not farmers, but business directors. The main source of the fires is not cultivated land being prepared for re-use to plant new crops. It is forested area being cleared to make room for new crops. And the main crops that will be planted after the smoke clears are not rice and vegetables for local use. A single crop is responsible -- corn.

This statement is no longer in question. The science is clear and the facts are known, but still they remain widely ignored at the government level. The big haze problem is less than a decade old; it began in 2007. It has been traced at the local level and at the macro-market level to the growth of the animal feed business. Forests and other unused areas continue to expand every year in the northern provinces because business interests in Bangkok and abroad want to expand the sector.

Gen Surasak explained that his forces will be trying once again to catch local farmers setting or tending fires. Last year, he said, 78 arrests were made. It is clear to most observers that the arrests had no effect. The number of fires has increased every year for a decade, and maps already available on the internet show more this year than in late-February 2015.

The true source of the haze and its many problems sits in the boardrooms of corporations eager to expand production and profits. A chart of Thailand's growth in world corn markets can be overlaid on a chart of the number of fires. It is no longer acceptable to scapegoat hill tribes and slash-and-burn agriculture for the severe health and economic damage caused by this annual pollution.


Bangkok Post editorial column

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

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