Toxic haze cure at hand
For the past decade, the upper North has been hit hard every year by toxic smog caused by forest clearings. And every year, authorities say with a straight face that it is worse than last. This year is no different. This is a travesty.
Since February, people in the the mountainous North have been suffering from severe haze pollution. The smog usually eases after Songkran when forest clearings for corn plantations end. The strong El Nino phenomenon this year, however, has aggravated and prolonged the smog.
In Mae Sai, the border town of Chiang Rai, the pollutants have reached "code red" level. The same goes for Chiang Mai where the city is blanketed with dusty air. People suffer from burning eyes, nose and throat. They have to wear masks to protect themselves.
People cannot breathe. Yet authorities responded with indifference, treating it as a normal occurrence that must be endured stoically.
It took the "Pray for Mae Sai" online campaign which quickly went viral in social media with its appeal for help from the regime leader to prompt officialdom into action, which is hardly helpful.
Wear masks, said authorities. Don't exercise outdoors, they added. More infuriating, officials insist the Mae Sai smog is a rare case and the overall haze situation this year has already improved. They also blame the Mae Sai smog on highland farmers and the Myanmar government for failing to curb forest clearings on the other side of the border.
While the government avoids blaming the agro-industry behind corn plantations on forest land, civil society is not so tame. Their online campaign points the finger at CP, the country's biggest conglomerate that controls Thailand's food industry from farm to plate, calling for accountability.
Facing pressure and a threat to boycott its food products from consumers worldwide, CP has finally promised sustainable farming in its food supply chains. While it remains to be seen how much its project can heal the denuded mountains, other agro-companies must not be allowed to escape scot-free. They too must show responsibility for the massive deforestation in the mountainous North, which directly aggravates flash floods and droughts downstream.
Banks, particularly the Bank for Agriculture and Agricultural Co-operatives, must also stop giving credit to farmers under contract farming with agro-companies to turn forests into corn plantations.
But the main culprit is the government. Human settlements are part of tropical forests, but the draconian forest laws have turned people who live in forests into criminals subject to eviction. Often, they are treated as illegal aliens, not natives of the land. Subsequently, they are robbed of land security and other basic rights, trapped in harsh poverty and robbed of a sense of forest ownership.
Who can blame them if corn plantations offer them a chance in life?
Actually, agricultural officials are accomplices in this crime of deforestation. They are supporting corn plantations by helping agro-business promote maize as a new cash crop with ready credit channels, leading to massive forest clearings and toxic haze. Heavy use of farm chemicals also pollute water downstream while contaminants enter into the food chain, causing more health hazards.
The current state policy to blame and arrest small farmers cannot save the forests nor protect public health. The big fish must be stopped, and punished.
Forest and land rights policy must recognise the legal existence of highlanders. Green farming on the hills must be promoted. Without land security and a local say in sustainable forest use and management, deforestation will worsen and toxic haze will be here to stay.
Bangkok Post editorial column
These editorials represent Bangkok Post thoughts about current issues and situations.
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