Tackle haze at its roots

It's that time of a year again when suffocation from haze pollution is the order of the day in the North. Farmers cannot escape the blame for their agricultural burning. But neither can the feed and biofuel industries which encourage corn and sugar plantations on the highlands with severe consequences for the environment and public health.

As in previous years, the skies in the northern provinces have turned grey with pollutants from farm burning which runs from February to April, peaking this month.

Sitting in a valley, Chiang Mai has been hard hit this week. Fine particles in the air have increased to dangerous levels, hurting people's eyes, affecting breathing, and aggravating allergy problems. 

Other northern provinces suffer the same smog problem, if not more so. Flights to Tak have been delayed and cancelled due to poor visibility. Phrae is also covered with toxic pollutants as fires rage unabated on the hills.

All governors in the smog-hit provinces have issued crackdown orders on farm burning. As in previous years, it won't work, because they have avoided tackling the heart of the matter — unbridled contract farming on the mountains.

Several studies have pointed out that the promotion of contract farming in the highlands by agro giants has led to vast forest clearings in the mountainous North. The rapid expansion of corn and sugar plantations to supply the feed and biofuel industries have denuded mountains in the environmentally sensitive water-catchment areas.

The results are soil erosion, mud slides, flash floods, and the pollution of waterways downstream by heavy use of farm chemicals, which also endangers farmers' health. Toxic haze has become an annual health hazard with every planting season.

This fact is reiterated again in research on deforestation in Nan by Sal Forest, a research group for business sustainability, and the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP). Their study reveals that more than 60% of the plantation expansion in Nan came from forest clearing which has brought a host of environmental disasters, including the seasonal toxic haze.

Most highland farmers sell their goods to agro giants which also sell them their seeds and farm chemicals and set produce prices in contract farming deals.

Agro giants may argue that corn is necessary for the feed industry and the production of cheap foods for the masses. They will also argue that sugar is needed for the production of clean biofuel to reduce the use of fossil oil. But they cannot escape responsibility for their roles in causing deforestation and toxic haze.  

According to the study, corn farmers have least bargaining power in the food supply chain that puts cheap chicken and meat in people's meals. Farmers are highly dependent on the agro giants as to whether they buy their produce and at what prices.

As long as contract farming companies continue to buy without environmental rules, they will continue to burn their fields and expand further into lush forests. The same goes for sugar plantation farmers and the biofuel industry. 

Arresting farmers while turning a blind eye to the agro industry's contract farming on the hills is not only unfair, but it won't stop the deforestation and the haze crisis. They must tackle the source.

If farming on encroached forests is illegal, promoting and buying produce from protected areas must be illegal too. Banks which give loans to farmers must also be taken to task for supporting destructive farming. If agro industries refuse to change their ways, consumers must exercise their purchasing power by refusing to buy products that destroy the environment and public health.