Amid northern haze, a burning desire for wealth
As the seasonal smoke worsens, the forest fires caused by a lucrative mushroom trade and other foragers are only exaggerating the problem
Every day, Sai makes her way to a local fresh market in Chiang Mai’s Omkoi district, where she runs a small stand selling vegetables. For much of the year, it’s the 58-year-old’s sole source of income, bringing in less than 300 baht per day.
But once a year, as the annual haze of the dry season settles over the North, Sai’s revenue receives a boost.
“I go into the forest around my village and collect red ant eggs,” Sai said.
Finding the eggs, a northern culinary delicacy, is not easy, which helps explain their high price. On a good day, Sai can earn up to 1,500 baht.
But her methods of collection can have unintended, and potentially devastating, consequences.
When Sai finds an ant nest, she places it on a threshing basket, which she shakes until the red ants flee and only the eggs remain.
“But sometimes it is too slow to shake and wait, so I throw some dry leaves into the basket and light them on fire to scare the ants away,” she explained.
When she’s done, she intentionally throws the burning leaves onto the ground and covers them with dried forest litter before walking away.
Sai said she is fully aware that a fire will follow, but she doesn’t care.
After all, something even more valuable than ant eggs is lurking beneath the foliage on the forest floor.
Delicacies: The much sought-after ‘hed thob’ mushrooms, left, and red ants eggs, right.
CAVIAR OF THE FOREST
“All I really want is hed thob,” Sai told Spectrum, using the northern term for hed pho, a small, bulbous black mushroom which grows only during the dry season.
Locating the prized fungus is a difficult but highly lucrative endeavour — some villages can earn as much as a million baht from a single season.
The mushrooms grow on the forest floor and are difficult to spot beneath the thick layer of dried leaves which blanket it. The easiest way to find them is to simply set fire to the undergrowth, then search the cleared ground.
“What else can we do? The easiest way to make money quickly is to burn the unwanted foliage to get what I want,” Sai said.
While harvesting the mushrooms only requires burning a small patch of land, Sai admitted the fires can easily grow out of control, contributing to the perennial haze problem which afflicts residents of the North.
If that happens, Sai said she and other mushroom foragers would not report the blaze to the local fire department, as doing so would lead to their arrest.
Usually, she just runs away, hoping the fire will die out naturally. Sometimes, it doesn’t.
Besides the million-baht mushroom, many villagers like Sai believe that fire can help stimulate the growth of certain types of vegetables, such as pak wan or star gooseberry, bamboo shoots and other mushroom varieties.
“It’s only once a year that these types of plants grow, and it’s the only time of the year that I can actually make money,” Sai said.
Standard fare: Vendors selling wild mushrooms in the North typically make less money the rest of the year.
TIP OF THE ICEBERG
The haze crisis that grips large swathes of the North during the dry season — commonly called the “burning season” by local farmers — is worsening each year, bringing with it a raft of health and economic problems.
The Fire Control Division, part of the Department of National Parks, Wildlife and Plant Conservation (DNP), has long imposed a ban on all burning as it looks for ways to solve the problem. Rewards of 5,000 baht are also offered to anyone who can provide information leading to an arrest.
According to statistics from the Fire Control Division, the three provinces that bear the brunt of the problems are Chiang Mai, Mae Hong Son and Lampang.
The data also shows that the leading cause of forest fires in those provinces was locals hunting for mushrooms. In Chiang Mai it happened 754 times, in Mae Hong Son 84 times, and in Lampang 216 times.
But Decho Chaitup, the manager of the Chiang Mai-based Sustainable Development Foundation, said burning for mushrooms and other plants is only a tiny part of the bigger picture, and that the official data is flawed.
He said there are 2,066 villages in Chiang Mai province, about 1,600 of which are situated in forest areas. But he said burning for mushrooms contributed to less than 18% of the North’s haze problem.
Mr Decho identified four primary causes of haze: forest fires, agricultural burn-off, pollution from cities and industrial estates, and similar problems happening in bordering countries like Laos and Myanmar.
“Quantity wise, forest fires are the number one cause of haze,” Mr Decho said. “Among all 10 million rai of land in Chiang Mai, there are four million rai of dry deciduous dipterocarp forest, which is prone to fire.
“The agricultural industry takes up only 20% of that overall land.”
Hunting is also a problem, as hunters often burn forest land to clear the way for the creation of open grass fields, which attract wildlife and allow animals to be trapped or killed more easily.
The Fire Control Division said 9,606 rai of forest land in Chiang Mai was burned in the first three months of this year. But according to research conducted by Mr Decho and an academic from Chiang Mai University, that figure is closer to three million rai.
“The official number recorded by Fire Control Department is based on the cases for which arrests are made. Then they use that record to determine the cause of haze, which is wrong,” Mr Decho said.
Scorched earth policy: A farmer burns off fields near Mae Chaem in northern Thailand. The government has a strict no-burning policy which many hill tribes ignore.
Though forest fires occur naturally, many researchers believe they are being increasingly driven by human activity. Assistant professor Watcharapong Tachajapong, a lecturer and researcher from the Faculty of Engineering at Chiang Mai University, said many fires are started by the crop rotation methods local farmers employ.
“Many locals rotate their farm plots, which means they have to burn plots each year to get them ready for the next harvest,” Mr Watcharapong said. “The small embers from those farmland fires can often fly out and fall into the forest.”
With a zero burning policy, the forest floor collects up to two tonnes of dry leaves and other litter per rai per year — if a fire does break out, it will be almost impossible to contain.
“When a fire eventually does come through and burns all those leaves, the temperature might be high enough to kill all of the trees,” Mr Watcharapong said.
He warned the effects of climate change would likely worsen the situation in coming years, saying he has noticed changing wind patterns in recent years.
Flames in the trees: Without a backburning policy, up to two tonnes of leaf litter can gather on each rai of land each year, meaning any fire that starts has the potential to spread quickly.
While the law forbids anyone from burning forest land, for members of the Karen communities and other hill tribes which populate the mountains around Chiang Mai, belief is more important than legislation.
Jonni Lukusao, a 72-year-old Karen man who lives in Chiang Mai’s Samoeng district, told Spectrum that tradition teaches his people to bond with nature from the moment they are born.
“We Karen believe that the spirit comes from the seed of the tree. So when a child is born, the parents will have to cut part of the umbilical cord and tie it to a tree,” he said. “No one can then harm that tree since it has a holy spirit and spiritual belief.
“We live with the forest, we eat food from the forest, when we die we return our bodies to the forest. How can anyone accuse us of burning the forest to find mushrooms and sell them for money?”
But Mr Jonni said that since government-backed logging companies invaded the forest and cut down the spiritual trees several decades ago, local beliefs began to slowly die out.
The villagers’ reliance on the land has slowly waned, as members of the younger generation move to towns and cities for jobs, returning home only occasionally. Spiritual belief has little value in their increasingly capitalist world, and Mr Jonni said younger people are now more willing to burn down forest land in a short-sighted pursuit of money.
“Preu”, a Hmong man from Nan province, is working hard to save money for the things he wants to buy.
“I want to have a motorcycle to ride around on, I want to buy a new mobile phone to keep in touch with friends, and I want to have a lot of money to do the things I want,” he said.
Preu employs slash and burn methods of crop rotation, and also hunts for mushrooms and other plants in the forest. He said he is willing to remove anything from the forest that will earn him the cash he needs for consumer goods.
“I won’t lie and say that I haven’t burned the forest,” he said. “I intended to burn only small areas just to find mushrooms. I would put 10 incense sticks on the ground and walk away.
“One time there was a big fire which took many days to die out.”
“Da”, a Hmong woman, also uses the fiery farming methods.
She said the technique saves a lot of time and money. For many, it is the only economically viable way of farming in the steep, mountainous terrain.
“Not only I can get rid of the leftover trees from that plot of land, I can also get free high quality fertiliser to use on my next crops,” she said.
LOSS OF FAITH
People who live in forest areas often protect the land as part of their home, and have been forced to manage fires long before government departments stepped in to take over.
But this connection has slowly been severed as ethnic groups have been forced from their traditional lands.
Prayong Doklamyai, the vice-president of the Northern Development Foundation, explained that 100 years ago the government granted logging concessions to Thai and foreign companies in the North's mountainous areas.
“When local tribal people saw how the government allowed these companies to come to their village and cut down the trees they had tried to protect for generations, they felt as though they had been betrayed,” Mr Prayong said.
When all the large trees were gone, the concessions stopped. But the locals lost faith and felt like the forests had been opened up for exploitation. Some no longer wanted to protect the forest.
In 1985, a law was enacted that required 25% of all land in the country to be protected forest, while 15% was allocated as “productive forest” that was open for commercial logging and agriculture.
Many hill tribes lived within the 25% designated as protected areas, and were forced to move.
But many hill tribes who remain in the forest still adhere to the traditions of their ancestors, which includes controlled burning of the forest.
Mr Prayong said they were being used as scapegoats for the haze problem.
“The DNP used the law against local people’s lifestyles, and has blamed them for the forest fires that have happened for generations,” Mr Prayong said. “They basically can’t do anything to the forest. Even to pick up leaves or allow their animals to eat the grass would be against the law.”
LET IT BURN
Mr Prayong said burning can have benefits, so long as it is controlled. He said he had conducted extensive research which showed controlled backburning had little effect on the environment but could help keep haze under control.
“I ran a test by burning 1,000 rai of land inside a 10,000-rai plot. It turned out that the other trees on the plot absorbed 100% of the carbon dioxide created from the burning,” Mr Prayong claimed.
“If we allow the local community to manage the problem by themselves legally, forest fires will no longer exist.”
Chiang Mai University's Mr Watcharapong has been conducting research in Chomthong district of Chiang Mai, which covers Doi Inthanon and the Op Luang area, since 2009.
He explained that Thailand has adopted its fire management system from Western countries, imposing a blanket ban on all burning activities. But it has failed to implement Western strategies of effective backburning and fire containment.
Locals who abide by the no-burn law say that when a natural fire forest does occur after years of no burning, it arrives with far greater ferocity.
“They told me the fire was big and it was unstoppable. This type of fire can do more harm to the trees and the ecology,” Mr Watcharapong said.
He said that when no burning activity occurs, dry leaves and other forest litter will pile up higher, providing an ideal environment for fires.
Mr Watcharapong ran an experiment in a village to see whether backburning operations before the dry season could help keep the problem under control.
“Early burning works very well, because we burn the forest when there are less dry leaves. Then when the dry season does arrive, there will be less fuel for the fires to consume, so there is less smoke and less damage,” Mr Watcharapong said.
If this approach were implemented across the North, and in neighbouring countries, Mr Watcharapong said the haze problem would disappear entirely within five years.
Mr Decho added that pre-dry season burning not only creates less smoke, but also still enables locals to find mushrooms and other plants without the risk of starting a large fire.
“What is more difficult to manage is people’s attitudes,” he said. “If officials and people in the cities try to understand the nature of forest fires and locals’ lifestyles, they will then realise that controlled burning is necessary.” n