SOUTH EAST ASIA – In January, I wrote about the effects of agricultural burning upon Bangkok, and now I want to address the problem in Chiang Mai. Earlier this week residents there suffered the worst air pollution in the entire world, with PM2.5 at very unhealthy levels. The pollution is responsible for already over 30,000 people visiting hospitals for respiratory illnesses this year.
An estimated 90% of particulate matter emissions derive from open burning due to agriculture. Satellite data revealed most of the burning originates from Thailand’s neighbours, with the number of hotspots in Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar vastly exceeding the amount within Thailand. In response, Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha on Tuesday stated that the solution to reduce pollution in Chiang Mai was to cooperate more with neighbours.
While certainly more cooperation with these neighbouring countries is a positive step, Thai leaders actually have the capacity to control the actions of Thai companies who profit from the smoke that originates in neighbouring countries.
This increase in hotspots is tied to a regional boom in maize investment and production for the animal feed industry mainly for export, and this growth has largely been driven by increased consumption of meat, especially in China. In Laos and Myanmar, particularly Shan State, farmers have switched to growing maize for export because they can sell it for a higher price and in larger quantities than other crops.
One company that has played a prominent role in this expansion is Thailand’s largest one, Charoen Pokphand (CP) group. Maize became the main cash crop in Myanmar due to CP’s contract farming scheme for industrial maize in Shan State which they use to supply China’s chicken-feed market. CP is now the largest animal feed manufacturer in the country. Similarly, maize production in Laos has recently increased, with the maize largely being sold to CP Vietnam, a subsidiary of CP and a meat producer.
It is not only CP but also other major Thai corporations who have invested in agriculture in Thailand’s neighbours and are therefore contributing to the transboundary air pollution. For example, Mitr Phol and Khon Kaen Sugar Industry (KKSL), large sugar producers, have expanded into Cambodia and Laos with plantation-style operations measuring tens of thousands of hectares. Burning from sugarcane is another major source of PM2.5 emissions.
Daniel Hayward of Chiang Mai University has blamed transboundary pollution on the prioritisation of agricultural investment policies over environmental regulations in these countries. He asked, “How can we expect farmers to stop burning their land if they do not receive sufficient extension services and equitable contracts with agricultural corporations to promote sustainable, environmentally-sensitive practices?”
Both Asean and the Thai government have so far not succeeded in curbing transboundary pollution arising from biomass burning in Thailand’s neighbours. Asean members have signed and ratified the Asean Agreement on Transboundary Haze Pollution. Further, they adopted the Haze-free Roadmap in 2017 with the vision of achieving a haze-free Asean by 2020. However, both the roadmap and agreement have failed. One reason for their failures is the lack of penalties for non-compliance which is partially due to Asean’s culture of non-interference.
A former senior Pollution Control Department official stated, “The Thai government cannot do much, only talk.” As University of Sydney Emeritus Professor Phil Hirsch notes, since the agreement lacks provisions for enforcement or prosecution of culprits, this enforcement is “left to the legal and policing mechanisms of the state in question”.
But none of Thailand’s neighbours have cracked down on agricultural burning.
At the same time, the Thai government was the chair of Asean in 2019 but it did not take this opportunity to raise a discussion of transboundary haze at the Asean ministerial level. An NGO activist explained to me: “There was no political will from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. If they [the Thai government] tabled this discussion, it may backfire. Other countries might ask so who is burning and how do you manage your own air pollution?”
As she suggested, the Thai government feared that an Asean-level discussion of transboundary air pollution would expose the major involvement of Thai companies in neighbouring countries.
Another barrier is that these Thai agribusinesses have yet to assume responsibility for their role. As a Greenpeace official asserted: “There is a gap in the law — these companies who invest in maize, set-up a shell company in other countries where they have no responsibility for human rights violations and Thai law cannot do anything.” She also lamented that her organisation had launched a report on burning scars but “no companies came out and took responsibility”.
Hence, the combination of limited political will from the Thai government, the lack of teeth to punish non-compliers within Asean’s frameworks, and the lack of corporate social responsibility shown by these Thai companies have made it difficult to address this issue at the transboundary level.
The ones who profit the most from biomass burning which affects Chiang Mai are Thai agribusiness conglomerates. But neither are they penalised nor does the Thai government or the wider public reproach them.
Instead of merely asking for cooperation from neighbouring countries, perhaps Thai leaders could find ways to shame these companies and punish them so that they are pressured to reduce their burning. One model, although imperfect, could be Singapore’s Transboundary Haze Pollution Act which was enacted in 2014. This law imposes criminal and civil liability on Singaporean companies which contribute to Singapore’s transboundary haze.
Simultaneously, the Thai public could also pressure these companies through protests, boycotts, and supporting a much-needed new law, the Thai Clean Air Act. If properly enforced, this law could better regulate these companies’ transboundary activities. Without such public and private pressure, Chiang Mai and other Thai cities will continue to suffer and Thais will continue to be denied the human right to breathe clean air.
Danny Marks is an Assistant Professor of Environmental Politics and Policy at Dublin City University.