Govt jumped gun on causes of haze 

22 March 2007

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Thailand — Chiang Mai farmer Mongkol Tiya hesitates over whether he shouldlight a fire to burn some dry leaves and rubbish in his backyard. Since hishometown has been shrouded by haze, farmers such as him have been under closewatch by state authorities, who believe the haze mainly stems from burning onfarms for agricultural purposes, and burning of waste by householders.

But according to agricultural and environmental experts, the haze does notresult from any particular causes.

In fact, experts say that it has more to do with unusual weather patternswhich have occurred in the northern region for some time since late last year.

Mr Mongkol, who lives in Ban Nong Khwai in Hang Dong district, said thevillage head has asked villagers not to burn anything at the moment.

But having lived in the village for more than 40 years, he said burningrubbish was part of the villagers’ lives.

Although the tambon administration organisation recently introduced a rubbishcollection service, some villagers are used to burning waste, mainly dry leaves.

But since the haze has worsened, villagers have also felt the effects, so nowtried to refrain from burning, Mr Mongkol said.

”When the air is bad, we can’t live happily either,” he said.

The issue of proper waste management has been discussed by authorities,including Chiang Mai governor Vichai Srikwan, as a means to reduce theconcentration of small dust particles generated by burning.

Some local administration organisations have proper rubbish collections,while others have none.

An official at the Nong Khwai tambon administration organisation (TAO) saidit has collected only household rubbish, which mainly comprises wet waste, andsends it to other TAOs with better management facilities.

However, most local organisations do not have adequate landfill facilities,so they sometimes dump the rubbish in unused land plots.

Besides the burning of rubbish by local residents, authorities have also beenkeeping an eye on agricultural burning.

However, an agriculture official working in the northern region said burningfarmland in preparation for the next crop was not popular among northern farmersin lowland areas, who mostly grow vegetables and corn.

Only certain types of crops require farmland burning before planting a newcrop, she said.

Mr Mongkol burned his rice field to clear the land for soybean plantation.Farm burning activities in his village ended two months ago, he said.

The public and some state officials have suspected that burning in thehighlands is the prime cause of the haze.

The officials said fires are intentionally started by highlanders to preparetheir farmland and to search for forest products such as the popular thobmushroom.

Villagers say forest fires will trigger the growth of the wild mushroom.

Since early this month forestry officials have detected around 4,300 ‘hotspots’ in the North, and around 1,800 of them were in protected forest land.

Hot spots are areas with high ground temperatures detected by aheat-sensitive satellite, mostly forest fires.

Atchara Rakyuttitham, an independent researcher studying the occurrence ofwildfires in the north, said the government jumped to conclusions about the hazecrisis too soon.

The real causes lay elsewhere, she said.

Ms Atchara said different groups of highlanders used agricultural fires inmany different ways.

Hmong villagers, who live on the mountain-tops, rarely use fires in theirfarming practices since many of them plant cabbages, which do not need fires toprepare plantation land.

Karen villagers, living on lower land, conduct shifting cultivation, underwhich farmland is divided into smaller plots. The Karen burn some of the plotseach year to clear the land for farming, and rotate to others in the followingyear.

”Use of fire in the highlands is regulated at a certain level, or peoplecan’t sustain their livelihoods,” said Ms Atchara.

”The question is whether authorities have already understood these factsbefore coming up with any measures to intervene in the highland system,” shesaid.

Fires played a crucial role in forest restoration, but state authoritiesoften viewed them as harmful.

Anond Snidvongs, director of the Southeast Asia START Regional centre, whichobserves global climate patterns, said this year’s weather pattern was unusual,and was connected to the haze problem in the North.

He said a cold mass from China has lingered over the northern region longerthan usual, which had trapped heat and haze in the northern valleys, resultingin worsening air pollution.

The cold mass had shown no sign so far that it would leave the region, so theNorth was likely to experience haze problems for at least another one or twoweeks. ”We should pay attention to relationships between global and localweather patterns, since they influence one another and affect us all,” said MrAnond.

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