Thailand — Provincial governors have refused to declare their provincesdisaster zones again for fear this will affect Songkran festival tourism. Butthe Department of National Parks, Wildlife and Plant Conservation are to givenorthern farmers an ultimatum: Stop “mobile farming”, the polite termfor slash-and-burn – or face legal action.
Chiang Mai governor Wichai Srikwan said the dust is a minor problem and itcan be brought under control.
Thick smog set in on Sunday – two days after the Chiang Mai and Chiang Raigovernors lifted their disaster zone status.
The Pollution Control Department yesterday instructed people in the North,particularly those with respiratory problems and the elderly, to avoid outdooractivities.
The level of dust particles smaller than 10 microns was measured at 128microgrammes per cubic metre (ug/cu m) in Chiang Mai, 142 in Chiang Rai and 160in Mae Hong Son, which exceeds the accepted safety standard of 120 ug/cu m.
Junnapong Saranak, director of the Tourism Authority of Thailand’s NorthernRegion 1, conceded that air pollution has affected tourism in the region, assome tourists had cancelled travel plans.
However, his office had assured tour agents and travellers that the situationhad improved and he expected a huge number of visitors during the Songkranfestival from April 13 to 15.
Duangchan Charoenmuang of Chiang Mai University blamed the authorities for ashort-sighted approach to air pollution, which has recurred each year.
She called for systemic management and public participation in dealing with allsources of pollution.
Her view contradicts those of state officials who have only focused on forestfires and slash-and-burn farming as the causes of the problem.
The chief of the public health office in Chiang Rai, Thepnaruemit Methawin, said20,085 residents were treated for respiratory ailments and sore eyes over thepast two weeks.
So-called mobile plantations are an agricultural practice widely used by farmersliving in the mountainous areas in the North, especially those from ethnicminorities who traditionally moved from place to place, from valley to valley,clearing highland areas for plantation, and leaving fields fallow for a seasonor two to regain nutrients.
Such slash and burn agriculture is deemed as a major cause of the smoke and hazeengulfing the northern region at present.
Flying by helicopter to inspect the forest fire raging across the mountainousnorthern province of Mae Hon Son on Tuesday, the department’s Deputy DirectorGeneral, Samran Rakchart, said a few hot spots were seen in some areas of Mae Hong Son and nearby Chiang Mai.
The forest fires in the region are mostly caused by farmers who encroach andburn the reserved forests to clear land for crops. If such mobile plantation isstopped, forestry officials say, the forest fires will decline.
In an effort to minimise the forest fire problem, he said, department officialswill first ask for cooperation from farmers to refrain from burning. But if theyfail to cooperate and continue their slash and burn practices, the departmentwill take harsh legal action against them.
Meanwhile, Chiang Mai governor Vichai Srikwan said provincial authorities meetto assess the haze situation every morning. Tuesday registered a slightlyimproved situation, but the province will continue daily monitoring until theproblem is fully resolved.
Judging from the improving situation, the governor said there is no need forChiang Mai to be declared as environmental disaster zone again. He assured thepublic that the smoke and haze problem will be completely resolved before theSongkran festival in mid-April.
The annual water festival celebration draws millions of tourists from around theworld to the northern capital city, he said, promising that attendees will notbe affected by the haze or otherwise disappointed this year.