Thailand — Almost half of Thailand’s forests have been destroyed by man-made fires, yet those who fight this menace are sorely under-funded and short-staffed.
Smoke, curling from the charred remnants of tropical undergrowth, snakes around the twisted, black roots of an overturned tree. Flames outline the stark silhouettes of a string of tall evergreens. A peat swamp on fire, haze billowing from underneath the soil, obscures the view of a rag-tag team of men attempting to put the flames out. During Thailand’s “fire season” from December to May, these scenes could be playing out at any time of the day, anywhere in the country. From small flare-ups to rapidly spreading conflagrations, forest fires – almost always man-made – have destroyed almost half of the country’s forests over the past 40 years, turning woodland into grassland, endangering animal species and threatening the water supply.
Siri Akaakara, director of the Forest Fire Control Division, in Hua Hin
Hundreds of firefighters tackle the forest fire at Phu Kradung.
The deciduous forest was destroyed by the blaze.
Unfortunately, the people Thailand depends on to fight these fires are also under threat of becoming endangered, and not just because of the fires.
A dwindling budget in a country with no strong history of environmental activism makes even recruitment an onerous task.
“Each year, firefighters are injured or killed by fire,” said Siri Akaakara, director of the Forest Fire Control Division, a division of the Royal Forest Department. Two men died and scores were injured just last year.
However, budgetary constraints have made recruitment and even enlisting volunteers a challenge.
“In Thailand, volunteering doesn’t work well because we cannot support them,” Mr Siri, 50, said. “We don’t have the money to pay them, so we cannot recruit them. If they come and help us, they lose their earnings for the day. They have to think of their stomachs and their children first.”
Forest fires and the men who fight them could seem like a remote issue for those who dwell among the skyscrapers and office buildings of Bangkok. But fires have already run rampant across much of the country. As of 2000, forest cover had fallen to 28% of Thailand, down from 51% in 1961, much of it lost to “slash-and-burn” cultivation techniques, largely in the north.
And disappearing forests are not just a problem in Thailand. According to a recent EU-commissioned study that calculated the value of the various services that forests perform (such as providing clean water, the annual cost of forest loss amounts to between US$2 to US$5 trillion (70 trillion to 175 trillion baht), dwarfing the losses sustained by the global financial crisis.
HELP FROM FRIENDS
To try to bolster Thailand’s firefighting efforts, Mr Siri’s friends are piling on to the anti-forest fire bandwagon. Long-time environmentalists who met while scuba-diving 10 years ago, these friends – who include movie director Nonzee Nimibutr, a recipient of this year’s Silpathorn award for film – are hoping to raise money for firefighters who need training and aid.
Veerathorn Earsakul, owner of scuba diving agency Blue Shark Divers, said he became interested in the firefighters’ cause after visiting an old and very large forest in the North, part of a network of Thai forests that is disappearing at a rate of 0.7% a year.
“I felt, with these huge trees surrounding us, that no matter how many new ones you plant, you would never [again] get gigantic trees like this,” said the 44-year-old. “And now we have global warming, which makes forests even more important.”
A former banker, Mr Veerathorn – who helped with the underwater shots for the film Queen of Lankasuka, which incorporates a subtle homage to Mr Nonzee’s longstanding love of marine life – first became involved in volunteer work and environmental issues in the aftermath of the December 2004 tsunami, which claimed nearly 5,000 lives.
Even after helping corral “two Mack trucks of stuff” in relief aid, some of the donation money remained, Mr Veerathorn said. He and his friends then banded together to form a new environmental group, devoted to shoring up the coral reefs off the Southeast Asian coastline.
“The minute I did it, something changed,” said Mr Veerathorn of his first trip to rebuild the reefs. “It touched me. It wasn’t just an action. It went deep inside of me. I want to use this concept, get other people to have this same feeling.”
The group of friends now wants to take the experience gained in setting up reef rebuilding efforts and apply it to helping Thailand’s beleaguered forest firefighters, who are in need of training and equipment and whose families require relief aid if they are injured or killed.
The friends even have a mascot – the pulu turtle, an endangered species that cannot retract into its shell but can climb trees, making it highly vulnerable to forest fires.
“Training is the most important thing at this moment,” said Mr Siri. “We’re not going to send people without training to fight fires. We would be sending them to their deaths.”
The main problem, Mr Veerathorn says, is that there is simply not enough money. “This has been going on for a long time,” he said.
“We are not a rich country. We don’t have enough of a budget to cover everything. Thailand may be better off than its neighbours, but we have to consider what our first priorities are.”
Siri says that of the 300 million baht allocated to his division to fight fires, “we are able to cover 20% of the total forested areas”.
Even worse, government regulations don’t allow for the direct solicitation of funds.
“They give us moral support, but not a budget,” Mr Siri said of the government, adding that His Majesty King Bhumibol Adulyadej had set up a 3.5-million-baht “Forest Fire Fund” for firefighters who are injured or killed.
MATTER OF CONVENIENCE
Because firefighting costs a lot of money, Mr Siri says he is focusing on prevention and education. That starts at the grassroots level, particularly in the North, where 56% of Thailand’s remaining forests grow.
However, people are proving their own worst enemy, setting fires to clear land for cultivation that often grow out of control and lead to widespread destruction.
“Once you finish educating them, well, they still work, they still grow rice, and no one is there,” said Mr Veerathorn of persistent slash-and-burn cultivation practices. “It’s a matter of convenience.”
Mr Siri agrees. “I tell people, ‘If you set a forest fire, in the future you will have no water for your children.’ They say: ‘But by then I’ll already be dead’. This is really how Thais think.”
Because of this, an overwhelming number – more than 90% – of forest fires are started by people clearing fields. Other fires are also deliberately started. People often set fire to trees to “stimulate” the growth of mushrooms or chase out animals for food. There have only been four recorded cases of fires started by lightning since 1985.
Mr Siri says he is sometimes frustrated by stalled attempts to educate people, especially in the North, where 50% of his division’s limited budget is spent. Yet he remains optimistic. “If you can solve the problem of littering or jaywalking in Bangkok, you can solve this problem,” he said.