Thailand — One village in Phayao takes a unique approach to conservation.
As haze from man-made fires continues to blanket the upper North, a small community in Phayao is confident a permanent solution to the problem is on the horizon.
In recent weeks, hazy skies have worsened air pollution in Phayao with dust particles measured at 224.7 microgrammes per cubic metre of air, almost twice the safe level of 120 microgrammes.
Provincial authorities met to urgently discuss relief efforts. At the meeting, they learned that the community of Banpi in tambon Wiang of Chiang Kham district has discovered novel ways to effectively prevent forest fires that contribute to the haze.
According to Thawanrat Chai-inpan, the provincial chief of disaster prevention and mitigation, people in the community have established a strong committee that unites villagers in forest conservation and bush fire prevention.
The community operates a fund for the cause and rallies help from people within the villages to build firebreaks.
“Provincial authorities recognise that this [fire prevention] is an urgent issue. Our community is now a model for creating a long-term solution to forest fires and haze,” Mr Thawanrat said.
He said the concept of community forests – which compels villagers to become attached to the forests through picking wild food and taking what they need from the trees to sustain their livelihood – has now been forged. It has provided the villagers with an incentive to conserve the forests.
Tan Jaidee, former mayor of Tambon Bansai municipality and adviser to the Banpi community forest committee, said people in Moo 1 through to Moo 10 villages which make up the Banpi community have joined forces to build firebreaks to protect their forest which covers 700 rai, or 1.12 square kilometres, before the dry season every year.
During the dry season, at least two villagers take turns patrolling and spending the night in the forest on a daily basis to watch out for bush fires.
The people take their own meals and drinking water to the forest during their patrols and firebreak preparation.
Some of them do the job for free while others who are not well off are paid a daily wage of 150-200 baht per person. The money comes from the community’s forest fund solicited from donations by government and private organisations which take part in forest conservation.
“The forests are a lifeline for the villagers. Without the forests, life would be difficult for Banpi people because they are like a living supermarket. Without them, the villagers would not have water, income or even life,” Mr Tan said.
The forest committee meets every month and members stress the necessity of protecting the forests around their neighbourhood.
Tatpong Jaidee, head of Moo 10 village and chairman of the Banpi community forest committee, said the community forests that villagers protect are the last remaining expanse of fertile forests near to them.
The forests connect to nearby reserves such as Nam Pueai, Nam Yuan and Nam Lao, said Mr Tatpong who is Mr Tan’s son.
The community forests had been left in a deteriorated state from heavy logging a long time ago.
In 1918, people in the community realised the importance of the forests as a source of precious water. The villagers joined forces to rehabilitate the forests especially in watershed areas.
Fourteen years later, the villagers started serious protection of the forests to the west of their community. They physically forced out outsiders as well as fellow villagers who had set out to fell trees.
In 1987, a substantial limestone deposit was discovered in the forests, attracting an investor who sought a state concession to mine the mineral. However, the villagers feared the operation would damage the forests and mounted stiff resistance outside the district office. The protest put a stop to the attempt to set up the mine.
In 1995, a devastating flood swept many illegally-cut logs towards the community. However, the forests around the community stopped the logs which would have flattened the villages with a direct hit.
In the following year, Her Majesty the Queen recognised the successful attempts of villagers to protect the community forest and bestowed a specially-designed flag in recognition of the success.
In 2009, PTT Plc presented a Green Globe award to Banpi community for the forest protection.
Mr Tatpong said villagers insist on maintaining their struggle to protect the forests.
They have received support from government offices, local administration organisations, monks and non-government organisations.
He said the forests provided for the villagers and saved lives. They mitigate the effects of floods and supply water all year long, while being the source of food and extra income for locals. Many families pick ant eggs for sale at a local market, earning at least 1,000 baht a day each, he said.
Villagers can also collect honey from the forests and part of the money earned goes to the community’s fund every year.
The forests of the Banpi community cover a large concentration of the prized Maka Mong (Afzelia xylocarpa) trees. The maka mong hardwood is sought after by furniture makers and the trees have been the subject of heavy illegal logging in the past.
The forests have now turned into an open-air classroom for people who trek into the woods to learn about useful plants and herbs, which have been the villagers’ “evergreen medicine cabinet” for generations.
Mr Tatpong and Mr Tan said the villagers take pride in their conservation efforts and realise that without the forest, they would be in trouble.
“Most importantly, if we do not hurt nature and protect the forests, then nature will not hurt us,” they said.