Thailand — The haze problem in the North is being worsened by the burning of forest areas to grow crops such as corn for ethanol production, researchers and local officials have said.
According to research data and field examinations by the Chiang Mai office of the Natural Resources and Environment Ministry, forest hotspots identified are areas being cleared by burning in the dry season for mono-cropping, the growing of the same crop every year.
The Bangkok Post Sunday joined a helicopter survey of the area last week with department officials which showed fresh clearing and burning under way.
“The more remote the areas are, the more clearing and burning of forests goes on, and the more haze is contributed to the atmosphere,” said Bunpot Kantasen, chief of the local office.
“If we allow the practice to continue I’m afraid that within the next 10 years we will lose almost all our forests.”
Officials believe mono-cropping has been encouraged by the government’s ethanol use policy which has resulted in higher price for crops such as corn. Ash from the burning also reduces nutrients in the soil.
Chiang Mai University geographers studying satellite images for the past five years found that haze levels differed depending on the time of year and where the burning was taking place.
In December, burning hot spots were mainly found in areas below 400m above sea level, with most of the burn-offs attributed to gardening and seasonal crops.
From January it was mainly in areas between 400m and 600m above sea level in deciduous forests. This was attributed to locals burning leaves and undergrowth to lessen the severity of forest fires.
From mid-February most of the burning was in higher areas and believed to be a result of mixed activities such as collecting forest flora, rotation farming and mono-cropping.
March was identified as the most intense month for burning off, with the situation easing in late April.
Lead researcher Suthinee Dontree said most of the burning from late February and March onwards was related to preparing areas for rotation farming and mono-cropping, especially corn growing.
Out of 25 Chiang Mai districts, including mountainous Mae Chaem, corn growing had become popular in nine districts with contract farmers. Some of the districts had 40% of their total areas burned. The researchers also found that six of the districts had at least 30,000 rai repeatedly burnt.
Dr Suthinee said mono-cropping in the North was worrisome as it expands every year. In Mae Chaem alone, the area for corn growing had expanded by 6,000 rai a year since the research began and had also infringed on forest areas.
Dr Suthinee said corn growing was increasingly popular because the crop needs little care and fetches a sale price of six to eight baht per kilogramme.
Mr Nakorn, a farmer at Mae Chaem, said the villagers started growing corn intensively because major agribusinesses approached them several years ago offering good prices. But few farmers had ended up with large profits when taking into account farm costs. Mr Nakorn said the villagers started encroaching on forest areas to increase their profits.
“They need to burn the fields so they can quickly clear them for the next growing season,” said Mr Nakorn, who has grown corn crops in 50 rai of forest area.
Mr Bunpot said the current regulations were difficult to enforce as they involved the livelihoods of poor people.
“That’s the reality. It’s really difficult and complicated to deal with this problem,” said Mr Bunpot, who has been liaising with locals to try to find a voluntary solution to the problem.
Charoen Pokphand Produce, a subsidiary of Charoen Pokphand, Thailand’s largest agribusiness firm, was named by the farmers as one of the companies they sold corn to.
In an email, the company said it had promoted corn production in the North, including in Mae Chaem, but it had no policy to encourage farmers to grow corn in forests.
The company said it selects suitable areas and farmers for growing. The farmers must have land title deeds and the growing areas must not be located in forests, watersheds or in national parks. Under the project, farmers must not burn corn stalks and must follow farm experts’ guidance. The company’s products carry a warning not to grow in forest reserves.
This year, 370 farmers in Mae Chaem participated in Charoen Pokphand Produce’s project, with a growing area of 4,700 rai.
“We have no policy to promote forest encroachment under our contract farming system,” the company said. “We don’t want to blame anyone and we don’t want to be accused either as there are several other corn production firms.”
Dr Suthinee said it is time for the government to decide whether it wants to keep forest areas intact, or open them up for large-scale farming.
“The haze problem is not just an environmental problem, it’s an economic and social problem involving a large number of poor people,” he said.