Zero tolerance is playing with fire

Zero tolerance is playing with fire

17 February 2013

published by

Thailand — The government’s ongoing ban on burning in the North flies in the face of scientific evidence that shows controlled burns such as those initiated by highland villagers lead to healthier forests and lessen the chances for devastating out of control conflagrations

A zero-tolerance burning policy for the North has been declared, but we should step back and consider the pros and cons before proceeding with it. It’s not very fashionable in the dry northern region to advocate forest fires these days, and that’s not my aim. What I’m saying is that we should concentrate on fuel management.

With summertime comes low atmospheric pressure, especially during March and April. In the past five years, the greenhouse effect and the annual smoke screen that results from the “burning season” have become bitter issues. Much as I would like to avoid adding fuel to the fire (pardon the pun), I would like to present some food for thought.

Chiang Mai lies in a geographical basin at a relatively high altitude. With an increasing population and an exponential rise in the numbers of cars, factories, high-rise buildings and material wealth, nobody doubts that we are producing much more carbon monoxide and rubbish than ever before.

On top of all that, the burning of fields around the city in the dry season causes a blanket of smoke, while ash rains from the sky. It’s unbearably hot and we have runny noses and irritated eyes. Respiratory infections are the norm in the “Rose of the North”.

At the same time this comes round each year, a related phenomenon occurs _ the annual incessant blame game, which endures through the hot season and is forgotten about until the same symptoms return the following year.

We blame our neighbours who burn their rubbish, we blame all the motorists (often from the driver’s seats of our own air-conditioned cars) and we blame the myopic authorities. But most of all we blame the poor highland farmers who burn their fields.

So it’s not surprising that Deputy Prime Minister Plodprasop Suraswadi recently declared a ban on all organised forest burning in nine of the 10 provinces of the northern region for 100 days. The campaign started in January. Many have applauded the action and assume it is a solution to our woes, but unfortunately it is not.

As explained by Manop Kiripoowadol, the coordinator for the Sustainable Development Foundation (Northern Region), it is important to avoid fire in a rainforest, but this is not the case not for a pine-dipterocarp forests or mixed deciduous forests (like most forests in the North).

In fact, a policy of zero burning could result in a massive forest fire.

Mr Manop took me to a pine-dipterocarp forest in Mae Klang Papu village, on the road to Doi Inthanon, in the middle of January. Most of the trees were bare and the dry leaves lay on the ground. As we stepped through the woods, the sound of cracking dry leaves came from underfoot.

We walked through the forest to what Mr Manop referred to as a “fuel management area”. He explained that the pine-dipterocarp forest is full of draughts and piles of dry leaves _ ideal for a roaring out of control forest fire. He showed how the oils or resins from the tree bark add to the probability. In fact, under these conditions and in this heat, he said, it is almost impossible for a fire not to happen. He said the solution is to “burn the forest” in a controlled manner before an out of control blaze starts.

Adun Jaipeng, the head of Doi Inthanon Forest Fire Control Station, showed us fragments of bark on the dried ground and said these were the result of the controlled burning every year of the forest floor to control the amount of natural fuel.

Mr Adun said that in the summer of 2012, there were up to 55 forest fires in the Chiang Mai region, damaging some 458 rai of forest, and that all of them were caused by humans.

In fact, the idea of zero burning to prevent forest fires is not new. Many highland villagers have tried it but they found it to be unsuccessful.

According to Watcharapong Tatchayapong, a lecturer at Chiang Mai University’s engineering faculty, the best option is simply to prevent uncontrolled forest fires.

“The phrase ‘controlled burning’ sounds ambiguous because most people would never intentionally set a fire. But the idea is to control the burning to a degree that it can always be extinguished.

“We need to understand the nature of pine-dipterocarp forest, which is a deciduous forest. It cannot store food for plants in the soil; all the nutrients are kept in its leaves. In summer, the ground will be dry and the trees will shed leaves in order to keep moisture in their trunks. Therefore, all the nutrients fall to the ground,” said Mr Watcharapong.

This results in a highly flammable situation on the forest floor. When this is burned off, a nutrient-rich ash is left behind. The nutrients are food for bacteria that produce ammonium and nitrate to fertilise the forest.

“The following year, the new trees will be fertile and healthy. The trees’ leaves and the canopy are essential for the grass and the plants below,” said Mr Watcharapong.

As explained in an article titled “Effects of fire on plants and animals” (, a forest fire does not destroy the ecosystem. In fact, some wild animals need fires to survive. A fire can keep away insects and pests.

A study in Huai Kha Khaeng Huay Kha Keang wildlife sanctuary also found that some herbivores species like to live in the burnt-out areas.

“The government and the public need to be better educated about forest fires,” said Mr Adun.

He maintains that if a zero-burning policy is actively enforced in northern Thailand’s pine-dipterocarp forests, the amount of natural fuel on the forest floor will increase to dangerous levels.

“A pine-dipterocarp forest can catch fire with just the slightest spark,” he adds, and there is so much bark oil that just a single cigarette butt can ignite the whole forest. “But a controlled fire can be extinguished very easily by officers or local villagers. Besides, a controlled fire does not cause much damage,” said Mr Adun.

“Do the authorities really think that the hilltribes will stop burning forests?” asked Mr Manop. “It’s part of their lifestyle, their rituals and their livelihood. I think what is needed is a better understanding between the hilltribes and city folk. Forest burning needs to be controlled and organised.”

As the coordinator for the Sustainable Development Foundation Northern Region (, Mr Manop recently joined hands with other organisations as well as villagers living near Doi Inthanon National Park to present their findings to the government.

What we should perhaps learn first is that attitudes vary between rural and urban people.

While those in the city bemoan the highlanders’ traditional methods, they are churning out greenhouse gases from their air-conditioned cars and air-conditioned houses. They should try to remember that the highlanders burn forests as a way to survive in their environment, and definitely not to destroy it.


Print Friendly, PDF & Email
WP-Backgrounds Lite by InoPlugs Web Design and Juwelier Schönmann 1010 Wien