Thailand– Chiang Mai’a Mae Chaem district has gone from suffering the Norths worst haze to this year becoming one of the least-affected areas. This year there were only 30 hotspots in Mae Chaem from February 15 to April 15, compared to 384 a decade ago. But Mae Chaems success as a model for other areas in the North is just the beginning.
But Mae Chaem’s success as a model for other areas in the North is just the beginning.
Mae Chaem district chief Tosapol Pheun-udom said the community has prepared to propose a social contract designed to curb forest fires within three years while stopping land encroachment and reducing the use of chemicals in upstream areas within five years.
He said the community wanted the government in exchange to deliver justice by granting people land rights for 213,462 rai (34,153 hectares) in total as they were born on and had lived on these plots.
“This could also yield reforestation benefits because if one person grows at least 15 trees per rai it would mean millions of trees. This way is better than dam construction. If you want to rehabilitate a watershed forest, you must rehabilitate people there or else it will lead to problems without an end,” he added.
Tosapol said the country’s development should be based on facts rather than sticking to the rule of law with disregard to social justice. “We cannot just pull people out of forests. Here, we have no investors but villagers,” he said.
Tosapol is one of many people who have been instrumental in Mae Chaem’s success in reducing hotspots and haze.
“We’ve been working hard on proactive measures since last September. People are more aware of this problem, which peaked last year, and everyone looked at Mae Chaem,” he said. “So we set up a committee to integrate efforts and see the overall picture in Mae Chaem, which spans 1.7 million rai, a huge area in need of all sides’ co-operation.”
It was discovered Mae Chaem had about 15,000 rai under Nor Sor 3 document holders, 6,000 rai under Agricultural Land Reform Office document holders and over 400,000 rai was occupied by forest-dwelling people.
“The area had been used for growing single crops mostly. There was 110,000 rai of corn plantations,” he said.
It was discovered 50 per cent of the haze came from burning by corn farmers to clear highly flammable corn waste, said Tosapol, who landed the job eight months ago.
There were 95,000 tonnes of farm waste – 60,000 tonnes of which came from corn plantations, he said.
The previous campaign for farmers to bury corn husks along with bio-products was met with the criticism that it was doable only in some parts, as 70 per cent of Mae Chaem is mountainous, he said.
After managing to get farmers working 11,000 rai in total to apply the burial method, the district let other farmers “advance burn”, with them burning and clearing farmlands from January to February 15 when the wind typically blows away from Chiang Mai City. That approach yielded less cooperation because the farmers didn’t want to do many rounds of work, Tosapol added.
As many farmers had asked to do a farm-clearing burn between April 16-19 – right after the 60-day outdoor burning ban ended – that resulted in a high-pollution period, which affected people’s health after Songkran, he explained.
“But this is an improvement because the high-pollution period lasted only a week,” he said.
Other measures last year to handle 36 problematic spots included feeding 10,000 tonnes of corn husks to cows via fresh or fermented feeds (a Bt470,000 fermented feed factory was built in Tambon Tha Pha); turning husks into fertiliser; dicing the husk and core for supply to the energy industry; and having schoolchildren make floats and wreaths from the husks. “But these were short-term solutions,” he added.
“Mae Chaem’s problematic condition is that most farmers here grow corn once a year as they depend on rainwater. Only 20,000 rai is in irrigated areas. That covers 5,000 out of the district’s 60,000 farmers,” he said.
He added that irrigated farmers could grow other crops all year round, meaning they didn’t need to do farm-clearing burns.
He explained that the job of locals besides farming was to collect forest items for sale and they believed forest fires would help yield abundant products.
Mae Chaem, which has a population of about 60,000, is a key strategic watershed area that contributes to the Ping River. Its 1.7-million rai area is larger than Singapore, with 1.35 million rai being national forest reserve and the other 317,773 rai conserved forestland.