THAILAND – A bushfire ravages Doi Suthep-Pui National Park in Chiang Mai’s Hang Dong district on the night of March 25. (Chiang Mai Volunteer Drone Team)
It was a hot afternoon but community leader Prue Odochao, his wife, and a group of 10 ethnic Karen villagers rushed from their houses. Their destination was a forest area being razed by bushfires.
They would grab anything useful for the task on the spot. The journey was rough; they had to cross mountain ranges to reach the hotspot. Fighting the blaze at 3pm in such hot weather is a tough job, but forest people like them refused to be disheartened.
This year’s forest fire is a real crisis, with wide-ranging effects to those in the forest and the city alike.
Mr Prue explained the villagers have to stand at the forefront, reaching the hotspot as fast as they could to put out the blaze because in the eyes of the state they are “typical culprits” for fire disasters. But, in fact, they are forest guardians who have dealt with fires every year. They are the ones who help build fire buffer zones.
“We are forest dwellers, nobody wants to lose the forest,” Mr Prue said. Before this they never stayed overnight in the fire-hit area, but this time was different given the magnitude of the crisis while their community was so far away. It would have been a waste of time to travel back and forth. Instead, they had to stay put until the fire was completely extinguished. They had frugal food stocks: a small portion of rice, instant noodles and a bottle of water.
Even though the state set up fire fighting stations, the number of officials manning them is limited.
It’s the villagers who are a major force. The villagers claim the state has never taken forest fires seriously, and keeps pointing accusing fingers at local villagers. There are more than 100 hotspots in five districts of Chiang Mai with fire-gutted areas covering more than 1,300 rai.
As the fire fighting continues, small people, for example villagers and a village leader along with low-level rangers, have sacrificed their lives. One forest firefighter committed suicide, leaving a death note that attacked cronyism and bureaucratic red tape that makes fire fighting much tougher.
Pa Ka is a small village nestled in the national park in Chiang Mai’s Samoeng district. The Natural Resources and the Environment Ministry has a plan to merge their community forest into the national park, which means villagers will be kicked off their land.
“If we don’t hurry and the fire expands uncontrollably, the state will blame us for not being able to preserve the forest. This will be an excuse [for the state] to merge our community forest with the park,” said the man who knows the forest like the back of his hand. The community forest is their way of life. Villagers live in harmony with the forest and show great respect for it. They are obliged to protect the forest and fire-fighting has become one of their common tasks.
However, the state’s top-down policy, merging the community as part of the park, will change that way of life. The policy will enable state officials to fully control the forest, while forest dwellers who have nurtured the forest will face eviction. Their livestock won’t be allowed to roam the forest like before. The community forest that acts as their only “supermarket” will be permanently shut and controlled by the state.
As city people are hit hard during the Covid-19 pandemic, they can still find food in the supermarkets and survive. But it’s different for forest dwellers, they will have no access to the forest, their only source of food, sometimes being referred to as a traditional supermarket. And, ironically, they have to take all the blame for the stubborn blazes.
In recent years, civic network Sapha Lom Hai-jai Chiang Mai (Chiang Mai Breath Council), which comprises business people, state officials, journalists, social activists, and the general public, has tried to seek a solution to improve the air pollution in the province.
Forest fires are a major culprit for causing the ultrafine PM2.5 dust crisis that led to Chiang Mai topping the list of world’s worst cities for air quality, with levels in the high-danger zone over the past months.
Distrust between the state and the villagers has surged as rapidly as the fires that are ravaging Suthep-Pui mountain.
This year’s forest fires are different from those of past years when the blaze typically took place on the other side of the mountain. But this year, it occurred on the side facing Chiang Mai’s urban area, and the haze has blanketed the entire city.
After a field visit, those at the top at the Ministry of Natural Resource and Environment accused the villagers of lighting the fires and banned villagers from entering the forest, not allowing them to harvest their crops. Drones operated by volunteers cannot be flown over the area. As a larger part of the Doi Suthep forest burns, the state cannot put in place any efficient measures but still makes accusations. It seems the lungs of Chiang Mai’s people and the forest have been taken hostage in the fire fighting.
The state has made a big mistake, by applying a top-down administration approach that has been proven to alienate the Muslim minority in the restive deep South. In pursuing a traditional conservation policy in the North, they seem to be repeating this mistake, cracking down on indigenous villagers in the guise of forest protection.
It’s necessary that the state reviews measures, and adopt a different approach, opening up more to locals who have lived and protected forests in the North. Otherwise, violence may be erupt in this once-peaceful region.