“Zero Burning”: if fire is not the devil, why have those in power not allowed burning?

In news reports less than 10 years ago, the new problem of PM2.5 dust was added to news items in the Thai media of forest fires and the problem of haze caused by forest fires and crop burning. This has led to a clear concrete policy shift, since it has a direct impact on the lives of the middle class in the country’s large cities, especially major centres like Bangkok and tourist spots like Chiang Mai Province. With an unidentifiable origin, smog, forest fires and PM2.5 have by implication become the same thing.

The result is that the people who start fires have become the accused in society, followed by the setting of policies by the state to be enforced directly against those who use forest fires, particularly as part of their way of life. Meanwhile, the policies that affect industries and the way of life of the urban population have yet to take concrete shape. … The voices of certain groups of people are louder and more powerful while some groups have always been trying to cry out but have not been heard. 

“Bad fires were suddenly pushed into becoming the devil”

Forest fire management policies have led to many rules and regulations aimed to be applied without reason to people associated with fire, who, it is certain, are inevitably people in the agriculture sector. Yet it is not clear whether, after these policies were introduced, the severity of forest fires increased or was reduced.

The main policy with direct impact is the Zero Burn Policy or the 100% ban on fires during periods determined by the government. Although the state will open opportunities and allocate time slots for burning to different areas in order to avoid burning large-scale agricultural areas at the same time, this concept may only be applicable to certain areas and agricultural practices, especially monocultures and irrigated areas that do not solely rely on natural rainfall.

Thus, the people most unavoidably affected are farmers outside irrigated areas, especially villagers residing in the forests. With limited land and mostly at high altitude, they also face legal constraints preventing them from doing much. … The most obvious example in this case is the S'gaw people, also known as the Karen. 

In order to obtain accurate information on the impacts of the government’s no burn policy and the importance of the use of fire, I decided to travel to the area said to be the origin of the fires to see it with my own eyes.

Prue Odochao, a S’gaw sage, who provided information about the villagers’ use of local wisdom to manage fires. (Source: Natchanan Klahan) 

Phatitaye Yotchatmingbun, a S’gaw sage of Sop Lan village, Samoeng Tai Subdistrict, who has led the villagers in a struggle for land to make a living until today.  Picture taken on 7 May 2020. (Source: Natchanan Klahan)

My destination was Ban Pa Kha Nai, Samoeng Tai District, Chiang Mai Province. Prue Odochao was the person I hoped would help alleviate my doubts about the causes of fires and haze. I was following the recommendation of Phatchara Kamchamnan, a young and passionate 24-year-old NGO worker with a degree from the Faculty of Communication Arts, Chulalongkorn University, who is fascinated by the S’gaw way of life in his position as campaign communication officer at the Northern Development Foundation, one of the member organizations of the Northern Peasant Federation, whose main area of work is land and resources.  Prue was the person that could give me clear information on the villagers’ fire management approach. With this, we set out on a journey together.

May was the month I planned to visit Samoeng, which coincided with the preparation time for the local planting season. The S’gaw people rely on crop rotation, an ancient agricultural practice passed on by their ancestors for hundreds of years. There were later efforts by those in power to rename this as ‘slash and burn’ agriculture. This exists even today, although there is a lot of academic information that explains the importance of rotational farming to the environment and community life. But this has not been able to destroy completely the discourse of slash and burn, especially in the context of forest fires and the repeated severe smog over many years. As a result, Prue’s work cannot avoid the issue of haze. 

For Prue and the villagers, everything begins with fire. “Usually, the villagers start to burn the fields at the end of April. There is no fixed date or time. We will start the fire before the first rain falls or after not more one or two rains. After that, the fire may or may not take because the humidity is too high. The total land preparation time from before burning until after burning takes a month because we also have to clear the branches left on the burnt fields. That can take weeks. After that, we start planting, which will happen around the same time as the arrival of the rain. If we burn too early, grass and weeds will come up. If too late, the fire won’t take. In the past there have been problems because of the Zero Burn policy”, explained Prue with his signature smiling face. 

When the Zero Burn Policy interferes with the traditional way of life.

The Zero Burn order lets the state determine the dates and times for burning for the villagers in each area in order to reduce the haze density. This measure is closely monitored and regulated by satellite images, which detect signs of haze and report them to the central unit. It sounds like a good policy. Nevertheless, merely determining the dates and times in which burning is allowed does not always fall in line with the villagers’ way of life, which has to depend on seasonal rain. Oftentimes, it has led to conflicts with forestry officials because of the impossibility of burning in the period that the state has determined.

“It has made mutual assistance in the village totally vanish, because when the time is limited each person is busy preparing their own land . These government announcements have created chaos. Sometimes it does not match the period when burning should happen, and it becomes difficult to start a fire. A load of problems follows.”

“Is it possible to have no burning? What would it be like without it? Are there no better alternatives to burning?” were the questions I asked him back.

“If there is no burning, there is no rice. Last year I did not burn because I had invested time in other people’s land. So, I had no rice of my own. I had to rely on rice from my relatives instead. But some people who could not find rice like I did, they have to go and look for work in the city, like the S’Gaw people in other areas who cannot farm or have land disputes with the state or those who were too late to burn. In the end they had to go find work in the city to find the money to support their families. But if we have rice, we can continue living on our land without having to go to the city. Our traditional way of life is like this.”

As an answer to the question on alternatives to burning, Prue pointed out to me that most of the land on which crop rotation is practised is steep land. It was nearly impossible to transport large tools and machinery to prepare the land for planting. More than that, burning helps re-introduce into the soil key minerals that are plant nutrients. During my entire stay on his land, he tried showing me the budding and sprouting of the plants, which occurred only a few days after burning. The once-dead-looking tree stumps were growing bright green leaves over the whole rotational plot. After at least seven years, this plot would be used for farming again. By that time, the soil had time to replenish its fertility and the ecosystem was able to recover, getting itself ready to provide food to feed the villagers once again. It has been like this for generations. “In the past, this period could be over ten years, even 16 years for some plots. but now we can’t do that due to the restriction of decreasing farm land”, Prue looked back.

Villager dropping rice seeds in the rain because the delayed burn-off has forced their sowing to take place after the first rain. The seeds will be OK. (Source: Yostorn Triyos)

Phatchara Kamchamnan, campaign communication officer of the Northern Development Foundation, and Prue Odochao during the field visit to provide information about forest fires. Photograph taken on 7 May 2020. (Source: Natchanan Klahan)

From an NGO perspective, Phatchara tries to point out another impact of the burning ban, which may be linked to the origin of forest fires and haze.

“Once there was the Zero Burn Policy strictly banning burning in forest areas, it meant the villagers could do nothing, not even manage fire fuel. While it is true that some people started fires, it is not the main cause of severe wildfires, because communities who live in the forest normally know that fires happen every year. There was not a single year where they did not have to put out a fire. But the thing that increases the severity is taking all kinds of fire as one, to the point where communities cannot manage the fuel for fires present in the area according to their methods to reduce the severity. It is true that we cannot control climate change or the rising global temperature, but what communities know and can manage is to reduce the fuel. The problem of forest fires will not be so severe and will not allow fires that increase the impact of haze. But once they are unable to manage the fuel because of the governing policy, this greatly increases the severity of the fires.”, explained Phatchara during the field visit.

 

When fire has been demonized by people in power in the country.

Surin Onprom, a former lecturer at the Faculty of Forestry, Kasetsart University, who has now become an independent scholar on environmental issues, talks about the necessity of the existence of fires and their benefits, as well as the demonization of fire by the people in power in the country.

“Actually, it depends on who is talking. If city people talk about fires, it is certain their everyday lives have nothing to do with fire, and they will look at fires as something scary and dangerous. If we talk about communities or villagers themselves, there is a great variety and the dynamics are rather higher depending on where they are. If it’s communities in the north, they follow a similar way of life and they just have people like that. Sometimes, they have to use fire a tool to manage their ecosystem so that they can thrive in that particular ecosystem. But if we’re talking about communities that live in the mangroves, they don’t have to use fire to manage their ecosystem or to survive. But if we go to the peat swamp forests or the rainforests in the south, the communities there have a different experience. We can’t say for sure whether fire is necessary or not. It depends on who is talking and in what context.”

“We have a problem today because we tend to only see one picture, and we use that picture that we have to make decisions. So, we cannot see that fire is a tool to manage the ecosystem. If we understand this fact, we will not look at fire as a dangerous thing. Or if we did not have electric rice cookers, we would be more used to fire and look at fire in a different light. Fire is not a villain by itself. We can use fire to manage the land. This is the basic belief that we must agree on together first.” That was what Ajarn Surin told me one afternoon in a coffee shop, where I had invited him to share his knowledge on the topic.

 

Fire and the Source of Nutrients

“From 1997-2004, I visited Prue’s house and the neighbouring S’gaw villages. Then, I had an opportunity to conduct research on crop rotation with a team of other scholars. At that time, I represented the scientific side. When we talk about the S’gaw people back then, we saw the dynamics . They did not have only one pattern, and at that time we saw rotational farming as three groups: the ones that had been converted into corn fields; the ones that were being converted half-and-half, and the ones that were still following the traditional way, such as Hin Lat Nai and Mae Lan Kham. Sometimes, when we talk about the S’gaw, academics say that we should not create a consensus that the S’gaw people must live in the forest so the forest will be healthy. That is a kind of limitation. That has been the argument anyway. Sometimes, we try to portray a beautiful picture and refuse to accept certain aspects of the truth. I am not saying that the people that have changed are bad S’gaw people. There are certain conditions that make them change. All three groups still believe fire is extremely necessary and all three groups still practice rotational farming as one component, but in different proportions. Fire is important and necessary for rotational farming, a system in which no herbicides or chemicals are used. Fire is one tool that generates nutrients and controls insects and plant diseases.”

“Phosphorus is one of the nutrients that plants need. During the research, I examined the change in the nutrient level in the soil before and after burning. We have found a significant increase in phosphorus. The villagers explain that especially in the situation where they have to shorten the fallow period because the declaration of protected forest areas, they are no longer able to leave the land idle for 10-12 years. The land is reduced, and the fertile period is reduced. Not all grasses have died yet. There are still some grasses that can grow in the forest. If the land was left longer and provided cover, the grasses would have disappeared altogether, because of the little sunlight. This is the point where fire comes in to get rid of the remaining seeds and to kill certain bacteria that prevent the planting of rice plants. So it is a highly scientific matter why villagers have to use fire. It is a matter of eradicating plant disease and insects, and of nutrients.”

Listening to Ajarn Surin until now, I was reminded of the conversation with Prue and Phatchara that the whole issue is a struggle between state management, an approach based on a combination of academic environmental concepts and administrative politics, and the villagers’ ancient local wisdom passed on from their ancestors for generations after generations, whose success was measured by the coexistence between humans and nature from the past until today. This has made me decide to follow them to the fields to see fire management the villagers’ way, which might be society’s answer to the problem of managing forest fires, which seem to have increased in intensity today.

 

Local communities and their role in fire management

Prue told us that a concrete management model had emerged from the community forest concept and the relevant regulations allowing for the collective use of resources. This happened under the 1997 Constitution, which allowed the highest level of public participation in its drafting process in Thai history. As the scope of land use began to be clear, communities could then agree on appropriate rules to comply with the law, including a more concrete approach to forest fire management. This has been revised and developed to be in accordance with state regulations which are changed by the policies of each government. The most difficulty was after the enactment of the forest reclamation policy following the 2014 coup. 

This can be seen either as the government’s sincerity in solving the problems in managing state conservation areas or just a way to get the popular vote after using its special powers, like slapping someone in the head and then being nice to them. In any case, all the policy impacts have inevitably fallen on the villagers living in the area more than anyone else, as well as their approach to using and managing forest fires according to their local wisdom.

“The villagers do not have any choice. If there is a fire in their area, it becomes their fault. It becomes an excuse to ban them making use of the forest or to remove them from the forest. So, we have to compete with them in choosing ways to take care of the forest. Whenever there is a forest fire, we join forces to go put it out. Everyone helps out however they can. In fact, there is a stipulation that each household must send one person. Nobody wants their house to be burned down,” said Prue emotionally.

The problem is that some parts of the area under their care, which covers both the residential and spiritual forest area of the S’gaw people, overlap with that of Ob Khan National Park, which is currently making an attempt to expand the national park area by 24,000 rai. This will affect the farmland and the spiritual forest of the original villagers. The problem that ensues is that the people living and taking care of the forest have not been given permission to use the resources which they should be entitled to as the original communities in the area.

In this situation, the villagers are forced to limit the area of the community’s fire management to try to avoid problems in the future. Even so, the firebreaks that the villagers helped build in the Samoeng Tai area are still longer than 40 kilometres. This is what “having no choice” means. 

“City people like to say that S’gaw people are the caretakers. It is as if it was their job. In fact, it is not like that. We do it and we take care of it because we want to make use of it. It is a normal thing.”

Contrary to the questionable consequences of the proclamation of additional forest areas in increasingly various forms, which should have led to good management of resources by the state covering a wider area, we have instead observed more problems, particularly forest fires at the start of the dry season. The 2020 statistics show that as many as 7 people lost their lives due to forest fires, most of whom were villagers who volunteered to help extinguish fires near their land. It also shows the state’s lack of readiness to take care of large forest areas, especially in human resources.

For Prue, the fact that the state has declared the forests as theirs is the same as indirectly destroying the consciousness of communities, not only among the S’gaw, but all other ethnic groups and not excluding urban populations.

“Previously, the forests belonged to the spirits of the forest, the spirits of the mountains. So people living in them help take care of them. Today, the forests belong to the national parks. For example, you live in Chiang Mai, in Doi Saket. You see a forest fire, you will report to the municipality to put it out.  You inform the national parks. It is good enough to prevent the fire from reaching your own land, without being interested in what the forest is like outside your own land. The state has already stripped away our consciousness at this very step.”

 

Fighting fire with fire and community land management

From an academic point of view, Acharn Surin sees that the state can no longer use the excuse of a shortage of personnel to take care of the forests, when the state has a great number of options to decentralize forest management authority with hardly any effects on the operational budget. “The state looks at things with a single mindset, like a conservation forest is a conservation forest, although the management rights may overlap in multiple layers, such as the concept of Acharn Anan Ganjanapan, which includes the principle of villager participation. What can they utilize [in the forest]? Are they just allowed to visit? Or also collect forest products? And what else can they do in the forest? These points can be specified in much greater diversity. It is not enough just to say that a national park is just national park, and stop trying to do anything about it.”

Originally, the concept of using and managing fire was a normal thing in the villagers’ way of life. It is like local wisdom about managing fires before it has any chance to cause damage. This concept is called using fire to fight fire. In the academic world, this is called ‘early burning’, and has been in existence for a long time both as local wisdom and academic theory which is taught in the university. It relies on managing fuel, which is the main cause determining the severity of a fire, through the method of early burning or burning in a limited area while the quantity of fuel for the fire can still be controlled. Then one day fire becomes the devil in the eyes of the state, and so setting a fire becomes unacceptable.

“In the past, when villagers went into the forest, wherever they saw dry twigs and leaves begin to pile up, they would set fire to them to prevent them from accumulating too much until they became uncontrollable. The elders looked at the different colours of the leaves which indicated the different levels of moisture. They knew what colour should be burned, what colour would catch fire, moist or not. For them, burning meant being able to control fire and take care of it.”

It is similar to burning to collect forest products. Prue said that his area relies on the village’s common agreement. If they don’t burn, they don’t burn. If they burn, there must be conditions, so that it is certain that it can be controlled. Like burning in rotational farming, they have to lay down firebreaks and keep watch during the fire until it is totally extinguished.

Ajarn Surin concludes that fire may partly reflect conflict about land and resource management and the ability to manage fire. It is a conflict that has emerged from the beliefs and trust between two differing bases and concepts, between science and the local wisdom of the villagers.

 

Fire and PM2.5

For many years, PM2.5 has become a heavily discussed problem in Thailand. It has definitely been pushed as the consequence of fire and the farmers who use it as a tool. Forest fires and burning are one part of the problem, but it may be unfair to conclude that they are the cause of the whole problem.

As soon as I asked him whether rotational farming had contributed to this, it was almost as if he realized that he and the villagers were getting the blame from society.

Prue tried to explain according to the S’gaw wisdom that when the dry season arrived, the air over Chiang Mai would sink. During this time, the sky remained closed. The vapours from the soil and forest could not disperse as at other times. This is coupled with the fact that the Chiang Mai area is surrounded by mountain ranges and resembled a basin. So in this period, if smoke was produced, it would linger longer than usual and it would be like this until the rainy season. The humidity would revert the situation back to normal.

“It is the end of May now. The past several days saw the burning of hundreds of rai of rotational crops. Everybody was rushing to burn because they had just been allowed to. Did you see any smoke coming from Chiang Mai? If not, perhaps they are not related. I have checked the news and nothing has been mentioned yet”, he answered in his usual smiley, half-serious face.

That afternoon, Prue took me to see the actual area where villagers were burning. The image of a large green area in flames stood before me. It was both scary and exciting at the same time. The heat emitted from the gigantic flames made it impossible to go too near, though I was at enough distance to observe the behaviour of the fire. The clouds of smoke that were floating up into the sky were different from what I reasonably expected compared to the size of the area and the flames. It did not take long before it disappeared in the air. I was not sure if the dust from this smoke could collect at a later point. Soon, the fire abated. Only heat from the ashes and a wide empty space remained… “The conservationists won’t like this for sure”, I told myself.

Most of their burning is like this. It could vary depending on the terrain and the slope. If anyone gets the chance to see the condition of the terrain, their suspicions about the reasons for choosing burning would be relieved. Once I had an opportunity to take pictures of the burning of rotational cropland in a village in Mae Cham District, Chiang Mai.

The image of many mountain peaks covered in ash from burning in preparation for planting on a large plot appeared before me and gave rise to many questions at that time. Hundreds of rai of land with no vegetation or living things on it made it extremely difficult to explain to anyone why it was like that, especially if they were already full of bias against ethnic groups and looked at it from afar, where everyone was looking for “greenness”.

Around that time, Prue took me to inspect many other plots that were both being burned and already finished burning. Some plots showed good results from burning, while others not so much. The reason comes from the excess moisture thanks to the delay in getting permission to burn from the state beyond the proper time. It could be observed from the colour of the ash and smoke coming from branches that were wet with the rain.

The rain had fallen heavily twice already. Had they burned later, they would have entered the period in which rain fell every day. Meanwhile, many fields in many areas had not even begun burning. This meant that later that year some people would have to leave their homes and their loved ones to join the stream of labourers to support their families…

This report was made with support from Internews' Earth Journalism Network.

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