It wasn’t until I saw the swimming pool sized pit of garbage burning in front of me—the twisting of the plastic bags, the slow curling and melding of the styrofoam containers, the square tupperware boxes that seemed to shrink away to nothingness as the flames engulfed them—that it truly hit me.
This garbage was being burned as a way of disposal. Garbage I had contributed to.
It is easy for the Westerner to come along on one’s high horse and cry outrage at this monstrosity—(these people are burning their garbage! Why don’t they have a garbage truck come pick it up? Where are their recycling systems?)—that’s certainly what I did the first year I learned that this happens.
In fact in my naivety, it was not until speaking with my brother who works in the waste management industry in BC, that I learned that burning as a means of waste disposal happens not only in less developed countries but is also common in rural northern communities in many Canadian provinces who’s government waste management resources are limited. I was shocked to to learn that burning garbage happens in my native country which I considered so “clean and green.”
Slash and burn techniques are a global phenomenom.
Nonetheless, as a foreigner who has lived in South East Asia for significant amounts of time, I would like to bring light to the particular situation in Northern Thailand and address some of the economic, cultural and social influences at play.
For most of the year, Pai, a small valley town in the Northern Thai mountains a few hours out of the larger city of Chiang Mai, is a beautiful, peaceful place. The air is fresh, mornings are cool and misty, and as the sun rises the fog melts away in minutes (depending on the season). Lazy, meandering rivers snake through the rolling farmland which covers much of the land, and the content, easy-going town is surrounded by lush green mountains with many a waterfalls tucked away for the adventure-seeking explorer to find.
It’s the town that I fell in love with 8 years ago and haven’t been able to leave.
However, every year between February and April burning season occurs in Northern Thailand and some of the neighbouring regions. Farmers set fire to the previous year’s crops as the most cost effective way of managing their agricultural waste to clear the ground for next year. Tree lines are also set alight as a way to clear space.
Unsurprisingly, air pollution from this practice creates widespread health problems. The most common health occurrences in the North include, but are not limited to, cancer of the trachea, bronchi and lungs—all of which health professionals suspect could be linked to annual and prolonged smog exposure.
Chiang Mai Air reported the pm2.5 air pollution levels this year to be 14% higher than last year.
Though slash and burn techniques have been occurring for centuries largely due to it being the most cost effective, easy way to manage human produced and agricultural waste, from my last decade living in Thailand I am in agreeance with this article published in the Huffington Post, that burning as a means of waste disposal appears to largely to be a socially and culturally accepted practice and cannot be attributed solely to economic influences.
During a trip to the Lod Caves located just outside of Thailand’s Mae Hong Son Province, the driver of our vehicle made a few jokes about the multiple forest fires we encountered along the way.
“I don’t have a lighter, but I wish I did so I could burn this part down,” he said as he pointed at a lush section of forest. “It is very good for hunting pigs if there is no forest and I want to help my friends.”
Hearing this comment made me realize this issue is far more extreme than any government regulation can ever control. It’s a cultural belief; something that I don’t feel comfortable criticizing. What I can say, however, is that I believe something needs to be done. Although trees play a crucial role in human civilization, I wonder if most of mankind is aware of the damage that has been done over the years.
Burning happens frequently on smaller scales throughout Northern Thailand at all times of the year as well. Households commonly dispose of their everyday garbage by setting it alight. Many Thai operated guesthouses, restaurants and other tourist related centres—who in contrast to the farmer with limited financial resources have a sustained way of earning income—also use burning as the most “convenient” method of garbage disposal.
This being said, as awareness of the issue increases each year, there have been an increasing amount of demonstrations and protests by the Thai community about organized regulation on air quality control in the country.
*UPDATE – This Friday’s Right to Breath gathering in Chiang Mai has been cancelled as the organizer has been threatened with bodily harm, even after the event was cancelled.
The issue is complex and worthy of further examination, but one of the biggest things we can do about it is spread awareness and produce less garbage.
We can consciously refuse single use items—plastic bags, straws, take away containers—and practice seeing all things from a circular mindset, how the items we use can continue to live and provide purpose.
It is not only about responsible ecotourism, but responsible ecoliving. Being mindful of our impact on the earth regardless of where we find ourselves on it.
Though I like to think that I’m someone who produces less waste than the average person, passing by that swimming pool sized burning pit of garbage that day—the acrid smell of suffocating, black smoke rising up in the air so thick I felt the nausea in pummelling punches in every part of my body—was a stark reminder that we can always do better.
We are but guests on this planet, and it is up to each and every one of us to do our part.
This film was presented as a work in progress at Chiang Mai University’s Faculty of Agriculture on January 8th, 2016 to create awareness and begin a dialogue about the yearly smoke crisis in Northern Thailand.
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