Vol. VIII No. 15 - Tuesday
April 14 - April 20, 2009

Art, Music & Culture
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Updated every Tuesday
by Saichon Paewsoongnern

HEADLINES [click on headline to view story]:

The Tai Lue Annual Festival - totally traditional and totally joyous

Burning, the reality and the reasons - a professional study

Captain Crabtree’s Songkran Song


The Tai Lue Annual Festival - totally traditional and totally joyous


Burning, the reality and the reasons - a professional study

Alex Putnam
Each year, during the dry season, January to April, the hills of Northern Thailand are ablaze with fires. Hunting, land management and the collection of forest products are believed to be some of the main reasons behind the fires. Such a scenario leads to towns and cities becoming clogged with smoke pollution causing all manner of problems, affecting local economies, human health and, essentially, the health of the forest.
In Thailand and the greater South East Asian region, burning has been practiced for centuries; as a result, farmers see it as a crucial part of their way of life. Unfortunately, this traditional practice, which rural people consider to be of benefit, is also becoming a serious cause of concern for others.

Cattle are forced to forage for food along roadsides.

For the last few years, the low- lying city of Chiang Mai, due to its geographical location surrounded on all sides by rugged mountains, has become engulfed in a haze of smoke which reaches its peak in March and early April. Along with the peak in the smoke haze comes a peak in hospital admissions due to respiratory-related problems. Such a smoke haze also affects the local economy, as it deters tourists from visiting the region.
The devastating impact of Australia’s recent forest wildfires should come as a wakeup call to Thailand and other countries that are grappling with the issue of fire. Given the potential threat of climate change and rising temperatures, it may only be a matter of time before Thailand and other S.E Asian countries practicing burning are having to fend off their own unexpected and uncontrollable blazes similar to those experienced ‘Down Under’.
Having witnessed first hand the destructive fires in Thailand as well as having viewed, from a safer distance, the Australian Bush fires, I feel that there needs to be a stronger sense of urgency to prevent fires from taking place in Thailand. At present, Thailand’s fires are due to traditional agricultural practices; practices which will take a long time to change. Coupled with this is the fact that the local authorities have limited resources and a lack of law enforcement - all of which leads to fire prevention being tackled, at best, with a lack-lustre response or, at worst, being merely tolerated.
As a result, a UK company has commissioned me, in my professional capacity as an environmental researcher and consultant, to carry out a two-month research project, studying forest fires within Mae On district in Chiang Mai. The purpose of the study is to understand the reasons for and consequences of deliberate burning during the dry season in this area. I am working with local villagers as well as local administrative bodies in order that we can collectively come up with a comprehensive fire prevention plan, which highlights both the current problems associated with fire as well as the ways in which fires can be managed in a more sustainable manner. The project will also illustrate how forest fires are one of the largest, but least discussed causes of climate change.
Mae On is located 40 kilometres due east of Chiang Mai., at an average altitude of 400 metres; the forest type is ‘dry deciduous’ - trees which drop their leaves during the dry season to enable them to retain water. This is a natural occurrence which is a necessity, but also, in terms of fire, a hindrance. When leaf mould falls from the trees it becomes an instant fire hazard as the leaves tend to be dry and easy to ignite. If left in their natural state, the leaves would rot back into the soil and replenish it in the form of mulch. However, from recent observations and interviews with the locals, farmers don’t see it in the same way and prefer to clear such areas to keep them tidy and controlled.
The fastest and cheapest way to clear the leaf cover is to burn it. In Mae On, this is the main type of burning that takes place during February, to the point where large expanses of blackened and scorched earth leading out from the roadsides become the norm. Unfortunately, although cheap and fast, such burning is actually detrimental to the soil quality, as studies in the local area have shown that frequent fires reduce both density and species richness of the tree seedlings.
As well as roadside fires, I have also witnessed the burning of remnants of agricultural crops, particularly rice paddy fields, and have been told that by burning the crop remnants, ash left over from the burn nourishes the field and prepares the soil for the planting season. However, such burning is actually detrimental to the soil, as it reduces key soil nutrients such as potassium, calcium and magnesium - all lost as fine particles in the smoke, whilst nitrogen, phosphorous and sulphur are lost as gases.
However, an inconvenient truth is that fire actually encourages new growth. Having witnessed, first hand, burning and the scorched black earth left in its path, one would think that little survives. But, on recent observations, I have been struck by the presence of a verdant blossom of greenery beginning to colonise the charcoal patches of burnt ground that were ablaze no less than three weeks previously.
Certain agricultural areas where burning occurs contain a specific type of grass, Imperata Grass, that, in its mature form, has little nutrient value. Therefore, local cattle grazers prefer to burn back the old grass and, due to its fire resistant nature, new shoots produced on burnt areas have a higher nutrient value, which is perfect for grazing cattle.
Such an activity is widely practiced in Mae On, which supports a large number of cattle, but unlike cattle farming in Europe, where paddocks and fields are used for grazing, cows in Thailand appear to be given the rough end of the ‘verge’, so to speak. They have to forage alongside roads and other areas of less fertile importance, whilst the larger open spaces are prioritised for the cultivation of rice and other, more lucrative, cash crops. Such grazing practices have been used for many decades, during which burning has, no doubt, been an intrinsic part of the whole. However, all that may actually be needed is a new growth-encouraging practice, cutting back the grasses using manual methods, not fire.
More often than not, the areas where cattle are left to graze are under the jurisdiction of the highway department or other local government agencies. Therefore, such agencies could carry out an effective campaign which equips local farmers with both the tools and the financial means to carry out roadside clearing without the use of fire. Lawnmowers, strimmers, scythes and pangas could all be brought to arms in order to clear out the old grasses and allow new shoots to burst into life! Yes, it would involve more labour, but if the farmers are able to earn an income from clearing the verges whilst at the same time providing fodder for their herds, then surely the allure of burning would fade and manual clearing become a more widely practiced activity.
Next week - a trek into the forest with a local arable/dairy farmer, who also uses the forest for hunting and the collection of forest products.

Burning off crop residue has been
a standard practice used by Thai farmers for centuries.

Captain Crabtree’s Songkran Song

While seeking a hat that would fit me
And wondering which to buy
I felt a deluge hit me
Slap bang in the eye.
I saw two little grinning boys
Looking far from shy
Who had the cheek to give full voice
To “Sa wat dee bpee mai !”

I sank a Singha in a bar
Wringing out my tie
Then made for The Queen Victoria
For steak and kidney pie.
But a torrent struck me like a bomb.
And I heard a merry cry:
“Go take a shower, you wingeing Pom !
Sa wat bpee dee mai !”

Now I’m no spoilsport – Archie Crabtree
Is no Captain Bligh –
But I felt British temper grab me,
Fight it though I’d try.
The drunk Australian said “I’m Ned –
That’s as in Kelly ! Hi !”
And poured his ale upon my head
With a “Sa wat bpee dee mai !”

I punched his head. I bit his thumb.
I kicked him on the thigh
But had not seen his nearby chum,
A truly massive guy.
He dumped me deep into the mud. He
Hoisted me on high
And as he slammed me down said “Bloody
Sa wat dee bpee mai !”

McCormick’s is a peaceful place
As in my bed I lie.
The nurse is charming, full of grace,
I watch her with a sigh.
She comes with water. Slips ! I stare;
I see the jugful fly
And as it hits me fair and square
Groan “Sa wat bpee dee mai !”

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