"Alternative Development" Proposal to Address PM 2.5 Dust Problem, Starting with a Focus on People

The issue of PM 2.5 dust in the northern region of Thailand has evolved into a recurring environmental crisis during the winter season, persisting for many years. This has become a chronic problem, particularly since late 2022 through April 2023. It is evident that the impact of PM 2.5 dust in northern Thailand has become increasingly severe and prolonged, to the extent that residents in some areas are unable to lead normal lives, such as in Mae Sai District, Chiang Rai Province.


The practice of "burning" has been highlighted as a significant factor for many years. The smoke particles generated are closely linked to the presence of numerous hot spots, often arising from the burning of land in both northern Thailand and neighboring countries. This has led to the perception that "local residents," primarily engaged in agriculture, are the root cause of the smoke particles from field burning, especially in areas with single-crop cultivation like corn and sugarcane.


Is agricultural burning the true cause of this issue? Should the solution involve banning burning altogether? These are crucial questions that have been discussed within the framework of the "Rule of Law and Development" (RoLD) programme, organized by the Thailand Institute of Justice (TIJ). Various stakeholders concerned about this problem have gathered to discuss the topic "Transboundary Haze Pollution and Alternative Development Approach," aiming to find a sustainable solution. The concept of "alternative development" has been proposed as a path forward.


From the UNODC' perspective, Mr. Julien Garsany of UNODC emphasizes the severity of the PM 2.5 problem caused by burning. He suggests alternative agricultural methods to motivate behavior change, similar to addressing drug addiction through sustainable livelihoods. Collaborative efforts with neighboring countries and private sector involvement are recommended for effective solutions.


"The issue at hand cannot be solely addressed and resolved through legal means, as burning occurs in areas beyond the jurisdiction of any single country. Therefore, collaboration with neighboring countries is necessary to solve this problem." Mr. Garsany, stressed. 


Dr. Buntoon Srethasirote, Executive Director of the Good Governance for Social and Environment Development Institute (GSEI), has been part of a team studying the causes of PM 2.5 for many years. He tries to emphasize that with a well-functioning state information disclosure system, government agencies could work together to address this issue. And as the study reveals that the majority of hotspots are in protected forest areas rather than agricultural lands. Thus, Dr. Buntoon advocates transforming the agricultural system through perennial crops, managing agricultural waste, and altering fire management practices in communities. He also suggests addressing root causes like orphaned rice varieties and promoting collaboration between countries.


"In the case of rice fields contributing 22% of the burning, we found a phenomenon called 'orphaned rice.' This is due to the mixing of different rice varieties from external sources, leading to a lower market value. Farmers then burn these crops. By addressing these root causes, we can find solutions without resorting to burning."


In areas with high hotspot occurrences (up to 65%), such as protected forest zones, Dr. Buntoon reiterates that the question of why these fires occur remains unanswered. However, he points to a noteworthy example: Ban Tontorng in Lampang Province, where a "community forest" was established with community-driven regulations for sustainable forest utilization. Over the past decade, there have been no forest fires in this community-managed forest. Therefore, co-management agreements between the state and communities for protected forest areas (currently around 400-500 sites) might be a key approach to preventing forest fires.


Moreover, Dr. Kritsada Boonchai, Secretary of the Local Development Institute, highlights the importance of listening to marginalized voices, indicating that forest fires often stem from conflicts over resource management. He cites historical cases in Thailand where indigenous forest communities were displaced by policies that transformed forests into commodities, disrupting their traditional way of life.


To address these issues, Dr. Kritsada suggests an alternative path focused on fostering local wisdom in forest management. He emphasizes the need to empower local communities, promote economic growth, and consider local contexts. Such an approach would acknowledge the diversity of forest management practices and involve communities in decision-making, thereby making them active stewards of their environment.


To reiterate the issue of empowering local communities, Patavee Chotikeerativech, Managing Director of the Doi Tung Development Foundation added that The Doi Tung Development Foundation utilized the strategy of "forest reforestation and human development." They began by building trust within the community, encouraging them to participate in forest restoration projects. They planted economically valuable plants, such as coffee and macadamia trees, to generate income. This economic approach empowered the communities and provided them with alternatives to opium cultivation. Additionally, they created communal regulations for living harmoniously with the forest, covering forest protection, fire reduction, and avoiding drug addiction among the younger generations. 


The project did not merely focus on reforestation; it aimed to empower the local communities to become stewards of their land. This was achieved by fostering a sense of ownership, creating rules to protect the forest, and encouraging the development of sustainable livelihoods. The Doi Tung Development Foundation sought to develop an understanding within the communities that they could coexist with the forest and derive sustainable benefits from it.


Mr.Patavee further discusses the "Roi Jai Rak" project, implemented in Mae Ai District, Chiang Mai. In this area, where drug trafficking remains a problem due to its location along the drug trade route, the same alternative development approach is being applied. The project encompasses a holistic perspective involving not only reforestation but also the establishment of rehabilitation programs for drug addicts, education initiatives, and alternative livelihood development. By addressing the root causes of the issues, the project aims to bring people back into society and away from destructive activities.


The Doi Tung Development Foundation expanded its efforts to other communities with the "Roi Jai Rak" project. This project involves partnering with 120 communities across 10 provinces, covering approximately 147,000 rai (about 58,800 acres) of registered community forests. These communities are participating in the "Carbon Credit for Sustainable Development" project, which involves forest planting, fund management, and fire reduction to tackle the haze issue.


The foundation's approach emphasizes the importance of time, understanding, collaboration, and comprehensive development. The success of Doi Tung's transformation was achieved over many years by focusing on the people and providing them with alternatives and opportunities for development, ultimately leading to a sustainable and harmonious relationship with the environment.


Finally, Noppakao Sucharitakul, Exeutive Vice President, Head of Corporate Communications & Social Development Group Stock Exchange of Thailand (SET) discusses the role of businesses in adopting Environment, Social, and Governance (ESG) practices. Encouraging collaboration between the private sector and social entrepreneurs is crucial for solving social and environmental issues. Initiatives are categorized into awareness-building, environmental practices, and carbon capture opportunities. 


In Conclusion, the discussion stresses the need for a holistic approach to combat the PM 2.5 issue, encompassing regional collaboration, alternative agriculture, governmental efficiency, private sector involvement, and community empowerment. Examples like the Doi Tung Development Project illustrate the potential for positive change through sustainable development, promoting a harmonious relationship between people and the environment.