March 2012 – At some point in the middle of February, an intense wave of agricultural burning pollutes the normally beautiful skies of Northern Thailand. The rainy season arrives in May so rural farmers are preparing their fields by burning and clearing the land. A popular mushroom that grows from the forest ashes and sells lucratively in local markets only encourages the burning and further degrades the once crisp Chiang Mai air. The skies of Northern Thailand will be permanently blanketed by a thick cloud of gray pollution until the rainy season arrives and washes the filth away.
The cool mountain air of Chiang Mai has been replaced by a heavy and unhealthy smog that nearly blocks out the sun. The city is full of hospital mask wearers, sore throat coughers and stuffy nose blowers. The scene at school is apocalyptic – children crying, kids coughing, students arriving to school sick and little ones wearing eye patches to prevent further irritation from rubbing. The mood at school just isn’t the same when the sunshine disappears.
The agriculture burning is affecting my personal health as well. I’m carrying tissues in my pocket like I do in the heart of winter back home. I’m buying cough drops, drinking tea to sooth my throat and carrying lip balm everywhere I go to alleviate the dryness. I can’t manage to wear contact lenses for more than a few hours before they become dried out and irritated. The pollution forces me to squint my eyes as I ride my motorbike and I wouldn’t dare take a deep breath while driving. As seen in the photos above, the heavy smog has eliminated my beautiful balcony view of the 1,700m mountain just a few blocks down the road. It’s been weeks since I’ve ventured on a motorbike ride into the country where the pollution is even worse. I’m limited, I’m restricted and I don’t feel healthy.
There is a lot I don’t know about Thai culture and plenty I don’t understand about the technical aspect of agricultural that prevents me from fully understanding the unhealthy situation in the skies. I do know for a fact that most people aren’t happy about the burning and that it unpleasantly influences the rhythm of urban life in Chiang Mai.
On a bus from Vientiane, Laos to Chiang Mai, I met an Australian gentleman who had been working with farmers in Northern Laos for the past five years. I asked him why farmers still burn their fields and he answered “because my father did it.” He said that Laos and Thailand have traditional societies where people are more likely to stick with inherited techniques rather than adopt new methods. This attention towards tradition is important to remember when discussing how modernity, including agricultural practices, arrives in developing nations that are rooted in tradition.
The burning technique is much cheaper and much faster than clearing or weeding land with a tractor. When I ride my motorbike into the countryside, I see dark skin farmers wearing wide straw hats for sun protection and caring for their land by hand. Some of the men are operating makeshift machinery that appears to have been creatively assembled through the casual collection of random mechanical parts. The scene is far removed from the massive industrial farms found on the plains of the North American continent. It’s a reminder that the development of a nation happens over time and certain aspects of a country modernize quicker than others.
In Thailand and many other rapidly developing nations, cities can be seen as the initial gateway for the forces of globalization. The eclectic and diverse nature of the urban environment creates a welcoming place for new ideas and foreign influences. Rural life tends to be more resistant towards outside forces. Cities like Chiang Mai and Bangkok are swiftly transforming under the wings of global modernity while rural areas of Thailand remain in their own time. The unhealthy smog created by the agricultural burning helps remind us of the delicate balance between urban and rural, local and global, tradition and modernity.
Lying in the hammock on my balcony, I’m watching the veiled sun struggle to arrive at the horizon line as its soft red-coal color slowly succumbs to thick pollution and disappears out of sight. I think everyone in Chiang Mai can agree – I can’t wait for this to end.