Pluming smoke obscures the path of the speeding van, which brakes into corners and swerves over potholes to make it back to Chiang Mai from Nong Khai in good time. The passengers are groaning behind me; one has already been sick while another has had an alarming outburst: "Slow down, man! You're gonna kill us all!" But I'm preoccupied with the view, beyond the forested edge of the road. There's not much else to do, sitting in the middle front seat, unable to sleep, so I watch, and wait. And inevitably, they come - the winding trails of brilliant orange flames, against the stark black backdrop of dead night - and they are breathtaking.
That night was 12th March, which is near the peak of the burning season, and we made our way through Loei, Uttaradit and Lampang, where devastating fires chased by smoke followed us all the way to Chiang Mai. This fiery phenomenon is a result of slash-and-burn farming and the deliberate, illegal setting of fires to fields and forests for replanting and clearing. While the magnitude of flames might be a beautiful sight to behold, they have been plaguing the Thai highlands for as long as any resident can remember. Every year during the dry season, the "Northern haze" forces itself quite literally down people's throats, while airborne dust particles sting and irritate eyes and skin and cause severe respiratory problems, asthma and allergies. The Thai government has described the smog situation as "urgent" for the last 10 years, but for a seemingly solvable problem, nothing much seems to have changed.
"Unfortunately, things like this are always about one thing: money," says Paula DiPerna, a writer and speaker whose extensive environmental career has seen her take on many important roles, including Vice President for International Affairs for the Cousteau Society (created by revered scientist and oceans pioneer Jacques Cousteau), where she interacted with the U.S. Congress, Heads of State and the UN; consultant to the World Bank among other organisations; and, currently, Strategic Advisor for North America for the Carbon Disclosure Project. She's just passing through Chiang Mai, but has worked in China, India, Korea and other emerging markets.
DiPerna likes our growing city, calling it "pleasantly modern and ancient at the same time" and "sort of like a tropical Berlin," but says it's beginning to face the problems that modernisation brings. "Traffic is the source of air pollution here; the burning just makes it worse. There needs to be a public transportation system, and more incentives for people to use other modes of transport besides cars and motorcycles. More people should be on bicycles, and the infrastructure should be better built for smoother traffic patterns - there is a lot Thailand could be doing but isn't."
But if Thailand has all the relevant organisations and departments working to weaken the onslaught of air pollution (the government's Department of Industrial Works sets the measures and standards for air pollution while The Pollution Control Department has been focusing on reducing vehicle emissions and improving public transportation for years), why isn't the air quality significantly improving as the country develops? DiPerna offers one reason: "Chiang Mai has conflicts between the residents, the agriculture business, and the economy. There are too many competing interests to find a socially acceptable middle ground, so the environment gets sacrificed. I believe offsetting the loss of the farmers, and transferring the value of the crops somewhere else, would help curb the smog. Right now, there's no monetary value to clean air. The farmers gain nothing from protecting the environment."
However, there are a few projects in place that reward farmers for abstaining from burning, as opposed to the alternative of relying on authorities to punish them. One of them is a "natural bank" in the Mae Hia municipality, where residents are encouraged to deposit their unwanted organic matter into the bank in exchange for fertiliser. Since it began in 2010, the project has seen more and more people utilising it instead of burning their crops, but this still only reduces a tiny portion of the haze that suffocates the region during smog season.
The Bangkok Post published one of the only two articles highlighting this initiative, where Deputy Prime Minister Plodprasop Suraswadi was quoted as saying, "This problem is caused by a minority and the entire country is suffering from the consequences of their misconduct." Earlier in 2013, he called for provincial authorities to detect fires with satellite surveillance, and that satellite imagery in this regard should be playing a much larger part in the government's campaign to fight pollution in the North. NASA's latest satellite image of the Indochina region from just a few days ago shows extensive clusters of smoke and burning in all nine northern provinces, along with the provinces bordering Burma and Laos.
A changing of mindsets needs to accompany an incentive for farmers. Many of them are producing maize (in 2010, there was an estimated 5-6 million rai of corn farms in the Northern provinces), which is in high demand by massive conglomerate companies like CP Foods. About two thirds of every annual corn harvest is fed to factory-farmed animals, while the price of corn commands an auspicious, guaranteed price thanks to government policies. As the Western world has already illustrated, agribusiness is concerned only with profits, and tends to favour farming techniques that support maximum output regardless of their harm to the environment. The modernisation of Northern Thailand spells disaster for not only the quality of air, but for forests and other areas the government should be working harder to preserve.
Burning is a cheap, convenient, efficient practice for people who need to prepare new crops in time for the rainy season in April or May, or those who need to expand in order to accommodate growing demands. The effects of this, in the form of severe air pollution, are not just detrimental to the environment (damaging trees, plants, lakes and buildings), but also to the health of humans and animals.
DiPerna offers another factor for the government to consider: "Chinese tourists definitely notice the air is cleaner in Chiang Mai than China, and a lot of them come here seeking green spaces and nature. What will happen to the money they bring when the city becomes no better than other terribly polluted places? Nobody wants to live in a world where it's normal to wear face masks and stay indoors, let alone travel there for fun."
This annual crisis, which usually takes place from February to April, yet again has travellers steering their adventures to other places, while residents (or at least those with the time and money to do so) make their way down South or even out of the country until the haze clears. The Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT) admits that the air pollution causes tens of billions of baht in lost revenue, and worries that as more and more people learn about it from the internet or other travellers, they will inevitably avoid Northern Thailand during those three months of vile smog. TAT fears that the Songkran festival - which takes place in early April and is incredibly popular with visitors to Chiang Mai - will be seeing less and less visitors in the future because of its timing; another blow to the developing city's prosperity.
Currently, Chiang Mai's air pollution has already exceeded The Pollution Control Department's safe level of 120 micrograms per cubic metre, along with Chiang Rai, Lampang, Phayao and Nan. While 120 is a far cry from China's unacceptable pollution levels, which have been hovering around the 500 micrograms per cubic metre mark since February, both figures are still too high for the World Health Organisation. Their safe level is a mere 25. "We forget that fresh air is invaluable," says DiPerna. "We just think it's a free luxury, or better yet, our right. It's not; it's something we have to protect and preserve. No one speaks for the trees, but one day we'll wish we had."
As a rapidly developing city, Chiang Mai has many hurdles to face, with a vital one being the poor quality of air - and not just during the smoggy season. The government's current enforcement of the law against burning is lacklustre at best, while the city's roads are filled with too many vehicles spilling unhealthy black exhaust fumes into the already-polluted air. As DiPerna notes, "Protecting the environment is a young people's game. They grew up wanting to have the environment their parents and grandparents did, and they will take their families, money, and businesses wherever there's clean air and green spaces. Their money will escape pollution and that's what governments haven't yet woken up to."
And Chiang Mai's youth could be the tipping point for a city that prides itself on its young creatives and innovative talents. DiPerna believes we could even be a model for other evolving cities. "The future has to be greener for the economy to prosper," she says. "Investors are becoming more concerned with environmental risks, and companies with bad policies won't stand up to green companies that will be more valuable for longer. Chiang Mai is the perfect place for shifting ideas: sunken highways could be built to preserve the city's surface; solar-powered fleets of tuk tuks could become the new tourist attraction; carbon sinks could be implemented - all of these suggestions might be idealistic, but Chiang Mai could make them happen, and now, before it's too late."