An unworthy heritage
“Our forefathers did it, and so do we.” Tradition spurs farmer Damrong Chomphuphan and thousands of his fellow country dwellers in northern Thailand to burn fields and forests. Every single day in the dry season, farmers can be seen driving up the hills on their motorbike, carrying jerry cans of fuel to ignite new fires.
It happens to such an extent that for months on end the sun can no longer perforate the haze. Cars use headlights during the daytime. Flames creep over the roads. People cover their mouth with masks. Trees turn into blackened poles. The landscape looks apocalyptic.
Slash-and-burn is common practice in South-East Asia. Although officially forbidden in Thailand, the farmers in the north cannot be bothered by ‘those folks in Bangkok’. They stick to their tradition, because they believe in the profits of their method. The flames, they say, exterminate unwelcome snakes, termites, weeds and pests. The ashes are considered to be beneficial to their crops. And soon, they hope, fresh grass will feed their cows.
All true, but it is only part of the story. Dust particles fill the air for months and amount to a health danger. The extensive burning threatens biodiversity and the habitat of animals that might be considered a ‘nuisance’ for humans, but are nevertheless useful. And once the monsoon rains start slashing the bare hills, it is just a matter of time before the landslides occur.
Biologists, townspeople and environmental activists in the north of Thailand sign petitions to press the authorities to intervene. But the government soothes: soon the rains will come to put out the fires and clear the air. Until the next dry season…
March 2012, text and image Karolien Bais
Horticulture deals as much with vegetation as with culture. As a foreigner in Thailand, I am often more struck by the cultural aspects of growing flowers, trees and crops than by the actual appearance of certain species.
Likewise it is fascinating to discover how plants, flowers and landscaping are applied for cultural events.