Fire Farming & The Burn Culture

Updated: Jul 9, 2020

Image by Ylvers, Pixabay

“One of our greatest tools and one of the most destructive forces” - The Department of Forestry and Fire Protection California

Fires occur naturally in the wild and are a part of the circle of cycle. Life transforms, death and rebirth all at a sustainable rate where life can be maintained. However the burning that Northern Thailand is notorious for, is happening at alarming rate.

Every year, we lose more precious forest to fires in many areas all around Thailand, largely due to human induced fires such as crop-burning, and arson. Over the years because of climate change, the fires both natural and man made have proven more destructive as the temperatures on average become hotter and the dry season prolonged.

Fire As A Tool

Fire to clear land for agriculture, or slash and burn as they call it, is commonly practiced in South East Asia. It is said to be the easiest and most cost effective solution, in the short term that is. It can help deter pests and bring back nutrients to the ground. However, the nutrients in the ground are quickly used up with this method and sooner or later the land is no longer seen as useful.

As upon learning about the slash and burn culture, most would be against it. Likewise, governments across SEA have often adopted a strict ‘zero-burn policy’, with Thailand having this policy currently in place. However, we must understand that some fire is necessary and can be beneficial - just not necessarily for agricultural purposes.

In the United States, The Forest Service has identified areas where controlled burning can take place, alleviating risk of serious burning, as overgrown areas and dried leaves and shrubs that accumulate over the years can be seen as fuel to already occurring fires.

How Do Farmers Feel

Many smallholder farmers find it incredibly hard to keep up with high production costs if they are not allowed to burn as they lack alternative technologies or farming know how, and very often secretly burn or else abandon their land under this policy. Build up of old shrubs on these lands become fuel for natural fires. The vicious cycle continues and warns us that the current policies in place do not work.

In the northern provinces of Thailand many locals feel repressed with strict burn policies, as it means that their needs are not met nor not heard. With the lack of communication between the parties tensions rise and the fires continue to burn - weather man made or natural.

The locals have proper knowhow on how to keep the fires under control, but are not given the proper attention and equipment to do so. It is clear that effective forest protection will need cooperation from authorities, villagers and indigenous people alike.

So How and Why do Fires Occur in the Wild?

Although a forest on fire may sound grim, fires are actually necessary for some forms of life. Several plant species require fires to help their germination process - either to break them out of their seal, give off chemical signals, or to help clear the way to sunlight. Imagine an area that is so dense with canopy, the lower level plants must compete heavily for sunlight - their food source. Naturally, fires in the wild are caused mainly by lightening and sometimes through natural combustion. Without wildfires to regenerate certain tree species, those species would disappear and therefore affect creatures that depend on them. The types of plants that need fire include but not limited to; Lodgepole pine, Eucalyptus, and Banksia.

In fire dependent forest areas, without fires over a long period of time the risk of a catastrophic blaze destroying the entire forest is increased. Therefore, in some areas, fires are arguably necessary.

According to the stats from the department of natural resources of Thailand, an average of 93 football fields of forests are burnt down from wildfires every single day (during the year 2019 alone). Chiang Mai accounting for over 2/3 of these wildfires. Could controlled burning help alleviate the extent of these fires in the future?

How to Move Forward

To help the fire fighters and volunteers in Northern Thailand in this current situation, it seems that the locals would appreciate an open two way communication with authorities. Forcing certain rules without understanding the situation, according to those affected, has led to where we are now.

Determining which areas would benefit from fires, providing the technology or farming know-how to areas that should be protected could help reduce the burn rate immensely.

Alternatives to Slash and Burn

Thus far, agroforestry appears to be one of the most sustainable methods that can substitute slash and burn practices.

Agroforestry is described as a land management system, allowing the soil to be fertile all year round by growing crops around trees. With crops for every season, farmers would see not only productive but economical and sustainable outcomes.

Can this be the answer?

If agroforestry could replace slash and burn practices, why hasn't this technique been adopted in more areas?

As we continue to argue on the rights of forest management, the forests still burn and the people around the area are heavily affected. This not only impacts the air we breathe but risks nearby natural habitats and diminishes sacred land. More must be done.

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#MissionHaiJai #SOSEarth #SaveChiangMai

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