Letter to The Nation

March 5, 2016

From Dr. D. Michael Shafer

To whom it may concern;

We who live in North Thailand appreciate the detailed coverage of the haze problem and its causes offered in “Giving voice to the forests.” I would, however, like to make several points regarding long-term solutions to the problem.

The problem is not, as your article suggests, the result of “irresponsible agricultural practices in the highlands;” it is the result of poor farmers burning fields of corn stalk to be able to plant a new crop quickly. They do this because they have no alternatives. Corn is the only cash crop they have. The current boom in contract corn farming has been a boon to them, providing the first steady income in memory. The problem is all the stalk, which weighs the equivalent of one half of their corn kernel.

Is there a way to escape the public health consequences of this necessity? The suggestion offered in your article – encouraging farmers to switch to other crops – can work. Research at Mae Fah Luang University shows that the only places where regular hot spots disappear from satellite imagery are places where farmers have adopted alternative crops.

There are several problems with this solution, not least that Thailand needs the corn. From an implementation point of view, this solution is costly and likely to have limited impact even where it does not run into legal barriers. (These often stop efforts to develop coffee, for example, but go beyond the theme of this letter.) Professor Somikiat Chaipiboon reports that in Mae Chaem just three villages have been set up as models of alternative crop production. Other villages have not followed their example. Why? Projects that require large outside expenditures almost always fail when the money runs out. Even more important, as Professor Poon Theinburanamthum points out, nowhere is anyone offering a “marketing strategy” for alternative crops to replace the highly developed and efficient system that serves the corn market from mountain village to chicken barn.

Poor farmers will change crops only when they can see a secure market for a new crop. No such low-cost, easily accessed farm-to-market system exists in Mae Chaem for anything but corn. Until it does, corn will to be the crop of choice.

Can you do anything with corn? Yes, and this ought to be our focus. Why spend lots of money to change what farmers are doing now? Farmers are growing corn. The contract system works. Why not develop a solution to the haze problem that turns waste corn stalks into a valuable product?

This is what Theerasak Charassrivisist, Director of the Chiang Mai Provincial Energy Office, is doing. Khun Theerasak is teaching farmers how to turn their corn stalk and corn cob into “biochar” – a pure form of charcoal – using do-it-yourself technology. “Pyrolyzed” corn waste produces no smoke, no particulates, almost no greenhouse gases and actually removes CO2 from the atmosphere. Then – this is the creative part – Khun Theerasak teaches people to make sustainable, no smoke charcoal for cooking and barbecues, for which there is a ready market.

Hundreds of people attend Khun Theerasak’s trainings. Today these people are turning hundreds of thousands of kilograms of corn waste into biochar. As they do, all of the would-be smoke is not filling our air. (To put this in perspective, a poor farmer with one rai of corn produces one ton of corn stalk with every crop. Burned in the field, this produces six kilograms of smoke. Six kilograms of smoke is equivalent to the smoke produced by 428,574 cigarettes. Thailand produces some 5 million tons of corn annually and approximately 2.5 million tons of corn stalk. It is estimated that as much as 50% of corn stalk in the North is field burned.)

So what’s the model? Offer people a simple, easily understood, easily imitated way to make money from waste.

Khun Theerasak has created a social enterprise. He has created a business model that transforms a social problem – the field burning of agricultural waste – into a business opportunity. He is solving the haze problem – a huge national and regional benefit – but he is also reducing poverty among the very poor, slowing climate change by removing black carbon and CO2 from the atmosphere, and improving the public health. Khun Theerasak’s social enterprise creates wealth from waste and jobs in the dry season when there are none.

It is time to get past the “experts” who think that environmental problems always require the ongoing expenditure of large amounts of money, and time to recognize that smart, social enterprise business models like Khun Theerasak’s can transform even environmental problems from loss-making to profitable business opportunities.

Michael Shafer
Director, Warm Heart Biochar Project
Director, Warm Heart Foundation, A.Phrao

Dr. D. Michael Shafer is Director of Warm Heart Worldwide and leads the Warm Heart Environmental Program and Biochar Training Project