Environmental problems in Northern Thailand

At the Fortune Community Centre, one of the five programs they run here focuses on the environment; a large proportion of the community outreach the centre does takes them to farms where families depend on a good crop.

However, there are numerous challenges that the group faces in this department. The first is, as every seasoned Thailand traveller would tell you, in the hot summer months there is so much smoke in the air that at times it can be difficult to see for more than 500 metres. We had one of those days just yesterday, when the mountains that surround this area could not even be seen through the smoke.

This smoke is caused primarily by farms being burnt to restore nutrients to the land. Much of the produce of Northern Thailand struggles to grow in the high temperature, low rain period of March to May, and so farmers take this opportunity to burn through their land and help with next year’s crop.


Whilst in principle not a bad idea, when all the farms are doing this, it causes major health issues and increases the rate of climate change in Asia; the cloud eventually spreads across the Golden Triangle, permeates over much of Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam, and into Myanmar and China, carried by wind and supported by similar techniques in those countries.

Whilst the burning of plant material, even on this scale, is nowhere near as disastrous for the climate as the animal industry or automobiles, the health hazards are very real. Bad air contributes to everything from stunted child growth to cancers. The issue has become so bad that in recent years the Thai authorities have banned the burning of farmland. I have seen however that is clearly still ongoing.

The second issue facing local farms is the battle over pesticides. Again, this is something that is very noticeable here. At a wedding the other day, we were out at a farm for about an hour, and three times an unavoidable odour swept over the ceremony for a few minutes before passing on. This odour only invades the senses around farmland- I have not experienced it in the town yet. That is just one of the effects of the pesticides.

Many of these pesticides stay with the foods, going into the processing plants and then coming back out again to be sold, and then enter the digestive systems of the consumers. This is obviously a problem experienced across the world, but the community here are aware that a lot of the food grown here ends up back on the plates and bowls of the same people who are growing the produce.

The counter-argument is that the pesticides ensure the crop survives an environment where bugs rule. The people here depend on a full crop in order to survive. The problem is that this desperation for survival is in turn poisoning them, slowly.

The Fortune Group here are trying to improve standards through education, but is a small, slow process. But it is one that every country in the world is going to have to start to consider. Environmental sustainability cannot be solved through one, two policies. It is a vast swathe of issues, and in my time here I have learnt more and more about local, on the ground solutions being carried out.



The Shan People in Thailand

In 1962 Myanmar, or Burma, underwent a coup d’état that put the army in charge of the state. The infant nation, having only ceded from Britain 14 years earlier, was comprised of one group of people as a majority with several large minority populations spread around the country, as was the case in many post-colonial nations. One such minority was the Shan people, who had obtained some degree of autonomy after the British left Myanmar, but quickly found themselves subjugated and persecuted under the new regime.

Guerilla campaigns against the Myanmese army saw brutal retaliations, with many villages burnt to the ground. The last round of conflict flared up again toward the end of 2015. Even in times of relative peace, men could find themselves conscripted in to the army indefinitely, or bound to borderline slavery working in labour camps around the country. For this reason, there is now a large community of Shan who live abroad, in border towns around Laos, China and in particular, Thailand.

However, many families in these communities are undocumented, leaving them in a vulnerable predicament. Even those who are registered find it difficult, practically financially impossible, for them to go on to higher education, or leave the country to find work elsewhere. Many are eking out a living on farmland or in factories, earning a small pittance in order to survive.

Today there are estimated to be between 4-6 million Shan people, and many have come together in the face of adversity. There are communities all over Asia who are responding to the diaspora of their people not with malice but with dignity and kindness. In Fang, the Shan have secured jobs in the local public service, where they are particularly devoted to helping other Shan with little understanding of the Thai language translate documents, apply for birth certificates, travel permits and they carry out other administrative duties to help the Shan people settle in Thailand. There is also not much tourism in the area, with most backpackers going overland to Myanmar in the West rather than through Tachiliek in the North, and whilst there are National Parks nearby many tourists visit others that are closer to Chiang Mai.

But the Shan are determined to make a life here for themselves and their children. Many young Shan head up a community centre where English classes are held and local Shan teenagers and young adults can come together to work for the betterment of their community, or just relax, play some music, complete homework or play football in their very own ‘stadium’. Even as I type, local children from the surrounding area are arriving to spend their evening playing on the tyre swings and jungle gyms in the playground. A lot of the community work is based on improving the lot of undocumented migrants, teaching them about their rights and about how to stay safe; human trafficking, drugs, diseases and illegal pay are all major concerns for the Shan people.

Centres in countries like Thailand, where wages are very low, are vital to the migrant communities. Sai Mu, the man who I am primarily working with here, used to work on a farm for 150 baht a day, roughly equivalent to £3.80 in England. For a whole days work. New laws have been implemented by the Thai government to try to alleviate this issue but it is difficult to monitor each individual farm, especially in such remote areas. One group of children who I am working with, helping them learn photography skills, all live on the same farm, across six or seven families who cannot afford their own plot of land.

Whilst there are schools here to give children an education, many families rely on the production of cheap onions and oranges for income and therefore simply cannot afford the money or time to take their children on trips to explore the country, buy them a musical instrument or take them to play football. Therefore, these centres which run many day trips to surrounding towns and sights, helping the children connect and identify with their new country, are vital.

Run mostly by young adults – many of the team members of the Fortune Centre who run the projects and outreach are in their early 20’s – they provide other projects devoted to extra-curricular learning, such as photography but also attempt to get them to explore and share their emotions and experiences. There are similar classes surrounding sex, drugs and mental health. Whilst this is just one centre, it is brilliant to see the youngest in the community taking such a pivotal lead role.

I hope to bring some interviews with some of the people involved and some insights into some of the classes soon. 



Blog Introduction

In the two weeks I just spent in Australia, I read only one book (poor effort I know, please forgive me), but it was a book of real interest and high importance; Songlines, written by Bruce Chatwin, discusses the ancient Aboriginal traditions that created a form of dialogue and communication beyond the comprehension of any Western- and Eastern, for that matter- observers. It also explores the Aboriginal tragedy, the demise of their culture and the fight to keep archaic landmarks standing and out of the hands of corporations who want to build railways or dig for oil and minerals.

Chatwin also intersperses his book with some of his own musings on the nature of humanity; he is particularly interested in how the ambitions and means of life change in humans who live in static locales compared to the few nomadic people left on this planet. He clearly believes that city-dwelling corrupts the human spirit and that a nomad is more pure in heart. Chatwin’s layout is unlike any other I have seen in a book, and he combines humour, sincerity, empathy and anger in his writing in effortless fashion. He also shares some humourous tidbits from meetings on his own travels, being a nomad of type himself.

Inspired by Chatwin, I thought that maybe, rather than tell people about my activities in Melbourne, I could curate my own list of interesting facts and thoughts I had during my time there. As part of this blog I want to try and bring a different angle to the typical gap year blog, and hopefully people back home will enjoy reading about some of the finer aspects of society I observe out here. I certainly met a lot of interesting people in Melbourne and the numerous art galleries there were very interesting. So, without further fluff, here is my list- Bruce Chatwin style:

  1.  Wondering down a Melbourne alleway, I came across an Indian restaurant called ‘Gaylord’.

Will probably post an update about Bangkok/Chiang Mai next week.