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. 



A journey through Maine-et-Loire, France

The blue and yellow sparkled under the faint light peeking through the stained glass windows. Chavagnes’ single church hand-painted interior was dark, intense, but stunningly beautiful. Each column spiralled toward the ceiling, coated in its own individual pattern of blue and green streaks, snaking around each other in a climb to the top. Images and monuments of the resurrection of Christ lined each wall.

And yet, this testament to the skill of medieval artists is tinged with sorrow and loss. The Great War memorial on the far wall paints the picture of a French village ravaged by war: 30 sons, from 23 different families, were lost to the most vicious warfare Western Europe has ever seen. A generation later, and another five names were added to the memorial. It tells the tale of a village that was torn apart and never recovered.

The pews are also beginning to rot away. The kneelers are worn, unkept for decades. France is now one of the most secular countries on the planet. Many French identify themselves as Catholic but average church attendance in the country is about 5% of the population. It shows. Whilst church attendance falls in the country, it would be a crying shame for these vast structures to be left unkept. Churches such as the one at Chavanges are found throughout the country, and whilst our society may not frequent them as much as our ancestors, their history reminds us of a time when their simple beauty was all that gave much of Europe’s peasantry hope and comfort. They remind us how good a life many of us have.

Stepping out of the church and walking around the village, the rurality of the place is put into sharp focus. There is a solitary restaurant, but it is open Friday to Sunday for lack of customers, and a boarded up hotel.Looking down the main street, green fields of vineyards come right up to the last houses on either side. The place is empty. Tourism clearly struggles here, even though Chavanges is located smack bang on a road that connects a fair few cities in the region. New signs have been put in place to try and convince drivers, or anybody really, to pay a visit to various different locations in the area.

Many of the windy backroads are lined with the most classic of French architectural tropes, the window shutter, but modern brutalism has come here too. The Mayor’s office is across the road from the church, built almost like a bunker house, with barred windows and security cameras everywhere. For want of a better cliché, it really does stick out like a sore thumb. The school has taken a vintage building and put a conservatory-esque reception area in front of it. Nonetheless, this area is in a gorgeous corner of France. Anjou- the historical area of this region- is, according to a guidebook, renowned for its olives and its slate. However, Chavanges is like a little piece of Tuscany tucked away in Western France. Rolling hills are covered in vineyards, dotted with churches and cobbled villages with the sun rising in the morning painting the entire scene red.

Châteaux Martigne-Briand is just a quick cycle further down the road, one lined by blossoming daffodils that cut sharply through the vast swathes of greenery. Its tower dominates the view to the South from most of the villages in the area. And it is quite something up close, seemingly never ending its reach for the sky. Unfortunately the place was closed on our arrival, but if driving from Angers to Poitiers further south, it may be worth a quick stop for a snap.

Doue Bioparc boasts of its record of being the 2nd highest rated zoo in France of Trip Advisor. Quite the title. But whilst many are now quite sceptical of zoos and the conditions that animals live in, Doue does much to allay these fears. Enclosures are spacious. But what is most impressive is that it is home to one of Europe’s best breeding programmes. Endangered animals from the Americas, Europe, Asia and Africa have arrived here over the last 50 years in the hope of preserving species that face extinction. And some guinea pigs.

One point that Simon Reeve, one of the most famous travel documentarists of this millennium, made about his time in Africa is that many nature programmes suggest that much of Africa’s wildlife is still abundant despite the overall poaching crisis our planet faces. However, a trip to Doue reveals that giraffes are actually on the verge of extinction, and that certain types of zebra face annihilation. Education seems to be the most important goal here.

The centre is also coming up with innovative ways for the public to become involved in conservation- from volunteering to donating deceased pets for feeding to birds in the wild. Whilst it can seem an alien concept, giving a passed companion can help sustain recently reintegrated animals alive whilst they come to terms with their newly acquired freedoms.