To Stop Smog Pollution: Empower the Farmers

Crop burning in northern Thailand has raised air pollution levels in the region.
The annual smog crisis in northern Thailand, particularly affecting Lampang, Chiang Rai, and Chiang Mai, stems from extensive corn burning, largely driven by agribusiness monopolies for animal feed production. Despite widespread suffering and environmental devastation, elites in Bangkok remain indifferent, exacerbating the problem.

Economy and livelihood

To understand the origin of smog, we have to take into account issues other than fires and burning. The truth is that this group of farmers have no choice, just like how city commuters have no choice but to burn fuel when traveling to work. These fields grow corns which are not serving the locals but the huge and despicable meat and animal feed industry in Thailand.

Meat export from Thailand is double that from its neighboring countries like Malaysia, more than Indonesia and Vietnam combined, and is the world’s largest poultry exporter.

In 2021, over 2.7 million acres in Thailand were used to grow corn for animal feed; of these, almost two million acres were in the northern region, and ninety percent of corn are used for animal feed. From 2002 to 2022, land used for cultivation of corn for animal feed increased fourfold from 245,634 acres to 960,911 acres. During the same period, export of meat also increased in equal measure.

Other than the export of meat, Thailand is also the largest exporter of corn in the region and ranks 12th in the world. Unfortunately, farmers are not the ones earning a huge income from growing corn, but rather a few monopolists in Bangkok and overseas who control the Thai agricultural sector. They in fact are corporations entangled in disputes and are the world's largest animal feed producers. It is these companies which own the sweat and labour of farmers, coercing them to light fire to these fields and then making them scapegoats.


Farm burning is a social class issue. As such, to solve this problem, it must be looked at from a class perspective. When we analyse the situation we will see that farmers have been forced to burn agricultural residue and it is clear that the only way to solve this problem is to liberate the farmers from such agricultural dominance and break free from their dependence on agriculture.

A big burden of the monopolists’ investements falls on the shoulders of the farmers due to their poverty. Farmers earn meagre income from selling corn, leaving them with zero options. Aunt Deang, for one, is living paycheck to paycheck.

Fortunately, the environmental and social policies in foreign countries provide some guidelines that can be followed. For example, take the model of set-aside programs. The program compensates farmers for leaving parts of their land uncultivated, typically around 20 percent of the entire land, in order to allow for soil restoration. In Thailand, this practice may be used to prompt natural decomposition of biodegradable waste, instead of burning them. This type of program does not even require substantial funding. While farmers' income is incredibly low, the wealthy owners of these companies have the capability to award such compensations. It is not difficult for them to sacrifice a small margin of profits to save millions of inhabitants from choking on the toxic smog.

Another solution for agricultural problems is crop rotation. Crop rotation as well as land rotation is already being practised in large farming areas in the north. The principle of crop rotation is to plant different types of crops after each harvest. This technique, commonly used among Karen farmers, involves planting crops in a sequence. For example, starting from corn >> rice >> beans and then repeat the sequence again and again. Farmers would then leave the plot fallow for a whole year, allowing residues to decompose naturally. Crop rotation reduces burning corn residues, improves and retains soil fertility and allows farmers to utilise their labours for other various tasks. For some highland farms, like Aunt Deang's fields, growing rice is not such a good option. Crop rotation with selection of crops appropriate for the soil, along with policies of the set-aside program can alleviate the scale of burning that occurs every year significantly. The question is, what is more important for us between the health of millions of lives and the interests of a handful of billionaires?

Other social projects that indirectly benefit rural working class are also part of the solution. Such as, providing free university tuition with fees allocated by the national government, or even free WI-FI, can equally help poor people in rural areas to cope with their daily expenses, just like Aunt Daeng’s case. These measures allow the locals not to rely excessively on their corn production which never brings them a lot of income.

In addition, economic verification schemes, including Japan's successful OVOP policy that was spawned into our OTOP project (One Tambon One Product), aim to create diversity in economic production in each village. At the same time, these schemes  ensure that the community owns the production aspect, so that the villagers are not solely dependent on a single economic crop, such as corn in the northern region and sugarcane in the northeastern region. In fact, this project was very successful in the northern region before the coup in 2006. Thereafter, the program was abandoned.

That being said, efforts to tackle these agricultural issues were derailed by the interests of industrialists controlling the agricultural sector. Government's social projects aimed at supporting the working class in the rural areas are regarded as a threat to the dominance of Bangkok.

 Corn is an excellent crop. It can be stored for years, processed into various essential products, from animal feeds to starch and fuels. Due to its many benefits and durability, corn is a safer choice for farmers than garlics and onions, which require specific climate conditions and a more complex irrigation system. Growing corn makes it easier for farmers to obtain bank loans, with income from the crop as a solid collateral. Therefore, changes in farming approaches or in the type of crops will put farmers' economic status at risk, and decrease the income of the agricultural tycoons.


Here we need to consider how reforms in Thailand have taken place. The living conditions of rural farmers in the past century have improved not because of the benevolent intervention of the state, rather, it was the grassroots labor movements that had risen up to fight and demand for better things. The Central government in Bangkok has always responded to these demands in a carrot and stick manner. Farmers and activists in the post-World War II era were massacred by the state. While this was viewed as a threat to anyone attempting to change the power structure, the state was concurrently cutting farmers some slack by granting them more rights. To stop anti-government movements, other social programs were concocted, including granting land ownership to farmers. One of the major dissident movements was the uprising of the Communist Party of Thailand, which gained significant momentum in the province of Nan and other rural areas 30 years ago. In response, the state awarded small incentives such as setting up secondary schools and providing electricity in the district where Aunt Daeng lived, which coincidentally took place during the period when the anti-government groups were being dismantled. In the past few years, the social reform policies of the Thai Rak Thai Party aimed at improving rural people's quality of life have led to the rise of the Red Shirts movement, which was subsequently violently suppressed by the government.

Today, the serious will to struggle for something better has gradually disappeared. A few policies introduced by Thai Rak Thai party, such as the OTOP program, have survived the past two coups. And while many farmers have secured land ownerships, they are still indebted for that land. Money obtained is used to pay off their debts, while they continue to live in conditions not much different from feudal times where they had to work on land they didn't own. At the same time, Thailand's economic landscape has become more "developed." Land brings more "productivity" for the money invested. This is evident from monopolies in agribusinesses benefiting from big cash crops such as corn and sugarcane, squeezing out maximum profits from the land and labourers working on it.

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Emvalee Uswaprem, Sunantha Sachdev and ProZ Pro Bono
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