A haze hides the sun from you as you exit your home. You breathe in, and taste smoke. Your head hurts and your eyes feel red and itchy. Though it is a cloudless season, the sky is grey and orange fires are visible on the mountains.
This is not an apocalyptic vision, but rather the reality of day-to-day life for all those affected by the phenomenon of ‘smoky season’, or seasonal haze. In Asia, the official name for the pollution at this time of year is the Southeast Asia Transboundary Haze, and during this period of three to four months the air in some Asian countries becomes so full of smoke that some groups say that the simple act of breathing is equivalent to smoking over 20 cigarettes a day (1).
The factors involved in the smoke being so extreme are varied, but the causes are often generated by humans. This article will look a little into the things affecting smoky season and some possible solutions.
Air around the world
Air pollution is a concern in many places around the world. There are different types and causes of pollution. Most cities experience air pollution from factory and traffic fumes year-round. Air-purification product producer IQ Air (2) compiles annual lists (3) of the world’s most polluted cities, based on one of the easiest to measure and most harmful pollutants: the PM 2.5 count.
What is PM 2.5?
One of most common ways to measure if air is polluted is to observe the particles present in the air. PM stands for ‘particulate matter’, and PM 2.5 means particles which have a diameter of less than 2.5 micrometres. This is “about 3% of the diameter of a human hair” (4). PM 2.5 particles are seen as dangerous, firstly because of their origin: they are present in most types of emissions, natural and unnatural, such as factory fumes, car emissions, volcanic eruptions and forest fires. All of these types of emission can be seen to have numerous detrimental effects on human health (see for example 4).
The second reason why PM 2.5 particles are seen as dangerous is that, due to their extremely small size, they get absorbed into the human body very easily, bypassing the nose and throat to embed straight in the lungs or circulatory system (4). For this reason alone, prolonged exposure to air with a high PM 2.5 count can lead to heart and lung disease (4).
Smoke all year round
In IQ Air’s list of the most polluted cities for 2018 (3), 47 of the top 50 most-polluted cities are located in India and China, with the 3 remaining cities being Faisalabad and Lahore (both Pakistan), and Dhaka in Bangladesh.
It seems clear that in these cities the air is unhealthy to the point of being dangerous all year round, and that probably something needs to change in order for people to be able to breathe easily. As an issue it is a very important one to be aware of, in particular because the nature of air is such that it carries whatever particles it contains to places other than those emitting the smoke, and in this way it can be seen as requiring a global solution. Such a solution would probably have to involve changing the economic and infrastructural organisation of the cities or countries themselves.
Pollution for a short time
Seasonal air pollution is a little bit different as it affects places only for a short period during the year. During this time, cities which usually measure quite low on the air quality index scale become so polluted that they vie for the position of most-polluted with those in China, India, Pakistan and Bangladesh.
For example, in March this year the Northern Thai city of Chiang Mai was measured as the most polluted city in the world (5). With the Southeast Asian Transboundary haze, it’s very often due to people engaging in particular habits of food production and forest management which could be easier to identify and change than the entire industrial and economic structure of a country.
Burning fields for haze
There appear to be a few particular actions which people are engaging in which perpetuate seasonal haze. One is the practice of slash-and-burn agriculture (6) where, after harvesting their crops, farmers burn the dried organic matter which remains in the field. This farming method is widely used in tropical regions all over the world (7) and has been applauded as being a ‘natural’ way to get rid of weeds and pests, and an effective method of returning nutrients to the soil through the ash of the burned matter (see for example 7).
However, many sources show that although the soil can be renourished by the burned crops to some extent in the short-term, if the practice is continued after two seasons then it ends up depleting more nutrients from the soil than it adds (see for example 6, 7).
So in order for the farmers engaging in this practice to continue growing high quality crops, they have to move to a different patch of land, cut down all of the trees and start burning again. Clearly, this creates a cycle of deforestation and destruction.
In some traditional practices, such as ‘swidden agriculture’, the farmers replant the original tree species on their cropland after a season or two, in order to try to re-establish some of the forest (8). The new trees can help to clean the air of the smoke, but if the farmers continue to burn patches of forest, then more smoke is being created.
Much of the deforestation which is taking place in order for farmers to engage in slash-and-burn agriculture is ‘old growth’ tropical rainforest (9), containing trees which are 30 years or older, some being hundreds or thousands of years old. So it would take a long time before the re-established forest reached a similar level of ecosystem diversity and resilience.
Irresistible ants and fungus
Two further reasons why people engage in burning the forest at this time of year is in order to harvest two rare delicacies which fetch a high price in South East Asia. One is red ant eggs. When these are collected in the forest, the red ants, perhaps understandably, try to protect them. One way to get rid of the ants quickly is to make a fire with dry leaves around them (10).
The Bangkok Post reported one person who engages in this practice as saying that they knew that the forest, in the midst of the dry season, might catch on fire because of it, but that the ant eggs were more important for their income (10). Similar answers were given in the same article from those burning the underbrush in order to harvest Thai puffball mushrooms (Astraeus Hygrometricus) (10), also called Barometer Earthstar fungus, and known in Thai as ‘hed pho’ or ‘hed thob’.
Solutions on a large scale
Right now, as the monsoon season starts spreading welcoming rain throughout the region, those affected by seasonal haze can breathe a sigh of relief – until next year. So what can be done? Many possible alternatives to burning the forests for agriculture or to collect delicicacies have been tried out. Some are on an international scale, such as the 2002 ASEAN Agreement on Transboundary Haze Pollution (10), which has been signed by all ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) member states since 2014.
Others are on a national scale, such as the introduction and implementation of fines for those caught intentionally starting forest fires. This is already in place in some locations (11), though it seems many fines have not yet been paid, for example by oil-palm and logging companies in Indonesia, which have been reported as failing to pay ‘hundreds of millions of dollars’ in fines for intentional forest burning (11).
Another top-down approach could be for the govenrments of the countries involved to implement composting on a wide scale so that, instead of burning the organic matter, the farmers can take it to a municipal compost processing place. This would require more work for the farmers, however, so it would probably need to be introduced with some kind of incentive.
With the collection of red ant eggs and puffballs, a possible solution could be for the governments involved to introduce some kind of incentive for the people harvesting them to protect the forests rather than destroying them. For example, all mushrooms and ant eggs have to be certified as having been collected from a forest which is being protected, before they can be sold. Companies would have to be on board with this as well.
Small and slow solutions
Such top-down approaches could be effective if the governments and companies involved implemented them in a practical and holistic way which considered the needs of all involved. It would probably take a few years for any governmental plan to be implemented, however, and still more time before any effects would be observable. In the short-term, the burning continues and the haze fills the sky. Perhaps smaller-scale solutions are in order?
From a permaculture design perspective, it would make sense to help farmers transition from annual crop-growing where they cut down trees, to planting edible or commercial species within the forests themselves, creating food forests rather than blackened fields. Such food forests could be landscaped in order to hold moisture more than the forests naturally do now, to minimise risk of natural fire. Making firebreaks within the forest could also help with this.
In order to successfully achieve this, a lot of communication needs to happen between permaculture practitioners and farmers. Perhaps many farmers are unready or uninterested in growing annual crops, in which case alley-cropping in between rows of native nitrogen-fixing trees could also be a viable alternative. In Colombia, alley-cropping as an alternative to slash-and-burn agriculture is already being implemented by the Inga Foundation (7), using trees from the genus Inga.
Hope for clear air
These solutions, some of which are already being put into practice, can give hope that the Transboundary Haze may begin to clear in the coming years. On a global scale, it is also important that we look at our relationship to this fundamental element, the air, and perhaps radically change it. For more ideas on this you can check out my article here (13).
- Echinque, M, 2018. ‘How much are you ‘smoking’ by breathing urban air?’ CityLab, 25/4/2018. https://www.citylab.com/environment/2018/04/how-much-are-you-smoking-by-breathing-urban-air/558827/ – retrieved 23/5/19
- iq aiR, 2018. ‘Our Story’. https://www.iqair.com/international/aboutus/theiqairstory – retrieved 23/5/19
- Air Visual, 2019. ‘World’s Most Polluted Cities’. https://www.airvisual.com/world-most-polluted-cities?page=1&perPage=50&cities= – retrieved 23/5/19
- Bliss Air, 2019. ‘What is PM 2.5 and why you should care’. https://blissair.com/what-is-pm-2-5.htm – retrieved 23/5/19
- Wipatayotin, A, 2019. ‘Chiang Mai air pollution the worst in the world’. Bangkok Post, 13/3/19. https://www.bangkokpost.com/news/general/1643388/chiang-mai-air-pollution-worst-in-the-world – retrieved 23/5/19
- ThoughtCo, 2019. ‘Slash and Burn Agriculture Explanation’. https://www.thoughtco.com/slash-and-burn-agriculture-p2-1435798 – retrieved 23/5/19
- Sitler, R, 2013. ‘Providing an Alternative to Slash and Burn Agriculture’. Resilience, 21/10/13. https://www.resilience.org/stories/2013-10-21/providing-an-alternative-to-slash-and-burn-agriculture/– retrieved 23/5/19
- Raygorodetsky, G, 2016. ‘These Farmers Slash and Burn Forests – But in a Good Way’. National Geographic, 8/3/16. https://news.nationalgeographic.com/2016/03/160303-thailand-farmers-slash-and-burn-forests-climate-environment/ – retrieved 23/5/19
- Weisse, M, Goldman, E.D, 2019. ‘The World Lost A Belgium-Sized Area of Tropical Rainforests Last Year’. World Resources Institute, 25/4/19. https://www.wri.org/blog/2019/04/world-lost-belgium-sized-area-primary-rainforests-last-year– retrieved 23/5/19
- Yongcharoenchai, C, 2015. ‘Amid Northern Haze, a burning desire for wealth’. Bangkok Post, 29/3/15. https://www.bangkokpost.com/news/special-reports/511036/amid-northern-haze-a-burning-desire-for-wealth – retrieved 23/5/19
- ASEAN Agreement on Transboundary Haze Pollution, 2002. ‘ASEAN Agreement on Transboundary Haze Pollution’. http://haze.asean.org/?wpfb_dl=32 – retrieved 23/5/19
- AP News Agency, 2019. ‘Indonesia land-bruning fines unpaid years after disastrous fires’. Al Jazeera, 15/2/19. https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2019/02/indonesia-land-burning-fines-unpaid-years-disastrous-fires-190215014438048.html – retrieved 23/5/19
- Ashwanden, C, 2015. ;The Invisible Dimension: Suggestions for how to relate to the air we breathe’. Permaculture News, 3/8/2015. https://pmnlive.wpengine.com/2015/08/03/the-invisible-dimension-suggestions-for-how-to-relate-to-the-air-we-breathe/ – retrieved 23/5/19