During the past two decades, the north of Thailand has been turned into a corn factory farm, pouring toxic smog into the sky. Government, business and environmental groups offer few solutions. The only way to free us from this poison cloud is to empower farmers, to give them more autonomy and bargaining power against monopolies in the agricultural industry.
In the past 15-20 years the annual smog situation in the north has become increasingly unbearable for local people. Lampang, Chiang Rai, and Chiang Mai city are consistently the most polluted in the world around March and April. Generally, those elites in Bangkok who govern the country are unaware, disinterested, or vindictive. After they come to travel the north in the beautiful fresh air of the winter season, they return home, while those of us still here suffer as the cloud of pollution steadily builds to a crescendo.
Many articles and research papers have been penned on the topic, however, to accurately diagnose the cause of the issue we have had to wade through masses of bad reporting, misinformation, uncooperative government agencies, and an academic system that exists under the weight of the biggest agricultural monopolies in the world. Without naming the names of some of these litigious companies and their subsidiaries, their impact on the aforementioned institutions can not go unrecognised, much like that of the oil giants on climate change reporting. Go to any university agricultural fair in Thailand and the monopolies marquees are inescapable.
This is to say that; to research this article, we have had to largely fall back on lived experiences and first-hand accounts from specialists in the region. For this piece, we interviewed and spoke to numerous rural farmers, local village residents, agricultural, ecological, and economic specialists, as well as animal rights activists. We, and everyone we spoke to, reached the consensus that the cause of the smog can most likely be entirely attributed to corn burning, rather than other suggested roots such as sugarcane farming, vehicle exhausts, forest fires or even cooking and cigarettes. Of course, there are other forms of toxicity in the air caused by the aforementioned polluters, however, the annual smoke that affects the north of Thailand in the summer months is a separate phenomenon. In the case of Sugarcane farming, for example, waste is burnt throughout the year, not just in the summer dry months, whereas corn is specifically burnt during the dry season.
The area that makes up northern Thailand, is under a cloud of smoke imposed on us by mass agribusiness. The rural working class bears the brunt of this labour exploitation, ecological devastation, and victim blaming, while the true perpetrators in Bangkok continue to hoard the wealth it brings unabated as the north slowly suffocates.
We recently stayed in the rural area of Southern Nan province during the corn harvesting season. We took a walk up the Doi to the corn fields with a local farmer, Auntie Dang. She was born in this village, after graduating middle school she moved to Bangkok to work in a garment factory. Shortly after her son was born she lost her husband and moved home to the countryside to eke out a living in the fields. She tells us this story as we climb the hill, it is beautiful here, a paradise. It’s a clear day, before the smog, we can see over the mountain tops all the way to the Laos border. Below the peaks are narrow fertile river valleys, they’re green, dotted with wooden village homes. During the dry season, groundwater springs bubble up to provide natural irrigation and clean drinking water. The local people grow rice and vegetables as well as raise animals for meat. Overlooking them are the corn fields, the dry distant bald looking hilltops, too high for the spring water to reach.
Electricity came to this village only around 30 years ago, the same time as a middle school opened in the Amphoe. The nearest 711 is still over 1 hour’s drive away. The local people speak a version of Kham Mueng which is unfamiliar to us. It’s fast, not at all like in Chiang Mai, I struggle to understand them in their thick accents. They are old, tough people, their hands and faces weathered from a lifetime of agricultural work. Very few young people live in these villages, the population is declining. The youth have mostly moved to the city, Bangkok, Chiang Mai, or Phrae seeking work, few return.
The walk to Auntie Dang’s fields is tough, the hill is steep. After we pass the treeline we hit the corn fields. The rest of the day will be all corn. The stalks stretch off beyond the peak. Corn, corn, and corn. It is dead, dry, and faded. Auntie Dang explains that they let it die and dry out for harvest. Along the way, we see some uncles in the fields with machetes harvesting the husks. Corn plants are tall, nearly two meters, tightly wrapped with layered leaves and stems, the kernels (seeds) themselves are then attached to the cob. For corn the kernels are all you want, those yellow seeds, as such, harvesting creates a huge amount of organic waste for the return on the usable product.
We reach Auntie Dang’s fields, where two uncles are working there, we say hello and share some cigarettes. Felled corn plants crunch beneath our feet and wrap around our ankles. Here the harvested corn is put in sacks, the waste product is left on the ground. We walk up a little further to a sala to rest. We clamber in and lie down on the burlap sacks, filled with… Corn… It’s quite comfortable…
After the harvest, the corn ears will be sent down the mountain to the processing facility, where the kernels are stripped, weighed, and sent for further processing in the central region, where it will be turned into animal feed. Auntie Dang does not legally own the farmland, it was distributed to her by the farmer’s collective of the village who cleared it. Here they share both land and labour. She tells us that she makes very little income from her fields. Just a few thousand baht after the harvest, that money, however, is crucial for her and her son.
Mass corn farming is a relatively new development in these villages. Land dedicated to corn in the north has quintupled in the past 20 years. Before corn, the locals would live off of a mostly subsistence economy, their outside income came from raising pigs that they sold at the market. The fields we’re walking in were cleared around 20 years ago, in the past it was forest. Today the locals still largely produce all the basics they need in the valley– rice, meat, fruit, and vegetables. However, an outside income is still necessary. Bills have gone up, electricity, wifi, and phone costs, as well as other modern necessities like home appliances and electronics. For those like Auntie Dang, who hope to send their children to university, the additional income from corn is essential.
After the corn is harvested, the fires begin. Fire is the only way to clear all of that waste product on the land to make space for next year’s crop. In more agriculturally developed corn-producing countries like those in Europe, the land is not burnt but plowed, digging the waste product into the soil, allowing for it to biodegrade and making space for new seeds. However, in these steep hills, with its elderly population, the labour power simply does not exist, nor does the technology or infrastructure to bring heavy agricultural machinery up the near vertical dirt tracks. Furthermore, during the dry season after harvest, there’s no rain to provide the necessary moisture to allow the waste to adequately degrade.
Controlled fires are set alight. It creates a heavy thick smoke that lazily drifts into the air. A few uncles and aunties stand around keeping an eye on it, making sure it doesn’t get out of control. It’s hot dirty work, best done in the evening or early morning. Across the northern region these fires are light. From Phetchabun to Mae Hong Son, Chiang Rai to Kamphaeng Phet. Thousands of small controlled fires, sending the unwanted corn waste up into the sky. On occasion, field fires get out of control, and forest fires erupt. A smog descends on the region. Beginning in February, often it lasts until May. Rain seldom falls to clear the stagnant air, nor weather systems to disperse it. It engulfs Auntie Dang’s village, where life is lived outside of air-conditioned walls, causing respiratory problems that will last generations.
Outside attitudes towards the Northern peasantry are far from flattering. Stupid and ignorant bumpkins (คนบ้านนอก). They burn their land and then complain about the pollution. The urban middle class in the north has little sympathy for the farmers in the hills who pollute their cities, while those charged by Bangkok with governing the region often just ignore the issue, occasionally penning into law some anti-burning legislation, which does nothing other than penalising an unlucky few farmers. Provinces like Chiang Mai also outright ban burning, while investing heavily in the fire management budget, which does nothing to solve the root cause of the problem. Enraged urban citizens have even demanded the confiscation of land as punishment for those who seem to carelessly burn the fields– when ironically many of the farmers don’t even own them.
Cross border smoke
Beyond Thailand’s borders in Laos, Burma, and Southern China, similar agricultural practices take place. However, none are as systematically ubiquitous as Thailand’s. Accurate information on arable land in this cross-border region is hard to find. However, we can make some assessments based on the population sizes of these rural areas.
The northern Thai region where corn is grown (including the provinces of Kamphaeng Phet, Phetchabun Loie and Takk) is around 9.3 million. The neighbouring corn-growing regions of Burma have a population of around 3 million (though much of the arable land is far from the Thai border). In the same regions of Laos around 1 million and in China only around 1.5 million as the highland becomes exceedingly non-arable further north of Xishuangbanna.
These neighbouring regions are far less densely populated than Northern Thailand, suggesting that they don’t have anywhere near the labour force to carry out as large of an agricultural operation as the kingdom. These regions are also far less agriculturally developed than Thailand, as we’ve noted, the annual smog only significantly developed in this region around 20 years ago. Furthermore, another method of gauging a region’s agricultural intensity is to simply look at the region from a satellite image. Here we can see a clear difference between the heavily populated and farmed northern Thai region, compared to the surrounding area. All of this suggests that northern Thailand is leading the way in deforestation for agricultural use, making it the main source for the annual smog rather than the surrounding countries. Ironically too, the corn grown outside of Thailand is bought by a Thai agricultural monopoly (though to what extents we cant be sure), showing that while people and governments are constrained by national borders, both smoke and capital are not.
In 2022, the import value of corn rose to 13,200,999,565 baht and increased 560.53 % from 2018 (at 1998537516 baht/55514931 usd) and corn is under trade agreements among Thailand and ASEAN so the import tax is at 0% from the pic below TT
Here we can see the distinct characteristics of northern Thailand. The area is far more deforested than the surrounding region, suggesting a significantly highly agricultural output. Greenpeace did a far more detailed satellite analysis that can be found here.
Incidentally, this comparison between satellite imagery from 2002 and 2021 shows the extent of deforestation of land for agricultural use:
To understand the cause of the smoke we must look beyond the fire. The reality is that these farmers have no choice, just like those commuters in the city that burn petrol on their way to work. Corn is grown in these fields, not for the locals but for Thailand’s behemoth meat and animal feed industry. Thailand exports double the quantity of edible meat as neighbouring Malaysia, and more than Vietnam and Indonesia combined with its chicken meat exports industry the third largest in the world.
As of 2021, 7 million rai of land in Thailand was used to grow corn for animal feed. Nearly 5 million rai of that is in the North, with 90% of corn grown in Thailand is used for animal feed. Between 2002-2022, corn planting for animal feed increased from 621,280 rai to 2,430,419 rai (4 times more), during that period we can see meat exports increase at an identical rate.
Aside from meat, for maize (corn) Thailand is also the largest exporter in the region as well as the 12th largest animal feed exporter in the world. Ultimately those who make significant money from corn are not the farmers, they are the monopolists of the agricultural sector in Bangkok and overseas. Indeed one litigious Thai company, in particular, is the world’s largest producer of animal feed. These are the real owners of the farmers’ labour, they are forcibly holding the farmers’ hands to light flames in the field and leaving them to take the blame.
The issue of burning is a class-based problem, as such, it requires a class-based solution. Once we assess the situation as farmers being forced to burn agricultural waste, we can clearly see that the only way to stop this is for farmers to break out of that exploitative relationship and free themselves from the agricultural monopolies.
The monopoly’s leverage over the farmers is poverty. Without the meager income provided by corn they would be destitute. Many farmers, like Auntie Dang, are already living month to month.
Fortunately, environmental and social policies abroad provide some guidelines. For example, the model of set-aside programs. This is the practice of paying farmers to not farm certain fields in their land, typically 20%, to let the land regenerate. In the case of Thailand, this could be implemented to allow the biological waste product to decompose organically, rather than burning. Such a scheme wouldn’t even be particularly expensive, as income for farmers is shockingly low. Those extremely wealthy company owners could certainly afford to take a small cut in income to spare millions from living in suffocating smog.
Another agricultural solution is one already practiced in large areas of the north, simple crop rotation. This is the method of changing the crop after each harvest, mostly employed by rural Karen farmers. Typically the rotation is corn → rice → beans → corn etc… They also leave the land for 1 full year allowing the waste to organically decompose. Rotation not only would reduce the burning of corn waste but improves the quality of the soil and creates much-welcomed labour variety for farmers. In some of the steep highlands, like Auntie Dang’s farm, where rice growing is not a viable option, a combination of crop rotation with other viable crops and set aside would drastically tackle the need for annual burning. The question then becomes, what do we value more, the health of millions of people, or the profits of a small clutch of billionaires?
Other social schemes that benefit the rural working class would also be a means of solution, albeit indirectly. For example, free university tuition provided by the national government, or even free village wifi provided by the moo-baan would drastically ease the costs of daily life for the rural poor. As is the case with Auntie Dang, this would make local people less dependent on the relatively low income that comes from corn production.
Furthermore, economic verification schemes such as Japan’s successful OVOP policy, which developed into Thailand’s OTOP (One Tambon One Product), sought to create greater variety in economic production village to village, while simultaneously ensuring community ownership of the means of production. This allows villages not to be dependent on any individual monolithic cash crop like corn in the north, and sugarcane in Isaan. Indeed, this scheme was widely successful in the northern region before the 2006 post-coup government largely abandoned the program.
These agricultural solutions however are limited by the financial bottom line of the agricultural monopolies, while governmental social programs that aid the rural working class have persistently been considered a threat to urban Bangkok hegemony. Corn is something of a wonder crop. It can be stored for over a decade and processed into a wide range of staples, from animal feed to flour to fuel. The stability of this dependable crop also makes it a safer bet for farmers, rather than garlic or onions, which require more specific weather conditions and more advanced irrigation. As such, lines of credit from banks to farmers are far easier to get when the income of a corn harvest acts as solid future collateral. Any change in farming methods or crops would put the farmers at greater economic risk and detract from the income of the monopolies.
Here we need to assess how change occurs in Thailand. Advances in quality of life for rural farmers in the past century have not come as benevolent handouts from the state, but only after significant and organised fights by the rural working class demanding a better deal. The Bangkok government has consistently used a carrot-and-stick response to these demands. Post-WWII farm organisers were murdered en masse by the state, a grim reminder for those who sought to change the status quo. While simultaneously peasants were granted greater rights, as well as social programs and land ownership as a means of quelling their dissent. One of the primary mechanisms of rebellion was that of the Communist Party Thailand insurgency, which was highly active in Nan province as well as in other rural areas of the country. The carrot can be seen in the local middle school in Auntie Dangs Amphoe and the electrification of the village 30 years ago, curiously coinciding with the disbanding of the insurgency. In more recent years social reforms by Thai Rak Thai targeting improving the quality of life for rural people led to the red shirt movement, which was brutally crushed by the state.
Today, these hard-fought-for gains are gradually expiring. Few Thai Rak Thai policies, like OTOP, have survived the past two coups, and while many peasants have gained land rights they have also fallen into debt on that land, reversing their gains and sliding their lives back to something akin to the feudal era, where they worked the land they did not own. Meanwhile, the economic landscape of Thailand has “developed”. The land has become more “productive” for capital. What this looks like in reality is mass agribusiness monopolies benefitting from monolithic cash crops like corn and extracting maximum profit from the land and the labourers who till it.
Nan to Lamphun
We bid Auntie Dang and the uncles farewell and leave the highlands of Nan, passing through numerous villages, the roads dotted with advertisements; pictures of corn with coded letters and numbers below. H23374, H46284, etc… These are adverts for different corn seed variants, the harvest season is approaching and farmers are preparing to sow the next year’s crop. We pass Phrae and Lampang, through highlands and into valleys. A pattern emerges. In the highlands, the corn adverts appear and then disappear again in the valleys.
We reach Lamphun, to visit a friend in a picturesque lowland village. Here there are no adverts, but we see some corn fields in the Moobaan. We ask our friend why. “It’s because those numbers you see on the adverts refer to corn for animal feed, the kind of corn we grow here is for people to eat, it’s pretty much just sold locally,” she tells us. We ask if they burn the corn here. “Sometimes, but if they burn it they don’t usually do it in the burning season, they can grow and harvest it throughout the year on the flatland because we have stable irrigation all year round”.
These conversations and observations give answers which can be surprisingly hard to find. Finding accurate information on agribusiness in Thailand is not only challenging but misleading. We have to talk to local people, visit these sites and make our own observations on an industry which is ubiquitous yet somehow shrouded in smoke. As usual, the local people, the local workers know the reality.
Northern Thailand is a factory farm for corn. This factory is pouring smoke into the air and polluting the region for everyone who lives there. The factory is not owned by the local people but by elites in Bangkok and abroad. As with any factory pouring out smoke, it is ludicrous to blame and penalise the factory workers instead of the owners. To truly solve this problem, it is incumbent on everyone who breathes mountain air, the factory workers, the farmers and us common people, to seize the factory for the benefit of not just themselves, but everyone in the region as a whole.
Poetry on the International Day of Peasant Struggles to remember the massacre of landless peasants in Brazil, 1996, “Eldorado dos Carajas”
In Thailand, 17 April was also the date that Billy Porlajee disappeared and was later suspected as a forced disappearance and a murder by state officials.
Translated from Portuguese by PR
We feel this blow against our bodies
that comes from the terrible place where we live.
We have a nation of people
who are excluded from the nation.
We have a nation of people
who are excluded from life.
We have a nation of people
who are silent.
We have a nation of people
with no face.
We have a nation of people
with no name.
Buried by silence.
Is a dream worth alive?
I don’t know.
But I have learned over my short life that death does not dream.
Is the land worth a dream?
The land already has been worth infinite cruelty against the landless peasants.
Today the silence weighs on us like the eyes of the baby
that has been shot with the bullets.
If we accept to be silenced,
then the stones will scream.
If we accept to be silenced then the stones will scream.