Where there’s smoke, there’s sugarcane burning: a proposal to tackle the air pollution crisis


Cover image shows sugarcane burning in Phetchabun province. Photo by Roon Kamolchat, posted on Facebook on 21 January 2020.

By Chainarong Setthachua

Thailand’s position as the world’s second largest exporter of sugarcane by volume, after Brazil, is well established. Less impressively, Thailand might also rank as the world’s number one burner of sugarcane. Today, in many provinces in the lower North, the central plains, the East, and the Northeast, swathes of sugarcane fields are ablaze.

Let there be no doubt, the annual burning of sugarcane fields as an agricultural practice sends an enormous amount of PM 2.5 [atmospheric particulate matter with a diameter of less than 2.5 micrometers] into the air that we breathe. In some areas, the air is thick with black ash falling like snow.

The government’s response for now is to continue to allow sugar mills to purchase burnt sugarcane, but then to gradually reduce its proportion in the total feedstock until 2022. But in the government’s 12-measure response plan, there is no mentioning that the main culprit of the pollution is agricultural burning; instead the government is choosing to make vague references to “outdoor burning of refuse.”

What follows is a set of proposals that I have synthesized from suggestions from civil society and from interviews with sugarcane farmers that were part of my own research on sugarcane farming.

Urgent measures

The government must move to forbid sugar mills and ethanol production plants from accepting burnt sugarcane, with no exceptions. If there is no demand for burnt sugarcane, farmers will immediately stop burning their fields.

If the government continues allowing sugar mills to buy burnt sugarcane, it is gives carte blanche to farmers to continue burning and local officials an excuse to ignore the practice.

The sugar mills and ethanol plants must shoulder their share of responsibility for the burning by ensuring that their suppliers do not burn sugarcane. They ought to be using their clout to innovate or facilitate other ways of harvesting sugarcane that do not involve burning. They could be providing the use of motorized cane harvesters to farmers who are short on labor, and stop accepting burnt sugarcane right now.

Previous small-scale measures, such as erecting signs encouraging farmers to stop burning cane in front of sugar mills, amount to nothing more than a token effort and show that sugar mills are still not taking enough responsibility.

Mechanisms for farmer-focused regulations already exist in the provincial and district sugarcane growing associations where membership is compulsory. These regional or local organizations ought to police a burning ban among their members and encourage sugarcane growers to take responsibility.

Burning sugarcane for harvesting. iStock.com/6381380

Between the farmers and the sugar mills, a way to deal with sugarcane husks and leaves could be found without the need for secondary burning after the first round of burning during the harvest. This ought to be a matter of urgency because the secondary burning is just as polluting as the harvest burning itself. It also is a major safety hazard for nearby farmers and the general public who must deal with poor road visibility and soot-filled air. Farmers who insist on burning must be penalized.

Unregistered farmers who are not subject to regulation of any kind often sell their sugarcane to the mills via another (registered) farmer’s quota. By refusing to purchase burnt sugarcane, the sugar mills would effectively also be enforcing the regulation of these unregistered farmers.

Aside from the burning of sugarcane, the government ought to be closely monitoring the sugar mills themselves for pollution. Infringements of laws should be enforced according to the law, and double standards should not be brooked by the government, nor anybody else.

Most importantly, the government must immediately stop issuing permits to build new sugar mills and their biomass power plants.

Medium-term measures

The government must ensure that farmers effectively receive 70 percent of the profit for producing sugarcane, as per the law. Farmers must be able to move beyond a subsistence-and-survival mode if they are to develop better methods of harvesting.

Moreover, the total sugarcane growing area must be limited. The sugar mills and ethanol plants must be restricted from creating more sugarcane farms, and the expansion of other industries including biomass power plants that use sugarcane as a feedstock must be halted and controlled until order is brought to bear for the good of the public.

The sugar mills and the growers’ associations must work together to develop new methods of production and move towards organic farming to reduce health hazards.

Long-term measures

The government ought to carry out a serious review of its policy to promote the sugar industry come hell or high water, such as the “bio hub” policy. Similar pause for thought and consideration should also be brought to the corn industry, which is similar in nature and cost to the environment. Strategic vision should be employed to create an environmentally-friendly agricultural industry for long-term sustainability instead of short-term gain.

These recommendations are very broad. Disagreement is welcome. I hope that they will spark some serious consideration and debate on the matter. If the government really had the people’s interests at heart and did not pander to Big Sugar, and Big Capital in general, and instead paid more than lip service to human rights, the pollution from the burning sugarcane fields would cease in the blink of an eye.

This story was first published in Thai on 22 January, 2020. Translated by The Isaan Record.

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Dr Chainarong Setthachua is a lecturer and ecology expert at Mahasarakham University. He has been involved in environmental and human rights activism in Thailand and the lower Mekong region for more than 30 years.