Yelling 'Fire' on a crowded hillside

By Erika Fry - Bangkok Post 15th April 2007

Forest fires around Doi Tung are not uncommon during the dry season, but in recent years they are more and more often being set intentionally. Who might be behind them?

At 10 a.m., two Sundays ago, Doi Tung's 105th fire of the season (fire season starts in December) began like many that preceded it-at the base of a hillside. Blown by wind and hastened by dryness, the flames fanned out and up, hurrying up the hill towards the headquarters of the royal development project and within 100 metres of the Royal Villa.

To complicate matters, Doi Tung's fire crews and five trucks were already further up the hillside at the time, fighting the 104th fire of the season, which had been set in three separate spots, not long before the 105th began.

By the time it was all over, it was Monday; acres of reforested land had been lost, and 700 village volunteers, some of whom mounted gazebo roofs with garden hoses to keep flames at bay, had been needed to spare the Villa and the project's facilities.

Forest fires in Northern Thailand are far from uncommon. The Forest Fire Control Division recorded 3,129 forest fires for Oct 2005-September 2006, while the tally for this year, starting in October 2006, is already at 3,957.

Many link the fires to this year's haze disaster, which since March has blanketed Thailand's northern region with smog, jeopardised tourism, cancelled flights, and has in Chiang Rai alone sent more than 20,000 citizens suffering from respiratory problems and stinging eyes to seek medical care.

Highland villagers, who are often faulted for mismanagement of waste burning activities and slash and burn agriculture practices, and Burma, which is often faulted for unchecked fires that spread over the Thai border, have so far shouldered much of the blame. Meanwhile, the year's extreme dryness and late-coming rains have made the nation's forest areas all the more combustible.

Yet of the 110 fires that have started since last December at Doi Tung, a 150 square kilometre area in hills of Chiang Rai province, very few of them have been due to sloppy agricultural burning.

The majority have been arsons-increasingly frequent and brazenly-set blazes that are being interpreted as an intensifying effort to terrorise the Doi Tung project and community.

Doi Tung is a 30-year development project that was founded in 1988 by the late Princess Mother in an effort to improve the lives of the region's rural poor and alleviate the problems - drugs, human trafficking, trans-national crime - that plague them.

The Princess Mother likened the region, for topographical reasons, to Switzerland, and the highland villagers likened her to "Mae Fah Luang" (Mother from the Sky), which became the name of the foundation.

At the time, the area, which includes 23 kilometres of Thai-Burmese border, was deforested land that served as the heart of Thailand's opium and arms trades. In an effort to encourage alternative livelihoods to opium cultivation, the project began aggressive reforestation, and later agro-forestry efforts that compensated villagers for their work.

In the years since, the community of 26 villages and 11,000 mostly hill tribe people has been transformed. 80% of the area has been reforested for sustainable economic use and the production of crops like coffee and macadamian nuts. Villagers, many of whom are employed in Doi Tung's agriculture or handicraft enterprises, have seen their annual income increase from 3,000 to 32,000 baht and now spend a measurable portion of earnings on "luxury goods" that include TVs, motorbikes, and gas stoves (there are, according to the 2548 census, more TVs than households in Doi Tung).

Meanwhile, through a smart branding campaign, Doi Tung has developed a franchise of coffee shops, and opened several gift shops that sell textiles, ceramics, and even a high-end fashion line created "from the hands of the hills." Its strategy to develop alternative livelihoods has been by acknowledged by the UN's Office of Drugs and Crime, and is currently being studied and adopted by groups in Myanmar, Aceh, Indonesia and Afghanistan.

The history and new-found prosperity of the area has instilled in the community a collective sense of pride, ownership, and the great respect for the forest that makes the recent string of intentionally-set fires all the more puzzling to villagers and project leadership.

"The original community looks on the forest as their heart and soul. They worked hard to bring it about. They have great respect for the forest and preservation efforts," says Prakrong Saijan, head of Doi Tung Social Development Department's Environmental Management.

Who Would Want to?

A man from one of Doi Tung's Akha villages who did not wish to be identified found it unthinkable that someone within the community would start fires in the forest. "We live like an extended family. No one would want to hurt the community or each other. Villagers wouldn't dare violate the land."

He adds that fires are a burden and a worry for everyone, and starting them "is risky because one might suffer if the flames jump fields. It's pointless. Who would want to?"

Khunying Puangroi Diskul na Ayudhya, chairman and CEO of the Handicrafts Home Industries Training Centre of Doi Tung Development Project, says fires have taken place every year within the project, but it wasn't until four or five years ago that they began to see them deliberately set in the Doi Tung forest.

Since then, the efforts have intensified. There have been nearly twice as many fires this season as in the year previous (110 vs. 59), at least 62 of which she believes have been cases of arson.

Most of them, including the one that threatened the Royal Villa two weeks ago, were set on a hillside, using a crude bomb or fire-starting device fashioned from everyday flammable materials like a bundle of matches and mosquito coil.

Over time the efforts have also grown more sophisticated and boldly-staged. The fires which used to begin only at night, are now more often (and almost daily since mid-March) set in broad daylight, sometimes simultaneously and sometimes brazenly placed under watchtowers and in increasing proximity to Doi Tung's facilities, and the Royal Villa.

Khunying Puangroi and a number of others investigating the fires believe the sophistication and widespread nature of the fire-starting efforts demonstrate a familiarity with the land that only community members could possess.

Even so, the cohesion and values of the community make it hard for many, including Khunying Puangroi, to believe the fires are being started by "hands from the hills."

While the fires have never touched the villager's private agricultural land, 1,900 rai of reforested land, which Khunying Puangroi values as a 2 billion baht investment, have been lost.

"We've considered many theories," she says. "It just doesn't make sense it is very frustrating. We're chasing a phantom." she says, shaking her head.

When I visited the Tuesday following the fire, investigators were fresh from all-day emergency meeting and theories did indeed run the gamut.

Third Army officials based at Doi Tung think the fires may be the latest strategies of drug traffickers (they have evidence in two cases)-diversionary tactics to send authorities scrambling while they bring heroin and amphetamines over the border or bury them along the region's main transport routes.

Others believe the blazes are being set by the region's newly educated, uniquely brash breed of hill tribe teens (besides tendencies to drink, smoke, and ride around on motorbikes, some are said to abuse their parents) on a rebellious streak.

Other speculate it's profit-hungry businessman on the outside paying villagers to conduct burn-offs and grow crops on the inside. Some villagers had even suggested that it is the fire fighters themselves, who despite having not been paid since last October, are starting them as a means of job security (Puangroi found this one particularly absurd).

The theory which seems to be the most often circulated, but also the most vaguely discussed, is that a group of individuals has a conflict with some authority, official policy, or other force that they have no means to fight other than by setting fires. A number of figures interviewed acknowledged that various authorities will unfairly harass hill tribe villagers, simply because they have the power to do so.

Too Many Fires

The 106th fire got going around noon that Tuesday , a winding 10 minute drive away from Doi Tung headquarters (#107 and 108 would follow later that afternoon). As we drove towards the smoke, we passed members of a nearby Lahu village, who geared up with rakes and rubber boots, were making the slow climb towards the scene.

Other villagers, strapped with water tanks and wielding shovels were already there helping the fire crews hose out the fires. A few wore masks. None, including the professional fire fighters, wore gear more protective than this.

"There are not enough people to fight fires. We need more human resources and materials. We use very basic tools and carry water tanks on our backs," says Phaopan Thammabandidt, deputy head of Subdistrict Administration, who is not a fire fighter himself, but had like many others shown up when the forest near the Royal Villa reignited (fire #109, not an arson) on Wednesday.

The force has 120 firefighters, none of whom have been paid officially since last October (Doi Tung has supplemented their income in the meantime). There is not the budget for protective gear or uniforms beyond a red cap. The foresters, which come from each village in Doi Tung, work with a helicopter and 5 trucks-two large ones that are used to ferry water and three smaller ones that have capacity for 1500 litres of water, a 3 minute supply when hoses are going full blast. The force detects fires using three roving patrols and around-the-clock watch from Doi Tung's 11 watchtowers.

Forest Fire Control also holds annual public meetings in each village to educate on fire protection and prevention, and to set regulations and policy for agricultural burning.

Agricultural burning is legal on one's personal land in Doi Tung, but the process is strictly regulated and in an effort to prevent mismanagement, limited to fires that are pre-arranged through a Doi Tung call centre, supervised by an official, and conducted within the permitted 4-6 pm window.

Villagers that violate these rules are fined, as are those that, for whatever reason, cause fire within a forest area; meanwhile, families are paid 1000 baht per year for their service in following rules and protecting against fire in Doi Tung's forest.

Perhaps because of this incentive or simply their respect for the forest and the community, the public, which regularly and willingly mobilises to assist in community fire fighting and fire prevention efforts may be the fire department's greatest resource.

Sure enough, Thursday morning, a crowd of 500 villagers had gathered outside Doi Tung's headquarters. They had come with shovels, machetes, and in some cases, barefooted toddlers, to take part in the day's effort to fireproof the Doi Tung facilities through the creation of an all-encompassing fire protection line (a process that involves clearing kindling materials from a 15-meter wide line in the forest that will theoretically break the fire).

Fire protection lines, along with prescribed burning (which Prakrong calls a last resort, and is basically a pre-emptive technique that uses fire to break fire) are among Doi Tung's main strategies for mitigating forest fire damage. Prakrong adds that Doi Tung is working with Mahidol University in an effort to raise the effectiveness of fire protection lines, maximise the use of natural fire-stopping materials and to reduce the forest's combustibility through plant diversification.

The project has also developed a new fire prevention strategy that has grown out of the observation that none of the fires have started on agricultural or livelihood land, and which aims to deepen the relationship of the people with their environment.

Based on the idea that those who live harmoniously with the forest, are the best suited to protect it, Prakrong is working with others to integrate agricultural products into the forest, as well as to raise awareness of the forest's existing value.

He has begun to incorporate coffee crops which grow well in the shade of the forest canopy, and is piloting the production of vanilla and olive trees in select forest locations. The project has also begun tapping pine trees to collect resin for the production of turpentine.

Khunying Puangroi notes that encouraging the use of forest for livelihood is in accordance with the ideas of the Princess Mother, who "initiated the concept of coexistence of man and nature."

"We want to reach that balance where people sustain the forest, and the forest sustains the people" said Mr Narong Apichai, operations field director of Doi Tung's Centre for Social Entreprenuership.

All hope there will be few more fires to put out to reach that point.

Wannajan Jittinan, head of Doi Tung's Development Project, commented, "We've lost all that we have invested. The forest is like the supermarket of the village. It provides medicine, work, food - all has been destroyed."

On that Thursday, while the hundreds of hill tribe villagers were out clearing fire protection lines, the 110th fire - the 7th in 3 days - started 8 kilometres away from the headquarters.

I ask her if she thinks all this loss will ever become too discouraging or exhausting for villagers to keep turning up.

She says she doesn't thinks so. "They have worked closely together for a long time."

I am not sure whether she is speaking of the villagers and forest, or just villagers, but either way, her words provided a rare bright spot on this smoke-filled day.