Biochar: a profitable solution to Thailand’s haze problem

opinion March 11, 2016 01:00

By Michael Shafer
Special to The

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We who live in North Thailand appreciate the detailed coverage of the haze problem and its causes offered in articles such as “Giving voice to the forests” (The Nation, March 5). I would, however, like to make several points regarding long-term solutions

The problem is not, as your article suggests, the result of “irresponsible agricultural practices in the highlands”. It is the result of poor farmers burning fields of corn stalk to be able to plant a new crop quickly. They do this because they have no alternatives. Corn is the only cash crop they have. The current boom in contract corn farming has been a boon to them, providing the first steady income in memory. The problem is the stalk, which weighs the equivalent of one half of their corn kernel.
Switching crops
Is there a way to escape the public health consequences of this necessity? The suggestion offered in your article – encouraging farmers to switch to other crops – can work. Research at Mae Fah Luang University shows that the only places where regular hot spots disappear from satellite imagery are where farmers have adopted alternative crops.
There are several problems with this solution, not least that Thailand needs the corn. From an implementation point of view, this solution is costly and likely to have limited impact even where it does not run into legal barriers. (These often stop efforts to develop coffee, for example.) Professor Somikiat Chaipiboon reports that, in Mae Chaem, just three villages have been set up as models of alternative crop production. Other villages have not followed their example. Why? Projects that require large outside expenditures almost always fail when the money runs out. Even more important, as Professor Poon Theinburanamthum points out, nowhere is anyone offering a “marketing strategy” for alternative crops to replace the highly developed and efficient system that serves the corn market from mountain village to chicken barn.
Poor farmers will change crops only when they can see a secure market for a new crop. No such low-cost, easily accessed farm-to-market system exists in Mae Chaem for anything but corn. Until it does, corn will be the crop of choice.
Can you do anything with corn? Yes, and this ought to be our focus. Why spend lots of money to change what farmers are doing now? Farmers are growing corn. The contract system works. Why not develop a solution to the haze problem that turns waste corn stalks into a valuable product?
This is what Theerasak Charassrivisist, director of the Chiang Mai Provincial Energy Office, is doing. Theerasak is teaching farmers how to turn their corn stalk and corncob into “biochar” – a pure form of charcoal – using do-it-yourself technology. “Pyrolysed” corn waste produces no smoke, no particulates, almost no greenhouse gases and actually removes CO2 from the atmosphere. Then – this is the creative part – Theerasak teaches people to make sustainable, no-smoke charcoal for cooking and barbecues, for which there is a ready market.
Corn waste into money
Hundreds of people attend Theerasak’s training sessions. Today these people are turning hundreds of thousands of kilograms of corn waste into biochar. As they do, all of the would-be smoke is not filling our air. (To put this in perspective, a poor farmer with one rai of corn produces one tonne of corn stalk with every crop. Burned in the field, this produces six kilograms of smoke. Six kilograms of smoke is equivalent to the smoke produced by 428,574 cigarettes. Thailand produces some 5 million tonnes of corn annually and approximately 2.5 million tonnes of corn stalk. It is estimated that as much as 50 per cent of corn stalk in the North is field burned.)
So what’s the model? Offer people a simple, easily understood, easily imitated way to make money from waste. 
Theerasak has created a social enterprise. He has created a business model that transforms a social problem – the field burning of agricultural waste – into a business opportunity. He is solving the haze problem – a huge national and regional benefit – but he is also reducing poverty among the very poor, slowing climate change by removing black carbon and CO2 from the atmosphere, and improving the public health. Theerasak’s social enterprise creates wealth from waste and jobs in the dry season when there are none.
It is time to get past the “experts” who think that environmental problems always require the ongoing expenditure of large amounts of money, and time to recognise that smart, social enterprise business models like Theerasak’s can transform even environmental problems from loss-making to profitable business opportunities.
Michael Shafer is director of the non-profit Warm Heart Foundation for community development based in Mae Prang, Chiang Mai. He also directs the Warm Heart Biochar Project. Visit,