Economic hurdles in Thailand led farmers to rely on dangerous crop burning methods, until this sustainable alternative came along. Michael Shafer, founder of Warm Heart Worldwide and member of GlobalGiving’s Climate Action Fund, shares how his organization is empowering communities to mitigate global climate change at a local level.
From March to May every year, northern Thailand chokes on smoke so dense that airplanes cannot land. Thousands die and tens of thousands are admitted to hospitals as the corn and rice fields are burned in preparation for planting. Our organization Warm Heart Worldwide suffered through the burning season with everyone else for a few years, then decided enough was enough, and set out to stop the smoke.
Corn is becoming the dominant crop of North Thailand. It’s grown on the slopes of mountains after local farmers burn the native forests. Corn is an especially “dirty” crop—20% is the edible kernel, 80% is waste that farmers burn. Why do they burn their fields? They have no alternative. The agricultural equipment needed to clear the steep mountainside fields is far too expensive. A simple match, however, is all that’s needed to start a fire.
The resulting fires are devastating. Not only do they generate greenhouse gas emissions equal to that of 5,626,327 cars driven for a year, these fires also pose a significant threat to local health. The amount of smoke generated by these fires is equivalent to the smoke of 4 trillion cigarettes.
We found this totally unacceptable for the global climate, local environment, and the farmers who had to live with the smoke. Our solution? We found an alternative to burning that is cost effective, simple, and sustainable. We introduced the farmers to biochar, a super charcoal that they could make themselves using a simple trench in the ground. This cut climate change gases to a minimum and eliminated the smoke. Better still, farmers can make the biochar during the dry season, when there are few jobs and providing for themselves and their families can be extremely difficult.
The overall impact of this project can be seen in individual stories like that of Loong Ai, often called “Uncle Ai.”
Loong Ai was considered too old to help with the corn harvest. At the end of December, when Warm Heart set up its first biochar demonstration, he came to watch. While the others picked corn, Loong Ai quietly made biochar from dawn to dark. By the time the harvest was finished and the rest of the villagers came to make biochar, Loong Ai had made so much money that he bought himself a pair of big water buffalo that he named “Oon” and “Jai”—Thai for “Warm” and “Heart.”
Today, Warm Heart is testing a new program that goes one step further. Rather than having farmers make just biochar, Warm Heart is setting up equipment so they can produce value-added products such as briquettes, which are worth four times as much as plain biochar. Villages will operate as coops and distribute dividends at the end of each year. Warm Heart hopes that these dividends will inspire more people to join the coop and make biochar, reducing burning still further.
If this model works this year at our test site, Mae Chaem, we will take it across North Thailand and then to our new sites in Ghana and Malawi, helping these communities reduce harmful emissions, build sustainable lifestyles, and, ultimately, mitigate the root causes of global climate change.
GlobalGiving’s Climate Action Fund supports grassroots activists leading innovative conservation projects across the globe. With your support, we can build a brighter future for the entire planet!