Crop residue for cash: The solution to the haze?

By Jolene Yeo

Year after year, countries lament the annual haze phenomenon that arises from the slash and burn method of clearing land to make space for the next harvest.

Every year, the haze season comes and goes, along with the political impetus that gradually gets doused by the very same rain that drowns out the annual fires.

While governments come together to shake hands as they rendeavour at yet another environmental dialogue, the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) has deemed the null period the “time to decide on proper actions for the long term, before the haze and attention blows over”. What if we could turn the very same crop residue that farmers have for years been burning into hard cash?

Why do farmers resort to burning?

Very much like their other affected Asian neighbours, Thailand finds its air choked by thick blankets of smog every year during the post agricultural harvest season. While pundits are largely divided in the perennial blame game of who is responsible for the haze, the Rotary Club of Lampang recognises that small-scale farmers have had no affordable alternatives than to rely on slash and burn as the fastest, cheapest way to prepare the ground for the next season’s crop.

Burning also helps to control pests, diseases, and enables cultivators to clear land quickly and efficiently with minimal labour requirements and costs. However, deforestation from slash-and-burn methods can lead to negative environmental consequences, evidenced by the haze. Experts go beyond the smoke-screen, indicating real severe consequences to global warming, soil erosion, and loss of biodiversity.

An alternative affordable means

The Rotary Club of Lampang, based in the north of Thailand, has come close to finding an innovative, simple solution which would cast a breath of fresh air to the periodic acrid haze phenomenon.

The Shredder Initiative involves the designing and building of a shredder that is practical, durable and can be carried on the back of the pickup truck. Not only does this initiative combat the ecological ills of slash and burn, it also involves the use of appropriate, practical technological solutions to allow low-income farmers to shred excess crop residue and convert them into fertiliser, which can then be sold for cash.

The effects of the initiative, albeit in its formative stages, have been significant. The Rotary Club of Lampang has a steady pool of supporters of their initiative, taking advice from farmers, agriculturalists, industrials as well as health and public officials.

As an initiative termed by Thailand’s former Finance Minister Korn Chatikavanij as a “simple yet effective way to prevent farmers in the North from burning forest & reduce haze”, there are high hopes as to the extent of change that the Shredder Initiative will soon bring about.

Dollars and sense

How close a substitute to slash-and-burn is shredding? Is it a financially viable alternative? The Rotary Club of Lampang’s field tests show that farmers can shed 13 kg of biomass in four minutes, or 1.5 tonnes in eight hours, at an engine fuel cost of just $0.025 per kilogramme. This covers about 2.2 rai, or 0.87 acres of land.

Furthermore, farmers currently engage in sharing the two shredders in use, keeping the cost low while enjoying the benefits of shredding as opposed to the uncontrolled burning method. These benefits go beyond environmental conservation, although no doubt a priority.

Rather, it takes into account the farmer’s financial conditions, environmental conservation, and consumer awareness towards organic and environmentally responsible products. This helps farmers to not only protect the nutrient value in their farmland, remove the health hazard caused by the haze, but to also tap significantly into the profits that eco-tourism and the niche market brings.

The shredder is marketed as a sustainable alternative to traditional ways of land clearing, one that would even help farmers to generate extra income by selling excess fertiliser created by the decomposition of crop residue. The shredder offers farmers with the know-how and the technical means to shred biomass into fine pieces, making it possible for microbes to breakdown the small compounds and convert crop residue into compost.

Not only does this process speeds up the rate at which crop residue is broken down into fertiliser for the soil, it also provides a safe and sustainable alternative to having to burn crop residue to clear the farmland, without posing a health hazard or reducing the quality of the soil overtime.

Making a difference

With each model costing US$3,000, two prototypes have since been built and have been in used.

While the current two prototypes have been offered to the farmers free of charge, the Club is seeking out angel investors and supporters to continue their ground-breaking efforts in creating quality shredders to ameliorate the negative externalities having to burn crop residue. The Rotary Club of Lampang is on track to having a growing band of supports, specifically the US Consulate in Chiang Mai and the Bangkok Post.

Any resources to fuel this endeavour to create positive change will help to increase the reach of the Shredder Initiative, allowing more farmers and consumers to bask in the benefits that shredding will bring, in an entrepreneurial and unique innovation to breath a breathe of fresh air into the hazy situation.

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For more information on how you contribute to A Simple Solution to a Toxic Problem, click here to join in the efforts to stop burning and support shredding.