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Seasons of Smoke and the Collective Damage
March 15, 2015

From the Field


Every year from around February through April, farmers in South East Asian countries start burning through brush—it’s an effective way to fertilize the soil for the growth of mushrooms that they can then harvest and sell. For many of the poorest farmers, however, it is an important portion of their yearly income. But there is an incredibly heavy cost: the health of the entire region. It is entirely illegal, and yet, every year, the fires fill the skies with smoke and the smoke settles into the valley basin of the north. The number of carcinogens and particulates in the air begins to far exceed healthy ranges, people get sick with burning eyes and nasty coughs, babies and elderly are especially vulnerable, and everyone is encouraged to stay indoors as much as possible and wear masks when outside (which few do). It’s an aggravation and nuisance in the short term. Long-term effects are unclear, but we imagine months’ worth of exposure to heavy smoke and smog every single year cannot be helpful to preventing health problems like asthma or cancer.

It’s the definition of a collective action problem: it’s nearly impossible to organize large-scale efforts to protect the community’s health when there is a small, active, and engaged group who benefits from the reverse.

My family is lucky enough to be able to escape, at least for part of the time. Each year, when the smoke reaches its worst, we try to get away for a week or more, whatever we can afford. Especially now with a baby to look after, we are more motivated than ever to protect our son’s health.

But as I drive away and leave the smoke behind me, I think of all the people I’m also leaving behind. I think of SOLD’s students and their families and how they can’t get away. And I think about trafficking and about how money drives action, but that, just like with the girls who sell themselves to support their families, solutions don’t come easy when you know that any change will dramatically affect the livelihoods of those who can least afford it.

The country is growing though. More and more of the formerly impoverished are getting a chance at entering the middle class. If we can reduce extreme poverty we can eradicate much of what drives the largest social problems. And so, each year, we sit with the smoke, and we hope that maybe next year will be better.

–Dr. Jade Keller

Education Program Manager

**Photo from Tasty Thailand