Mary MOSTAFANEZHAD, University of Hawaii at Manoa, United States
In northern Thailand, broad shifts from subsistence farming to commercial agriculture and intensified forest scavenging have reportedly exacerbated the production of seasonal air pollution. Yet, while upland and primarily ethnic minority farmers are the widely blamed culprits of what is widely dubbed the “smoky season”, urban-based pollution including vehicular emissions and industrial discharge have also been identified as major sources. Based on ethnographic research between 2018 and 2019 among citizen scientists in the Chiang Mai province, I argue that cultural contestations over what is perceived to be natural versus unnatural air pollution and its associated atmospheric toxicity are mediated by historically rooted ethnic, class and urban-rural inequalities in the region. Citizen scientists’ judgments of particulate matter (PM) from biomass burning as “matter out of place” has led to powerful blame narratives that identify upland residents as the perpetrators, while highlanders contend that urban based PM is unnatural and comparatively more toxic to the atmosphere. The diversity of contexts through which air pollution is understood, experienced and governed has materialized as widespread contestations over which matter is “out of place” and for whom. Discontent among urban citizen scientists has driven environmental policy in upland areas including the 2015 burning ban which effectively institutionalized discrimination against highland farmers and the haze producing activities on which their livelihoods depend. This paper contributes to emerging scholarship on the role of citizen science in the co-constitution of cultural narratives of toxicity that reshape social relations – particularly between the so-called polluters and polluted.
Keywords: Citizen Science|Air Pollution|Political Ecology|Toxicity|Thailand