Olivier Evrard is a social anthropologist from the French Research Institute for Sustainable Development (IRD), France. He is also affiliated researcher at the Regional Center for Social Sciences and Sustainable Development at Chiang Mai University. He works in Laos since 1994 and in Thailand since 2005, mainly with upland populations. His main interests include land use systems, swidden agriculture, interethnic relationships, mobility patterns, heritage and myths. He is currently conducting a research on the social patterns of air pollution in Chiang Mai with his colleague from Hawai’i University, Mary Mostafanezhad, for which they have received a grant from the National Science Foundation

Project Summary

Understanding the Socio-Ecological Drivers and Consequences of Seasonal Air Pollution

Air pollution affects an astounding 92 percent of the world population, including numerous Southeast Asian cities, and is responsible for one out of nine deaths globally. While environmental scientists have documented the sources of air pollution and social scientists have demonstrated how the effects of air pollution are unevenly distributed, scholars still know markedly little about the socio-ecological drivers and consequences of seasonal air pollution and by what mechanisms such pollution comes to be constituted as a crisis or triggers a political response. An adequate explanatory framework accounting for these social dimensions of seasonal air pollution – particularly when its causes are recurring yet uncertain – is needed to improve environmental governance practices, and avert social conflict. The research will take place in northern Thailand, which provides an illustrative case since airborne particulate matter levels have themselves remained relatively constant over the past two decades; it is only the framing of air pollution as a crisis that has changed. In Asia, a thick shroud of pollution, dubbed the “brown cloud of Asia”, blankets many countries for half of the year. The once quotidian, annual occurrence of what is commonly called the “smoky season” (February-April) in this region, now registers as a crisis for many (but not all) residents, some of whom demand an urgent political response. Additionally, while uncertainty exists surrounding the socio-ecological drivers of air pollution, multiple narratives of its causes and effects circulate throughout the region, and blame is frequently placed on smallholder farmers who have recently entered into new market relations. These circumstances make the region an ideal site to examine the ways in which crises are contingent on cultural and political factors, rather than fixed metric thresholds.

This project will collect discursive, ethnographic and geospatial data to understand its specific socio-ecological drivers (e.g. social inequality, fire use, worldviews) and consequences (e.g. crisis and blame narratives, regulatory regimes). The mixed methods approach of this study will contribute both to policy understandings of environmental change and to political ecology debates over the ways such change becomes a crisis and a political field.

The research for this project is being conducted with Dr. Mary Mostafanezhad (University of Hawaii, Manoa) with the much appreciated support of the US National Science Foundation (NSF Award #1829160)