It’s harvest time in Thailand’s northern city of Udon Thani, a sugarcane heartland, and farmer Lamprai Khonsawan is collecting his crop the old-fashioned way, by setting fire to his fields. The flames strip away dry leaves and expose the stalks, where the sugar is. It’s much more efficient than hacking at the plants with a knife, and for farmers like Lamprai, it’s the only method that’s financially viable.
But it comes with a massive environmental price tag. As the fields burn, plumes of black smoke head skyward. The Thai government says this practice is one of the main reasons the country suffers air pollution that is double the World Health Organization’s safe threshold and the UN environment programme says is to blame for around 50,000 deaths a year.