James Fahn’s A Land on Fire was first published more than a decade ago, but remains an important and highly readable book that lays the groundwork for anyone interested in understanding the massive environmental challenges that continue to face Thailand today.
Fahn (disclosure: an old neighbour and friend) won various awards serving as environment editor on Bangkok’s The Nation newspaper for a decade, mostly through the 1990s. In this book he draws on various case studies in Thailand, highlighting the complex links between business, politics and the environment. He positions the issues the kingdom is facing within a global context of climate change, biodiversity loss and trade.
This is not a dry academic treatise on the state of the Thai environment a decade or two ago. It’s a firsthand account of covering the stories on the ground back then, and Fahn’s interaction with Thai officials, activists and ordinary people.
And the passage of time in a way makes this book doubly interesting to read today. The roots of Leonardo diCaprio’s environmental activism, for instance, are teased out in Fahn's account of the furore over the filming of The Beach.
“Upset at becoming the target of what he considered to be unfair charges of environmental negligence, DiCaprio vowed to increase his own green activism and subsequently (among other activities) made the deal with ABC to collaborate on the Earth Day special [interviewing President Bill Clinton].”
Most recently DiCaprio was behind the powerful climate change documentary ‘Before The Flood’, starring Barack Obama, Pope Francis and himself, so it’s interesting to see what sparked his activism.
Of course most of the people featured in Land on Fire are Thai, and some are genuine heroes, fighting for causes much larger than themselves often when the cards are stacked firmly against them.
The book has a regional flavour too, drawing on the experiences of other activists in Southeast Asia, with the penultimate chapter exploring the North/South divide. And finally Fahn looks at the 1991 coup and Thailand’s 1992 democracy uprising—particularly interesting today given that a junta is in control of the kingdom (yet again).
If you’ve ever wondered why the traffic’s bad in Bangkok, why waste management is such a struggle and what’s going on with dams in the region, this book will give you plenty of page-turning background to get you started.
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