Fires in Indonesia

I lived in Singapore for two years, and I go back to work there every summer. I love Southeast Asia, its beautiful landscapes, its friendly people, and its huge biological and cultural diversity. It’s a magical place.

But in 2013 there was a horrible haze from fires in nearby Sumatra. And this year it’s even worse. It makes me want to cry, thinking about how millions of people all over this region are being choked as the rain forest burns.

This part of the world has a dry season from May to October and then a wet season. In the dry season, Indonesian farmers slash down jungle growth, burn it, and plant crops. That is nothing new.

But now, palm oil plantations run by big companies do this on a massive scale. Jungles are disappearing at an astonishing rate. Some of this is illegal, but corrupt government officials are paid to look the other way. Whenever we buy palm oil—in soap, cookies, bread, margarine, detergents, and many other products—we become part of the problem.

This year the fires are worse. One reason is that we’re having an El Niño. That typically means more rain in California—which we desperately need. But it means less rain in Southeast Asia.

This summer it was very dry in Singapore. Then, in September, the haze started. We got used to rarely seeing the sun—only yellow-brown light filtering through the smoke. When it stinks outside, you try to stay indoors.

When I left on September 19th, the PSI index of air pollution had risen above 200, which is ‘very unhealthy’. Singapore had offered troops to help fight the fires, but Indonesia turned down the offer, saying they could handle the situation themselves. That was completely false: thousands of fires were burning out of control in Sumatra, Borneo and other Indonesian islands.

I believe the Indonesian government just didn’t want foreign troops out their land. Satellites could detect the many hot spots where fires were burning. But outrageously, the government refused to say who owned those lands.

A few days after I left, the PSI index in Singapore had shot above 300, which is ‘hazardous’. But in parts of Borneo the PSI had reached 1,986. The only name for that is hell.

By now Indonesia has accepted help from Singapore. Thanks to changing winds, the PSI in Singapore has been slowly dropping throughout October. In the last few days the rainy season has begun. Each time the rain clears the air, Singaporeans can see something beautiful and almost forgotten: a blue sky.

Rain is also helping in Borneo. But the hellish fires continue. There have been over 100,000 individual fires—mostly in Sumatra, Borneo and Papua. In many places, peat in the ground has caught on fire! It’s very hard to put out a peat fire.

If you care about the Earth, this is very disheartening. These fires have been putting over 15 million tons of carbon dioxide into the air per day – more than the whole US economy! And so far this year they’ve put out 1.5 billion tons of CO2. That’s more than Germany’s carbon emissions for the whole year—in fact, even more than Japan’s. How can we make progress on reducing carbon emissions with this going on?

For you and me, the first thing is to stop buying products with palm oil. The problem is largely one of government corruption driven by money from palm oil plantations. But the real heart of the problem lies in Indonesia. Luckily Widodo, the president of this country, may be part of the solution. But the solution will be difficult.

Quoting National Public Radio:

Widodo is Indonesia’s first president with a track record of efficient local governance in running two large cities. Strong action on the haze issue could help fulfill the promise of reform that motivated Indonesian voters to put him in office in October 2014.

The president has deployed thousands of firefighters and accepted international assistance. He has ordered a moratorium on new licenses to use peat land and ordered law enforcers to prosecute people and companies who clear land by burning forests.

“It must be stopped, we mustn’t allow our tropical rainforests to disappear because of monoculture plantations like oil palms,” Widodo said early in his administration.

Land recently burned and planted with palm trees is now under police investigation in Kalimantan [the Indonesian part of Borneo].

The problem of Indonesia’s illegal forest fires is so complex that it’s very hard to say exactly who is responsible for causing it.

Indonesia’s government has blamed both big palm oil companies and small freeholders. Poynton [executive director of the Forest Trust] says the culprits are often mid-sized companies with strong ties to local politicians. He describes them as lawless middlemen who pay local farmers to burn forests and plant oil palms, often on other companies’ concessions.

“There are these sort of low-level, Mafioso-type guys that basically say, ‘You get in there and clear the land, and I’ll then finance you to establish a palm oil plantation,'” he says.

The problem is exacerbated by ingrained government corruption, in which politicians grant land use permits for forests and peat lands to agribusiness in exchange for financial and political support.

“The disaster is not in the fires,” says independent Jakarta-based commentator Wimar Witoelar. “It’s in the way that past Indonesian governments have colluded with big palm oil businesses to make the peat lands a recipe for disaster.”

The quote is from here:

• Anthony Kuhn, As Indonesia’s annual fires rage, plenty of blame but no responsibility.

For how to avoid using palm oil, see for example:

• Lael Goodman, How many products with palm oil do I use in a day?

First, avoid processed foods. That’s smart for other reasons too.

Second, avoid stuff that contains stearic acid, sodium palmitate, sodium laureth sulfate, cetyl alcohol, glyceryl stearate and related compounds—various forms of artificial grease that are often made from palm oil. It takes work to avoid all this stuff, but at least be aware of it. These chemicals are not made in laboratories from pure carbon, hydrogen, oxygen and nitrogen! The raw ingredients often come from palm plantations, huge monocultures that are replacing the wonderful diversity of rainforest life.

For more nuanced suggestions, see the comments below. Right now I’m just so disgusted that I want to avoid palm oil.

For data on the carbon emissions of this and other fires, see:

Global fire emissions data.


1997 was the last really big El Niño.


This shows a man in Malaysia in September. Click on the pictures for more details. The picture at top shows a woman named a woman named Gaye Thavisin in Indonesia—perhaps in Kalimantan, the Indonesian half of Borneo, the third largest island in the world. Here is a bit of her story:

The Jungle River Cruise is run by Kalimantan Tour Destinations a foreign owned company set up by two women pioneering the introduction of ecotourism into a part of Central Kalimantan that to date has virtually no tourism.

Inspired by the untapped potential of Central Kalimantan’s mighty rivers, Gaye Thavisin and Lorna Dowson-Collins converted a traditional Kalimantan barge into a comfortable cruise boat with five double cabins, an inside sitting area and a upper viewing deck, bringing the first jungle cruises to the area.

Originally Lorna Dowson-Collins worked in Central Kalimantan with a local NGO on a sustainable livelihoods programme. The future livelihoods of the local people were under threat as logging left the land devastated with poor soils and no forest to fend from.

Kalimantan was teeming with the potential of her people and their fascinating culture, with beautiful forests of diverse flora and fauna, including the iconic orang-utan, and her mighty rivers providing access to these wonderful treasures.

An idea for a social enterprise emerged , which involved building a boat to journey guests to inaccessible places and provide comfortable accommodation.

Gaye Thavisin, an Australian expatriate, for 4 years operated an attractive, new hotel 36 km out of Palangkaraya in Kalimantan. Gaye was passionate about developing the tourism potential of Central Kalimantan and was also looking at the idea of boats. With her contract at the hotel coming to an end, the Jungle Cruise began to take shape!

16 Responses to Fires in Indonesia

  1. Joseph Nebus says:

    I’d lived in Singapore several years myself and got acclimated to the annual haze. It was at its worst the last year I was there, 2006. I don’t think particle count got above 200, or at least it didn’t get there very long, though.

  2. The Sage says:

    Boycotting palm oil is one thing — but what else of their stuff is there we should be buying instead? You don’t fix poor economies without buying their outputs.

    • John Baez says:

      You’re right. A quick look suggests that two major suggestions are ecotourism and less damaging palm oil plantations using ‘degraded land’ instead of pristine jungle. Of course degraded land in Borneo and Sumatra was probably once pristine jungle. But the idea is that some places, like former forests that have been logged, are already so wrecked that becoming a palm oil plantation would now be a step up.

      • Worldwide Wildlife Fund, Sustainable oil palm developments on degraded land in Kalimantan, Indonesia, 1 May 2009.

      I would like to hear about other alternatives. But it’s worth noting that oil from these two places accounts for more than half of all palm oil produced in the world! This suggests that the economy of these poor places is largely dependent on palm oil. (Of course the lion’s share of profits go to rich people who live elsewhere, except in special cases.)

      Check out this:

      • Roundtable on sustainable palm oil, Trademark products gallery

      for some supposedly sustainable palm oil products. You can spot these because they have the “RSPO” trademark on them.

  3. Todd Trimble says:

    I’m sure my understanding of the issues could be improved, but my current understanding is that palm oil by itself is not ‘bad’ (I’m here excluding possible concerns about the health impacts of consuming lots of palm oil), but how it is harvested. If it is harvested sustainably and responsibly, then alright. If it is harvested by slashing and burning precious rainforests, or with otherwise harmful impacts on biodiversity and the environment, and/or without due regard for workers’ conditions and rights, then it is another matter entirely.

    I would support a boycott that pressures multinational corporations like PepsiCo (maker of Doritos which uses palm oil) who have invested in the region to get it right. And to some extent the multinationals may be listening: https://www.pepsico.com/Assets/Download/PepsiCo_Palm_Oil_Commitments.pdf

    I get a lot of petitions in my inbox about this type of thing; the most recent one is this: http://action.sumofus.org/a/standard-chartered-palm-oil/?akid=14464.7451041.OeDehH&rd=1&sub=fwd&t=3 (Sorry John if this is violating a ‘no-spam’ policy.)

    • John Baez says:

      Todd wrote:

      If it is harvested sustainably and responsibly, then alright. If it is harvested by slashing and burning precious rainforests, or with otherwise harmful impacts on biodiversity and the environment, and/or without due regard for workers’ conditions and rights, then it is another matter entirely.

      Yes, that’s my impression too. My simplified recommendation to avoid palm oil products was meant to be easier—for me, at least—than the tricky business of figuring out which palm oil products are grown in a sustainable way. Luckily, people are tackling that problem. See my comment above and also this:

      Certified sustainable palm oil, Worldwide Wildlife Federation.

      The WWF argues that boycotting palm oil is not the answer:

      If unsustainable palm oil is so bad, then why don’t we just boycott products from companies that use it?

      It’s a reasonable question, and one that would appear to make sense. But by boycotting palm oil you could be contributing to an even greater problem.

      If enough people boycott products containing palm oil, then companies are likely to start buying alternative vegetable oils, which in many cases take a lot more land to produce. Other oils require up to nine times as much land to produce as palm oil.

      The result could be even greater deforestation and a much faster loss of species, which is something nobody wants to see happen.

      Alternatively, boycotting a company might push them to stop buying palm oil from countries where deforestation is occurring, which would take away the incentive for producers in those countries to grow sustainable palm oil.

      These producers would then look for alternative buyers, possibly with no interest in sustainability, and our efforts to halt the deforestation, loss of species and release of greenhouse gases caused by unsustainable palm oil production would suffer a major set-back.

      For these reasons WWF believes that encouraging greater uptake of CSPO is a much better way to tackle the serious environmental and social problems associated with unsustainable palm oil.

      That sounds quite reasonable. Unfortunately, their website, focused on Australians, admits that:

      At the moment, it’s almost impossible for Australians to know which products contain palm oil, let alone sustainable palm oil, unless you contact the company who made the product directly and ask them.

      There is currently no law in Australia that requires palm oil to be specifically labelled on the list of ingredients. Instead it appears as ‘vegetable oil’, which does not reveal whether the product uses palm oil or not. Further information on palm oil labelling is available from Food Standards Australia and New Zealand.

      This seems true in the USA, too. So for now I’m taking the fires in Indonesia as yet another reason to shun processed foods and ‘eat real food, not too much, mostly plants’.

  4. John Baez says:

    Regarding my personal palm oil use:

    Last night I investigated my shampoo, Trader Joe’s “Tea Tree Tingle”. (My god it’s embarrassing to write that. This shampoo must be designed for women, my entire masculine persona is now in a shambles.) It seems to be palm-oil-free, though it uses coconut products, and I really wonder how much better coconut plantations are than palm oil plantations.

    Unfortunately the greasy lotions I use on my hands, to keep from drying out and getting a rash down here in the desert, seem to be a riot of palm oils. Does anyone know a reasonably eco-friendly version of something like Keri lotion? I wouldn’t use this crap if I didn’t need to.

    I’m happy to see that at least Johnson & Johnson is trying to switch to suppliers that meet the RSPO sustainable palm oil standards:

    • Johnson & Johnson Wanted: sustainable palm oil, 30 April 2014.

    However, I don’t know if they make any lotions greasy enough to do the job for me.

  5. Alex says:

    This is terrible…

    I haven’t looked into it much, but Palm Oil Innovation Group (POIG) is another certification scheme for palm oil that is supposed to be stronger than RSPO, though it is built on RSPO standards and is supported by RSPO members like WWF (http://poig.org/).

    I’d say it is also a good idea to let companies (both retailers and manufacturers) know that you don’t want them to carry products made with unsustainable palm oil, and only want them to carry products with sustainable palm oil.

  6. Jenny M. says:

    My understanding is that the rush to plant palm oil is the direct result of manufacturers of processed foods suddenly finding themselves needing a fat that doesn’t include trans fats, but that is shelf-stable enough to sit in a vending machine for a year or two without going rancid. Apparently palm oil is an easy substitute for partially-hydrogenated vegetable oil in snack food recipes. Your Twinkie formula is saved.

    I have a child with terrible atopic dermatitis in the winter months, and she likes Shea butter. You can also use coconut butter straight from the pantry, although you will have to tolerate smelling like coconut.

    • John Baez says:

      Okay, thanks for the tip. I may try Shea butter. I never knew what it actually was, but it turns out to be a fat, mainly oleic and stearic acid, made from the nuts of the African shea tree. If people are tearing down forests in Uganda to plant shea trees that’d be a bummer, but at least they aren’t causing massive fires whose per-day carbon emissions exceed the whole US!

      I don’t want to smell like a coconut. I’ll discover what it’s like to smell like a shea.

  7. From Wikipedia:

    “The world’s largest palm oil biodiesel plant is the Finnish-operated Neste Oil biodiesel plant in Singapore, which opened in 2011 and produces hydrodeoxygenated NEXBTL biodiesel”.

    It should be pointed out that this biodiesel is then exported to the EU.

    The ironies here are thick, but the is probably best summed up for “be careful what you wish for”.

    The EU mandates the use of biodiesel to reduce global warming. European companies go to Indonesia and fund palm oil plantations. Those plantations then cause the burning of forests which… fill in the blank and don’t forget to note that the Oil refined in Singapore is of course grown in Indonesia.

    I am not an expert, and I could be wrong about this, but you may be better served trying to end the use of Palm Oil as a bio-fuel in the EU.

    Keep in mind that Palm Oil is a vital nutrient for billions of people who use it to get fat. Kids need lots of fat to grow healthy brains, and we need healthy brains if we are going to prosper in this century!

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