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!