I recently wrote a piece about surfing in Bali and in the Facebook comments somebody (quite rightly) picked up on the fact that I’d failed to mention that Indonesia was on fire, and did I not have any awareness of the situation currently sweeping across Asia. The ironic thing is that I spend a lot of time in Malaysia and Singapore, giving me a first hand insight into the devastating impacts that the haze has had on the environment and its surroundings. To add to the irony, I have on numerous occasions bitched about the fact that this tragedy seems to have passed the rest of the world by, the odd token article appearing in some of the more liberal press outlets, but on the whole – massively underreported. Thankfully, the situation has greatly improved, with pollution levels returning to a safer level. But it is now more important than ever to address the causes of these murky skies, ensuring that next year doesn’t see yet another crisis unfold.
The ‘haze’ is a thick blanket of smog that originates in Indonesia, the result of a land clearing technique called ‘slash-and-burn’. In order to clear vegetation and make way for new crops of palm oil, pulp and paper plantations, farmers set fire to the undergrowth. Although an illegal procedure, policing these large areas of forest is an almost impossible task. And once the fires take hold, they assume a life of their own, becoming unpredictable and unmanageable. This process is an annual occurrence, but due to the phenomenon of El Nino, this year the land has been particularly dry: causing fires to rage faster and longer. This constant cycle of burning exacerbates the problem too, each year the land is left drier, meaning that it’s no longer just the surface vegetation that is catching fire; the ground itself is burning.
The resulting ‘haze’ is a yellowy-brown carcinogen, a concoction of chemical delights you don’t really want anywhere near your body, let alone sitting in your lungs. The areas to the west of Indonesia have spent most of September and October shrouded in a blanket of this thick yellow smog.
In Malaysia and Singapore, it’s been an inconvenience. For the past few months those in affected areas have largely had to stay inside, letting the air-conditioning units and air purifiers cleanse the air that we breathe. But for those living closer to the fires, and without the means to protect themselves against the dirty air, it’s been a living nightmare. The intensity of the pollution is measured in a single reading known as the Pollutants Standard Index, or the ‘PSI’. A PSI between 0-100 is deemed to be healthy, 100-200 is unhealthy, and above 300 is when the toxins in the air reach a hazardous level. In some parts of Indonesia at the beginning of October, the PSI reading touched nearly 2000. It got so bad that orangutans began to flee their natural habitats in the fruitless search for clean air.
Yet this was no natural disaster that we were witnessing; not an unfortunate knock on effect from an earthquake, landslide or volcanic eruption. This was the consequence of human activity. Bizarrely, an activity that is incentivized by the Indonesian government itself?
Those who have been fortunate enough to travel to Indonesia, in pursuit of some of the best waves on the planet, will know that the people who live there are amongst the most hospitable and welcoming people you are ever likely to come across. In recent months the Indonesian people have been forced to suffer what has been described as: ‘a crime against humanity.’
Pressure needs be applied to those responsible for lighting these fires. Landowners should be held accountable for the actions taking place on their property, and appropriate sanctions must be brought against those responsible for the disaster that has emerged. Raising global awareness is a big step towards ensuring the people that matter take note; the events of the last few months musn’t be allowed to be simply disregarded as ‘old news’. Next years prevention needs to begin now.