Here’s a tissue, Malaysia and Singapore

On June 24th, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, President of Indonesia, apologized to Malaysia and Singapore for thick haze drifting over from forest fires in Sumatra (part of Indonesia). The smoke made pollution levels soar in both places. Schools were closed in parts of Malaysia, parents being told to keep kids inside.

Photo: Wolcott. Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported license.

Haze in Singapore, June 21, 2013. Cough lozenge?

Something similar happens every year during dry season. Across vast swathes of Indonesia people – “plantations and smallholders”, as the Inquirer News politely says – clear land by burning. Most is being cleared for oil palm plantations or pulp timber. (Sometimes existing plantations join in the excitement and burn too.) The smoke heads east. It’s worse this year. The Pollution Standard Index in Singapore hit 401 last week, the highest ever. And this is the first apology.

People in Malaysia and Singapore who are fans of taking a deep breath don’t like this. People who want to protect, say, orangutans (who lived in much of that forest before it was burned and planted) don’t like this. People who consider global warming a bad thing don’t like this.

Harsh words have been exchanged between nations.

There’s big money in palm oil. It’s illegal to clear land for palm plantations by burning. Yet the forests are afire. Who’s to blame? Whoa, that turns out to be a matter of debate. The organization care2 points out that Indonesia, the world’s largest palm oil producer, has pledged to double palm oil production by 2020 – but also notes that two of the big companies with land in Sumatra are owned in Singapore. Others are owned by companies in, oh huh, Malaysia.

Photo: Jesse Allen, Earth Observatory, NASA.

Red spots denote active fires on the Indonesian islands of Sumatra and Borneo. Maybe a lozenge air drop?

Photo: Irvin calicut. Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported license.

Oil palm plantation. It doesn’t support orangutans, but isn’t that kind of pretty? Burns good, too.

President Yudhoyono partly blames government in Riau province, where the fires are the greatest, for not foreseeing the situation. He complains about local residents and the private sector not cooperating to stop illegal land clearance. The weather is also blameworthy, being very dry and featuring unusually strong winds pushing the smoke to where people are trying to breathe. He also notes that this year some fires are occurring on deep peat – “meters-thick stores of carbon that can burn even after surface flames are thoroughly doused.” Oh, great.

An Indonesian environmental group, Walhi, says it will sue the Indonesian ministries of agriculture, environment, and forestry, plus the police, for their part in letting this happen. Riko Kumiawan, head of the Riau chapter, told the Wall Street Journal that Walhi “faults the government [for]… slow response and lack of anticipation of the fires, [and] poor regulation of laws…” The government should punish companies with fires on their land. “Big companies will not turn poor if the government cancels one, two, or three thousand hectares from their concession, but it will jolt them, seeing that the government really means it.”

Photo: Achmad Rabin Taim. Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.

Hell of a vista.

It’s in this landscape that Yudhoyono apologized, saying, “As the President of Indonesia, I apologize for what has happened, and ask for the understanding of the people of Malaysia and Singapore…. We accept that it is our responsibility to tackle the problem.”

Yudhoyono has sent the military to help agencies fighting the fires. Fourteen arrests have been made of people accused of setting fires. (The Forestry Minister said it hasn’t been shown that people arrested for setting fires on company land were connected with the companies.) Indonesia has turned down offers of fire-fighting assistance help from Malaysia and Singapore, saying they can handle it themselves.

Photo: NeilsPhotography.

Wild orangutan, in Kutai National Park, Indonesia. First spotted very high in the forest canopy, this thoughtful ape eventually descended low enough for this photo to be taken. Then it peed on the photographer.

The respected newspaper Kompas called his apology noble, but many Indonesians disagreed, including some ministers. They didn’t see why Indonesia should apologize when so many fires are on land owned by Singaporean and Malaysian companies (for whose benefit, presumably, the fires are being set). “It’s embarrassing,” a Riau shopkeeper told the WSJ. (Then he probably coughed a while since breathing’s not fabulous in Riau right now. But Riau’s economy is based on palm oil and timber so there’s that to cheer a merchant. Why do I think the plantation owners are probably on vacation right now, somewhere with good air?

Annoyed, Yudhoyono defended his apology. “Due to the fact the haze is from Indonesia, we take responsibility, and saying sorry in that context, to me, is not excessive.”

No, it’s not excessive. And while citizens in Malaysia and Singapore are the most obviously due apologies, since they’re coughing so hard, burning forests have effects all around the globe. This isn’t doing you any good. It’s harming the next generations, too.

Photo in State Library of Queensland. Public domain.

Palm oil, is it? First you didn’t want whale oil, now you don’t want palm oil.

These fires are important, and not in a good way. They’re the kind of ongoing atrocity that’s seldom acknowledged, let alone apologized for. It’s a good start that Yudhoyono apologized, even if I’d like to hear even more. I think he should be more willing to accept help, to put out the fires faster. Less fire, less smoke, less carbon turning into CO2. Corruption and look-the-other-way law enforcement needs to be addressed.

Yudhoyono’s at the end of his second term (presidents may serve 2 terms in Indonesia), so I hope his expressed interest in curbing deforestation is taken up by his successor. I hope his surprising apology will have an impact in the long run.



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