Wednesday, September 18, 2019

The Yearly Haze that Suffocates Malaysia

Almost every year, a smoky, smoggy haze suffocates the Southeast Asian region – signalling the return of forest fires in Indonesia. 

For many in this region – and I live here – gloomy grey skies and a lingering acrid smell are not unfamiliar, but 2019 has already brought with it some of the worst haze levels in years.

According to Indonesia's national disaster agency, there were 328,724 hectares of land burnt this year from January to August alone. And according to ASEAN satellite data, there were 1,619 active fires in Indonesia on September 11. 

The Indonesians know this very well – and what they’re doing to stop it so far is puny, pathetic and pitiable. Obviously, dumping millions of liters of water in affected areas and sending in the army to help fire fighters is plainly not enough. 

Maybe they should draw the voluminous water from the Straits of Malacca and dispatch the entire frigging Indonesian army! 

We know the worst conflagration can be found in Central, West and South Kalimantan, Riau, Jambi and South Sumatra. And the burning usually peaks from July to October during Indonesia's dry season. 

Many farmers and plantation companies take advantage of the conditions to clear vegetation using the slash-and-burn method. They often spin out of control and spread into protected forested areas. 

The burnt lands also become drier, which makes them more likely to catch fire the next time there are slash-and-burn clearings. If that is not bad enough, the forest fires have destroyed much of the natural habitat of Indonesia's already critically endangered orang-utans as well as released towering spirals of carbon into the atmosphere.

The country has for years promised to step up enforcement. 

If you can remember that in 2015, Indonesia suffered its worst forest fires for almost two decades, which dramatically increased its greenhouse gas emissions. 

Evidently, the said country did not learn from the 2015 crisis that cost it $16 billion (£12 billion) and caused more than half a million people to endure respiratory ailments. In fact, a state of emergency was even declared. 

In September of that year, Indonesian President Joko Widodo (left) told the BBC his country needed at least three years to tackle the haze as it was "not a problem you can solve quickly". 

Nearly four years later, the forests in Indonesia continue to burn. 

Everybody’s predicament is still the same old, same old! What say, you, Mr President?

I had blogged about the Amazon fires on August 25 – but seemingly, I had kept quiet about the Indonesian fires  until today. 

That’s only because I am sick and tired and fed up and up to here with this yearly event. 

Our governments are quick to spit out the Pollutant Standards Index and the similar Air Pollutant Index measurements to tell us in our face how unhealthy the air is – and then they make sympathetic noises before giving out face masks and do selected cloud seeding – but that’s it. 

Malaysia’s New Straits Times on Monday reported that Indonesia sealed off dozens of plantations last week where smog-belching fires were blazing, and warned that owners – including Malaysia and Singapore-based firms – could face criminal charges if there was evidence of illegal burning. 

A BBC report dated September 16 had spotlighted 10 corporations as suspects this year, and said the government are investigating more than 100 individuals. 

Malaysia’s Energy, Science, Technology, Environment, and Climate Change Minister Yeo Bee Yin (right) even reportedly said: “According to reports that I have read, there are about 30 companies responsible for the forest fires in Indonesia” (New Straits Times, September 14, 2019). 

Indonesia’s Environment and Forestry Minister Siti Nurbaya Bakar (left) announced that her country sealed off plantation lands belonging to companies of which three are Malaysian and one Singaporean. She identified the Indonesian units of Malaysian firms as Sime Indo Agro, Rafi Kamajaya, Sukses Karya Sawit and Adei Plantation and Industry, while PT Hutan Ketapang Industri is linked to a Singapore company. 

Just as quickly, Yeo’s colleague, Primary Industries Minister Teresa Kok (left) expressed her displeasure against Indonesia's punitive action on lands belonging to subsidiaries of the Malaysian oil palm plantation companies. And she stoutly defended them on Friday. Please lah, investigate first before shooting your mouth off! 

These Malaysian entities are Sime Darby Plantation Berhad, IOI Corporation, TDM Berhad and Kuala Lumpur Kepong Group. Both the first two companies made denials (EdgeProp, September 14, 2019), the third kept silent and the fourth had admitted one hotspot area covering 2.8 hectares of the 14,400 hectares estate managed by PT Adei (New Straits Times, September 14, 2019). 

Whether the culpable culprits are Indonesian, Malaysian and/or Singaporean companies – we need governments to take immediate action to punish the offenders and mobilize all assets to extinguish the fires! Goddamnit, everybody is suffering in the meantime!

Enough of the bullshit the governments have been dispensing to their citizens. The fires and the accompanying haze is a permanent feature in our calendar. 

In this matter of the haze, we are hopelessly helpless.

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