Smog, Palms and Politics

We stare blankly ahead. Palm oil has been the subject of debate for some time already. Theoretically I know the negative effects of large-scale oil palm cultivation. But it’s one thing to know and quite another to survive.


We cross the bridge from the mainland to Penang, an island off the western coast of Malaysia, and the driver shouts out cheerfully: ‘Penang! Penang! Isn’t it beautiful!?’ But of course he’s only joking – there’s nothing beautiful ahead. Penang can’t be seen at all. The island is shrouded in a dense fog, and at that moment we realise that what we are seeing is a side-effect of one of the worst ecological disasters of our times. The phenomenon known as ‘Southeast Asian haze’ is smog so vast that it stretches several hundred kilometres and is the scourge of a number of countries. From Indonesia it drifts to neighbouring Singapore, Malaysia and Brunei. Even Southern Thailand is affected. I recall photos from the news in 2013 when the smog situation was especially bad, but not even they have me prepared for the reality that has appeared in front of me.
We check into our accommodations in UNESCO-protected Georgetown and soon make acquaintances with Eddie from Singapore, who explains the secrets of the smog season that regularly arrives with the dry season in Indonesia. This year is again one of the worst due to the El Niño effect, which causes an even drier dry season, making everything burn a little better. ‘This is nothing yet’, he says. ‘In Singapore it is always about twice as bad as here’. Apparently we can only hope for two things: that it will rain, or that the wind will change direction. The last time we prayed this badly for rain was during this year’s abnormally dry summer in the Czech Republic. They say that the only way to survive in Singapore is to stay inside and to have two air purifiers on at full blast. In 2013, they were nowhere to be found after quickly selling out. This reminded us again of the hot summer back in the Czech Republic, where it was fans that had quickly disappeared off store shelves.
We will travel to Singapore in a week, and Eddie gives us protective masks as a gift. With regard to the amount of smoke and pollution, fires in Indonesia are generally worse than ordinary blazes. Apparently many people wear the wrong type of mask – ones intended for PM10. PM stands for ‘particulate matter’, while the number 10 refers to the actual size of the particles. PM2.5 are far more dangerous: they are smaller and can therefore reach a person’s circulatory system through the lungs and cause serious health problems. It is therefore necessary to have a slightly better mask, the so called N95 mask which is able to catch these finer particles. Later I read this even in reports from Borneo, where non-profit organisations hand out masks to people during protests, but they’re ineffective against this dangerous type of smog. In fact, Indonesians often don’t even know that the masks they are wearing don’t work, or they say they don’t have money for the better N95 ones. Those are generally more expensive, and the higher demand has pushed their price even higher.


The felling, burning and devastation of forests and peat bogs for the expansion of plantations and agricultural land has leapfrogged Indonesia among the top five greatest producers of greenhouse gasses in the world. Enormous forests are cut down for wood and the land is then set ablaze, as this is the cheapest and fastest way to prepare the soil for future plantations. An even bigger problem occurs when peat bogs are burnt, as these are one of the most precious ecosystems on the planet and are home to thousands of plant and animal species, including the critically threatened orangutan and Sumatran tiger. As they are often very deep, the peat bogs can burn for months, above and below the ground. The flames above ground level then threaten to spread to other areas. Over 80% of the peat bogs in Southeast Asia are found in Indonesia. These ecosystems are the largest carbon sinks that we have, and their burning releases enormous amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. A total of 85% of the greenhouse gasses produced by Indonesia comes from deforestation and the burning of land. It is hardly surprising that the country is now the third largest greenhouse gas emitter on the planet. The palm and paper industries are primarily to blame for these practices, but they deny responsibility pointing the finger to small-scale farmers. One could rightfully ask how it is possible in this information age that we are not able to identify the owners of land that is being burnt illegally. An explanation exists for this as well. Although satellite images show where the fires are, in order to find out who has the lease on the given land we would need maps from the Indonesian government, and they refuse to release them.


I still can’t get my head around how something like this is possible. Why don’t economically advanced and stronger countries like Singapore and Malaysia take the Indonesian government to task? It is clear that Indonesia is trying to extinguish the problems. They have sent thousands of soldiers and helicopters with water to the effected regions and modify the weather by means of cloud seeding. But without a long-term plan, nothing will help. It is illegal to burn this land in Indonesia, but the continuing smog problem clearly shows that the laws have had little effect. The government simply isn’t strong enough to do anything. Scientist Herry Purnomo from the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) explains that the greatest problem in Indonesian politics is clientelism and the related corruption. Indonesia in turn points its finger at Singapore and Malaysia, demanding that its neighbours accept part of the blame for the situation. A majority of the investors and palm firms are in fact registered in Singapore and Malaysia. The Indonesian vice-president recently remarked that Singapore should be glad that they have only one smoky month from Indonesia a year and 11 months of otherwise clean air.
So what is the solution? It will be difficult to influence Indonesian politics. But as everything boils down to supply and demand, let’s tackle the problem from the opposite end. The European Union is one of the largest importers of palm oil in the world. Anyone who buys food or cosmetics can state their own opinion by deciding which products to purchase. It is no longer that difficult to avoid palm oil. A new rule in effect from the beginning of the year makes it mandatory to identify the type of fat contained in a product. More active consumers can demand that producers and retailers either eliminate their use of palm oil or use certified palm oil that is not associated with the unsustainable pillage of irreplaceable ecosystems in tropical areas (or at least shouldn’t be). I am convinced more than ever of the importance of this problem, and every mention of it is valuable. Awareness of a problem is the best start to the solution. And perhaps something will change so that no one will have to experience this problem ever again.

This article was published in Czech in the on-line magazine “Material Times”:—stoji-za-ni-i-palmovy-olej.html on 11th November 2015.

Palm oil can be found in half of the packaged products in stores. The “Supply Cha!nge”: campaign aims at finding solutions to the growing challenge of reducing theenvironmental impacts and improving the working conditions along the globalsupply chains of store brand food products in European supermarkets. 

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