I look out our office window in Singapore and I see buildings shrouded in grey smoke. It’s that time of year again when the haze hits, the air quality drops, and the sky is permanently cloudy. It’s not just a weather phenomenon—the cause is dozens of forest fires in neighbouring Indonesia and Malaysia.
In the past weeks, slash-and-burn methods have been used to burn down forests in Indonesia’s islands of Sumatra and Borneo. Borneo Island is divided between Indonesia, Brunei, and Malaysia.
Like in the Amazon, the driving reason for fires is the need to clear land for agricultural use, which is a mostly illegal practice. Eighty percent of Indonesian forest fires are due to land clearing for palm oil plantations. Palm oil is used in a variety of everyday products, including shampoo, chocolate, detergents, bread, and cosmetics. Last year, Indonesia provided over half of the world's palm oil, and demand for it is only increasing, meaning our consumer choice is directly linked to these fires.
Because of the fires, air quality in countries like Malaysia and Singapore reached dangerous levels. In Indonesia, the fires have caused the death of farmers and children. A four-month-old baby from South Sumatra died last week from respiratory problems caused by the haze.
And despite the haze happening every year, it’s still difficult to get used to. What’s even more bothersome is the thought of how dangerous these forest fires are for the region's environment, yet the problem never gets resolved.
This year’s fires alone have burned almost 340,000 hectares of land, the equivalent of a third of Jamaica. And the Indonesian government has tried time and time again to catch those behind the forest fires, but the damage done is already catastrophic. Take Indonesia’s endangered orangutans, their homes are destroyed in these fires, leaving them less jungle to survive in every year. Rangers have also found that snakes, squirrels, and other animals were burned alive. Not to mention the colossal amounts of carbon released into the atmosphere.
And as Quartz News points out, Indonesia’s efforts to find the culprits come with great irony considering the government’s efforts to protect the palm oil industry. Last month, it banned products with “palm oil-free” labels from supermarkets. And when the European Commission wanted to ban palm oil from being used in biofuels, Indonesia threatened to pull out of the Paris climate agreement. Indonesia’s president has also said he wants all diesel fuel sold in the country to contain 100 percent palm oil in the future.
With this dynamic at work, will an end to these fires come anytime soon?
If we can’t rely on governments for a solution, it might be on us to raise awareness via socials, the media, and education.
The Amazon rainforest fires caught the globe's attention. News, TV, blogs, and social media accounts from across the planet were covering the issue, offering suggestions on how people could help and explaining why it was important to care. Every day, scrolling through my social media feed, I would see several posts about the crisis. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for the Indonesian fires. Another crucial rainforest is burning before our eyes and many people outside the Southeast Asian region don’t even know.