A nomad mother in Singapore

Tuesday, 29 September 2015

The Haze

It is the talk of the town, trending on Facebook and twitter, and I personally have not one, not two, but three apps monitoring it every hour: The Haze. With capitals.

In Europe we have snow days, where the whole country grinds to a halt, schools and offices get closed, and in Singapore we have The Haze. The Haze is basically a blanket of smoke that spreads from Indonesia over South East Asia, and depending on how the wind blows, Singapore gets more or less of this acrid smog. It has been going on for almost a month this year. The Haze is monitored with the PSI, the pollutant standard index, and when you meet anyone, you don’t ask how they are anymore, you ask (through your becoming M95 dust mask) if they have heard the latest PSI. Then, everyone will pull out their phones, and compare PSI ratings on their respective apps. Our lives are ruled by PSI right now, under 100 we are fine, between 100 and 200 we have to limit outdoor exercise, and when we reach 300 life becomes really hazardous. A PSI above 300 is what all mothers fear: Above PSI 300 schools will close again. Kids have bigger problems; they have not been able to play outside for weeks.

So what is this Haze that rules our lives? What causes it? And, more importantly, can we do anything about it?

A common perception about The Haze is that it is caused by ‘slash and burn’ practices in Indonesia, mostly Borneo and Sumatra, where land is cleared to make space for crops, like palm oil and paper fibre. This is however, a gross simplification of the issue. ‘Slash and burn’ has been practiced for centuries, not only in Indonesia, but worldwide, and is a quick, dirty and cheap way of clearing land for agricultural purposes. What is burnt is either the original forest, or left-over palm trees after the oil seeds are harvested. While this is a nasty practice, with many bad side-effects for nature, it will not cause a haze as bad as The Haze.

The Haze is a more recent phenomenon. Over the last decades, Indonesia has started to cultivate peat lands. Peat is a mixture of organic materials that have been deposited over generations. Leave them a lot longer and they will become oil. Peat is usually soggy, and swampy. But, for the purpose of growing oil palms, it is drained by digging canals. The remainder is a very dry, highly combustible material: dry peat. One tiny spark will set it ablaze. Peat fires can simmer up to several metres underground, which makes them very difficult to put out. Regular water spraying is not enough. Peat fires can smoulder for weeks, producing a nasty, acrid smoke: The Haze.

Even ‘sustainable palm oil’ producing companies that have abandoned ‘slash and burn’ techniques still drain their peat lands. During the dry season a small campfire or cigarette butt is enough to get a fire going without any bad intentions. There are no longer simply ‘good’ and ‘bad’ palm oil farmers. Palm oil has become a ‘dirty’ crop.

We might complain here in Singapore, but the worst victims of the haze live much closer to the fire pits: The people and animals of Borneo and Sumatra. Where we, in our air-conditioned houses, with N95 masks and air purifiers, complain about our measly PSI (250 as I write this), PSI values close to the hotspots can easily reach 2000 or more. Over there, people often live in bamboo huts, have no air-conditioning, nor air-purifiers, and have no escape routes to tropical islands upwind. Where we complain about headaches, a cough and red eyes, they are in danger of much more serious ailments.

And I am not even yet mentioning the loss of habitat for myriads of wildlife, as both Sumatra and Borneo harbour some of the best stretches of pristine rainforest in the world, inhabited by many endangered species. Or the local economies that suffer badly, schools and businesses that have had to close, and tourists that have ceased to come.

So what can we do? That is the harder question. It is easy to start pointing fingers, at palm oil corporations, large or small, the Indonesian government, and this is widely done.

All the way down the line, off course, we are all to blame. We purchase this palm oil. We, here in Singapore, and we, here in Europe, America and everywhere. We all use it. Even someone who thinks she doesn’t, does. It is in soap, shampoo, toothpaste as well as many food products. The amount of palm oil produced and consumed worldwide goes up steadily. In Europe it is used as ‘bio-diesel’, ironically marketed as a sustainable alternative for fossil fuels.

I have always been a strong advocate of responsible consumerism. You are what you buy. And by refusing to buy products that contain palm oil, we send out a strong signal to the world: this is unacceptable. This is easier said than done, though. Palm oil is often hidden as ‘vegetable oil’, or in household products that barely have an ingredient list at all, or one that is incomprehensible for anyone without a chemistry degree (or even someone with one, as I can testify). To add to that, palm oil is traded as a global commodity, and tracking its origins is hard. Even companies that try to do the right thing and buy sustainable palm oil struggle to do so. Also, as I mentioned before, one can argue if there is such a thing as sustainable palm oil.

I can’t help but wonder; if I, a product developer with 10 years of experience in the food industry, that specialises in sustainable development, fair trade and the environment, can’t see the trees though the (burning) forest, how can anyone?

The matter of palm oil and The Haze is far too complex for consumers to grasp. Although I applaud any effort people make in this direction, I think the real change needs to come from another direction. But where?

The Indonesian government on Java can’t smell the haze, and conveniently looks the other way. In any case, corruption is as widespread in this archipelago as islands, and finding a solution for anything is a challenge in Indonesia. Indonesia is the world’s largest palm oil producer, and both local and national politicians are closely interwoven with the business. President Joko Widodo has claimed he will be able to solve the problem in three years. A long time if you are choking.

The international press in the rest of the world does not seem too bothered either, and this environmental disaster gets very little coverage. Are they too scared that any pointed fingers will inevitably point back to the Western world itself? Do they find the issue too complex to tackle? Or is it just because it is not their children breathing in the acrid air?

The only solution can be one where Non Governmental Organisations (NGO’s), governments and large corporations work together and take their responsibility. We, the citizens, voters and consumers, need to somehow demand this. How we are going to do this? I have no idea. I’m am putting on my N95 mask, and go feed my kids, fingers crossed that I don’t feed them or wash them with palm oil today. I suppose the peanut butter is out....