Sunday 25 October 2015

The Haze. Part 2.

Almost a month ago I wrote a post about The Haze, that carpet of acrid smoke that has been blanketing south East Asia for the last few months. I had not expected to write about this subject again, simply because I had not expected it would be necessary. I thought The Haze was this annoying, well, more than annoying thing, that would dissipate in a week or so and then would be forgotten. We would go back to purchasing palm oil containing products until next year, when we would be annoyed again.

That did not happen. The Haze is as bad as a month ago, so it is time for an update. What happened in the last month? The honest answer? Nothing. The haze is as bad as it was. The next question I like to scream out loud is: WHY?

(photo Greenpeace)

Just to briefly recap, what causes the haze is peat fires. The wetlands in coastal areas of Sumatra and Borneo are mostly peatlands, where decayed organic material has been deposited over centuries. These peatlands are being drained to be used for agricultural purposes (wood logging, paper production, mining, but most of all: palm oil plantations), leaving a highly dry and flammable organic material. Some companies (illegally) set fire to dried peatlands to clear them, but even without that, many still catch sparks and set ablaze naturally during the dry season. Peat fires burn underground, making them not only produce this acrid haze, but also very hard to put out. Peat fires produce more smoke and toxins than regular forest fires. While we here in Singapore struggle with unhealthy levels of air pollution (especially people like myself that suffer of auto–immune disease, or those that have long afflictions), in Sumatra and Borneo the haze levels are much, much worse. Levels of carbon mono-oxide and ozone are hazardously high. People and animals are dying. The Indonesian government is proposing to evacuate children from the affected area’s, which is great for them, but does nothing towards actually solving the problem.

So why has the haze problem still not been solved? Apart from declaring a state of emergency months ago, the Indonesian government has done amazingly little. Why is not everyone linked to fires in jail? Why are open fires still allowed? Why is not a significant amount of money allocated to the fire-fighters working in the burning area’s? And, most importantly, why is the international press not making a stampede?

Do they not realise the seriousness of this disaster? Let me sum up the reasons why The Haze needs to be addressed:

- Human suffering: The health of 40 million people across South East Asia is affected, and many people have already died.

- Ecological disaster: Areas of tropical rainforest are being swiped away, animals including endangered orang-utans are dying.

- Economic damage: Indonesia itself estimated the loss of economic growth and damages to businesses was worth US$ 35 billion. Other estimates are higher, and these still not take into account losses in the wider region. Many people in affected area’s, which are already poor, have lost their livelihood. Agricultural yields in the whole region will be much lower as sunlight cannot reach the crops. Bee populations stagger, which will affect future crops badly.

- Global warming: The amount of CO2 that has been emitted over the last few months by peat fires is higher than the whole of the US emits in one year.

Summing up, this really is the largest ecological & humanitarian crisis of recent years.

But why is The Haze such a difficult issue to tackle? There are some obvious actions that need to be taken by the government of Indonesia (make this a national priority, install a complete fire ban in certain regions, massively scale up fire fighter efforts, rehydrate peatlands, stop developing and draining peatlands, punish those responsible for illegal burning). For some reason the Indonesian government has done few, not nearly enough, of these things. Other factors hinder a solution as well:

- This year’s El NiƱo makes for an extremely long dry season, predictions are it might not rain until early next year. What is really needed are monsoon rains to quench the fires. Putting out peat fires is a tricky thing, as basically the whole area needs to be doused with tons of water to be effective. Peat can burn up to 10 meters underground, and the smallest smouldering ember left behind will get the whole thing going again.

- Vast areas of peatland have been drained lately, so fires spread very easily and very far.

- Not allowing open fires is more easily said than done. In rural Indonesia people mostly cook on wood fires, and burn their garbage since there is no waste collection.

- Fire fighters on the ground are short of equipment, manpower, water and everything basically. For example, Borneo has 3 (!) fire fighting helicopters, a more daunting figure if you realise the surface area of this island is larger than that of France.

Indonesia is a developing (or let’s be honest: poor) country and it is hard to blame them for making economic development a priority. However, corruption in Indonesia is widespread, raising the question where profits really end up. The very powerful palm oil lobby is entwined with politics, and will inhibit finding a real solution.

- Who cares about Borneo and Sumatra anyhow? Obviously neither the Indonesian government on Java, nor the rest of the world. When tsunamis and earthquakes strike, ‘rich’ countries donate millions. Now, when this is in reality a global environmental disaster that affects us all: nothing.

A lot of people ask me: 'What can we do?' This is a question I ask myself daily as well. We can’t just keep complaining, can we? So what can we do?

- Not buy products with palm oil in it (it is debatable whether there is such a thing as sustainable palm oil) and pressure companies into sustainable sourcing. Mind you, this is a long-term solution, not one that will help in the short run, if at all. The palm oil supply chain is long, and the product often ends up in unrecognisable derivatives, making it almost impossible for consumers to identify. A problem of this scale in my mind needs to be addressed by international policies, laws and regulations. As consumers, all we can do is to demand our companies and governments to implement these.

- Donate to Indonesia’s fire-fighters. They need equipment, suitable protective clothing and masks.

- Help the affected people on the ground. The majority of people in Indonesia do not have suitable facemasks (the Indonesian government distributes surgical masks only, which are proven not effective against haze.) The expensive N95 masks cost over a day’s wages for an average Indonesian.

- Spread the word. We need to get the world’s attention for this global disaster.

- We need to convince the government of Indonesia to stop developing peatlands. The international community and NGO’s should help Indonesia with looking for alternative ways grow the economy and create jobs, rather than simply judge them for burning their rainforest.

If anyone has other suggestions, or knows of any charities that work on the ground and need funds or assistance, please give me their details and I will share their links. I find it shockingly difficult to find ways to support haze fighting-organisations, but I am sure they must exist. 

Sow good links on how to help fight haze:

Tuesday 20 October 2015

What we did on our holiday

This morning, as I was nit picking my four-year-old daughter’s classmates, I leaned in to the teacher asking Jasmijn how her holiday had been. I could not hear her answer, but the teacher’s response was clear: ‘Wow, you hiked up a mountain for twenty hours?’ He was suitably impressed. 

So was I, and I subtly chose a little head closer to her table to check for head lice. With wild gesticulations Jasmijn regaled of her other adventures, about how we first stayed in a room, and later in a little house on the beach, and that we went in a boat that had a glass bottom beneath which we could see fish.

Her big brother kept a diary of the same holiday, which makes an interesting read. It tells us what Tijm had for breakfast every morning, whether he had club sandwich for lunch, and who won with Monopoly Deal (he did), kwartet (the Dutch name for go fish) and the other card games we played. He adds, almost as an afterthought: ‘Oh yes, and I snorkelled with a turtle.’

My own memories of this holiday are slightly different. We did hike up a hill, for about twenty minutes; from the top of which we witnessed one of the most amazing sunsets I have ever seen over the rugged shoreline of southern Lombok. 

We relaxed on the beach, explored tidal pools, climbed more hills, played Frisbee with local kids on the beach, and ate some very tasty Sasak food. We saw traditional weavers, Sasak villages, and went to a tourist trap pottery. And we did play an annoying amount of card games, which I mostly lost.

And yes, on the Gili’s we swam with sea turtles. Our first turtle encounter was on the snorkelling trip with the glass bottom boat. The guide jumped in, the rest of the group followed suit, and when the guide yelled ‘turtle’, we all swam over to chase the poor animal. With a lot of elbow shoving everyone fought to get a selfie with the unsuspecting creature, which glided on unperturbed, as if it did not understand what all the commotion was about. After several skirmishes I gave up, and decided to focus my attention on the colourful fish and corals, which were more than worth our time. And much more peaceful. 

The next day we snorkelled from the beach of our hotel, and found our very own turtles. We followed one around for almost an hour, grazing on the ocean floor, popping up for breath every once in a while. The amazingly graceful creature glided through the water, again not at all bothered by our kids swarming around it. Even Linde petting it, against my strict instructions, did not upset his serenity at all. 

Everyone’s memories are different, but we all had a great time, fresh air, and plenty of sunshine in beautiful Indonesia. Back at Changi Airport we breathed in, coughed, and swore at that same Indonesia, where the fires still roar that pollute our South East Asian air. We enjoyed our outdoor time in Lombok, upwind from the fires, and brace ourselves for yet another period of staying indoors. Let’s hope the rainy season will start soon.

Sunday 4 October 2015

The pursuit of happiness

People all over the world are on the move. And I don’t mean expats booking their autumn break in Bali to escape the Singapore haze. No, I am referring to people leaving their countries in a less comfortable manner, with the help of traffickers and flimsy rubber boats. Europe, for example, is flooded with migrants from other, less prosperous continents. A crisis, it has been called. In the Netherlands the public seems to identify two kinds of migrants: the refugees, the ones that fled war and violence, and are more or less deserving of our help and attention. Then, there are those commonly referred to in Dutch as gelukzoekers.

Gelukzoeker is an interesting word, it can be translated (and interpreted) in two ways: someone searching for happiness. Or, someone looking for a stroke of good luck. I can’t help but wonder which of the two people mean when they use this word. 

Asia has its portion of people on the move too. Meet Siti, single mother from Indonesia, a country not torn apart by war, where no terrorist organisation threatens her or her children’s life. Siti left her young sons with her mother to find her happiness, or maybe just a small slice of good luck, in Singapore. Why, I ask her.

Siti rolls her sad eyes. Life is hard for a single mother on Java. Working in a sugar cane factory, she barely earned enough to buy food for her two sons, let alone school uniforms or books. Then she lost that job too. No jobs ma’am, on Java.

Siti did not flee from war, but from poverty. She got a loan from an agent and boarded a plane for a job as a domestic worker in Singapore. Now, eight months of hard work later, she just paid off her loan, and would have been receiving her first salary. But that did not happen. Siti was unlucky.

Her employer made her work from five in the morning until after midnight, with little rest in between. The amount of food she received was too little for the hard work. She never had a day off. She never heard a friendly word. Siti became depressed, and ran away.

I met Siti in the shelter of HOME, the charity I work for. With the assistance of HOME, Siti filed a complaint against her employer to the Ministry of Manpower. She was unlucky again, and her request to be transferred to a new employer was not granted. Siti’s former employer, angry about her running away, is sending her back to Indonesia. With empty pockets.

The difference between the Singaporean approach to migrant workers - welcoming them in, but under strict, sometimes harsh conditions- , and the European way, where getting in is tough (and sometimes lethal), but if you do get in you are treated well, has widened my view on migrant issues worldwide. Unfortunately, that does not bring me any closer to a conclusion, let alone a solution.

The truth probably lies in the middle, and both parties could learn from the other. I am stuck with a growing frustration about inequality in the world, and that birth-lottery that is so grossly unfair. Neither Asia nor Europe seem to handle things in a way that I'd consider well, humane, and to the best of their ability. Xenophobia and 'own people come first' sentiments thrive all around. We could do so much more, for refugees and economic migrants alike.

I have learned one thing, economic migrants like Siti, gelukszoekers, are not looking for welfare, charity and free houses. They simply want a job. Safety from violence and privation. An opportunity to make a living and provide for their families. And some protection from exploitation, human traffickers, abusive employers and dire work-, and living arrangements. 
But migrant workers are out of luck. In Europe these days, poverty, no matter how dire, is not seen as a justifiable reason to flee a country. 

In Singapore many migrants find what they came for: a job, and money to send home. A certain amount of hardship they take for granted. The life of these migrant workers is not easy, but they do what is needed for their families to survive and thrive. Do they find their happiness? Maybe some do. Happiness is a luxury not everyone can afford.

HOME is a Singaporean registered charity that works for the well-being, justice and empowerment of migrant workers and trafficked victims in Singapore. As a non-profit organisation they rely on private donations to fund their work. Please visit for more information, or if you want to contribute by donating or becoming a HOME volunteer. 

Photo by Dominica Fitri, HOME

 * Siti's name has been changed for privacy reasons. The woman in the photograph is another Indonesian domestic worker, who stayed with HOME a few years ago, and has agreed to her photo being used from HOME promotions.