Last year, like many people across the region, I was outraged by the weeks of haze that rolled into months, until it finally dissipated in early December with the arrival of the northeast monsoon. But the infuriation for me reached fever pitch when we took a long-awaited break in Phuket, Thailand, and a much-anticipated boat trip to Phang Nga Bay. Like much of the region, it was blanketed in smoke – to use a skiing analogy, a whiteout.
I found it incomprehensible that we could be cruising this normally stunning bay, trying to peer at the beautiful karst limestone formations through poor visibility caused by preventable fires raging hundreds of kilometres away. In one way I wished I were as ignorant as some of the tourists around me who thought that grey skies were the norm in this part of the world.
It got me thinking – not least because the inconvenience to me was so trivial compared to the serious health issues and innumerable disruptions to daily life that the haze causes to millions of people. What is the truth behind these unhealthy skies? How does it relate to our consumption of palm oil? If the impact of the fires could spread so far into the region, what do the locals at ground zero think? And what can we as individuals do to help?
2015: a perfect storm
Haze pollution is attributed to the unsustainable “slash-and-burn” practices used in land clearance to make way for palm oil plantations. Singapore has been affected since the 1970s, owing to its proximity to Malaysia and Indonesia where 85 percent of global palm oil is produced. Production of the oil rose from 10 million tonnes per year in 1990 to 50 million tonnes in 2011.
“Unfortunately, 2015 was a perfect storm of haze conditions,” says Kim Stengert, Communications Director at WWF-Singapore. “The combination of an expanding palm oil industry driven by consumer demand for the many products containing palm oil, poor agricultural management practices including slash and-burn clearance, and the presence of the cyclical weather phenomenon known as El Niño, which brings hot, dry weather, meant the conditions were ideal for fires to spread.”
Winds carried the resulting smoke hundreds of kilometres over Southeast Asia, reaching Singapore, Brunei, Thailand, Vietnam and the Philippines, and causing health, economic and environmental impacts across all those countries. Peatlands contributed significantly to the haze – even if fires are extinguished on the surface, smouldering fires burn underground in the carbon-rich peat swamps.
The Guardian reported that, as of 11 November, 19 people had died and an estimated 500,000 cases of respiratory tract infections had been reported since the start of the fires in July.
In 2015, the World Resources Institute reported nearly 100,000 active fire detections in Indonesia. Incredibly, on some days, the daily estimated greenhouse gas emissions from fires in Indonesia surpassed average daily emissions from the entire US economy.
What can be done?
According to Kim Stengert, the solution to haze pollution won’t come from one angle only. “It is action on the part of multiple parties that’s needed to solve this problem. Consumers must make the connection between the things they are purchasing and the growth of plantation agriculture in Indonesia, and start insisting on sustainable palm oil as the way forward.
“At the same time, companies growing palm oil and manufacturers and retailers using palm oil products must embrace a more sustainable way of doing business. Although many large palm oil companies have pledged not to convert any new natural forest, this needs to move from a code of conduct to governmental legislation to protect forests with high conservation value.
“And we need strong legislation with complete protection for peatlands. The current moratorium on them issued by the Indonesian President in October 2015 prevents planting on peat with a depth greater than three metres. WWF would like to see this extended to all peatlands, regardless of depth,” he says.
When the haze is particularly thick in the air in Singapore, horrifying reports come through of PSI readings hovering at 1,000 for locals living in hotspots. Yet a report commissioned by the Round table on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) shows that 59 percent of consumers surveyed in Indonesia view palm oil as mostly positive; most respondents identified palm oil simply as cooking oil.
While they observe that palm oil provides jobs, increases the welfare of small holders and increases state revenue, their understanding about the impact on the environment and communities is low. In response to these results, the RSPO has developed a series of in-depth observations and recommendations for companies, governments and environmental groups.
Fact or fiction?
It’s all Indonesia’s fault.
WWF says consumers have been driving the expansion of the palm oil industry through the things we buy. Palm oil is in 50 percent of the packaged goods on supermarket shelves, and the majority of this palm oil is produced unsustainably, contributing to deforestation and affecting the rights and wellbeing of local communities. Currently, only around 20 percent of the global palm oil supply is sustainable. WWF is campaigning to raise this percentage and make sustainable palm oil the norm.
I can’t do anything to help it. The WWF urges everyone to lend their voice to the campaign for a switch to sustainable palm oil. This support gives WWF an even stronger argument when persuading manufacturers and retailers to buy sustainable palm oil products.
If it’s not in the ingredient list, it does not contain palm oil.
Palm oil can masquerade behind other names, most commonly as just vegetable oil, and it has become an accepted ingredient in everything from toothpaste to lipstick; but you are unlikely to see sustainable palm oil listed as such. WWF says consumers must put pressure on manufacturers and retailers to support sustainable palm oil options.
Palm oil is bad; we should boycott it.
As the global population grows, so does the demand for commodities. Palm oil is the most used oil in the world, and a boycott on palm oil would merely see it replaced with another oil product. Currently, palm oil is the most efficient and versatile oil option, producing more yield per hectare than any alternative oil persuading manufacturers and retailers to buy sustainable palm oil products.
The palm oil industry has also lifted communities out of poverty, providing livelihoods and incomes that promise education and a brighter future for many. The answer, then, is to farm palm oil differently, in a sustainable way that limits adverse impacts on the environment.
Greenpeace International recently released a scorecard of 14 global companies which have made no-deforestation promises in recent years on their performance in three key areas: responsible sourcing of palm oil; transparency about their supply chain; and their support for wider industry reform. More info available here.
Definitions to remember
- Pollution Standard Index (PSI): an air-quality index that is based on whichever of six pollutants is worst at the time – sulphur dioxide, particulate matter and fine particulate matter (PM2.5), nitrogen dioxide, carbon monoxide and ozone. For example, if PM2.5 concentration is the highest for the day, the PSI reading will be based on PM2.5.
- Fine particulate matter (PM2.5): particulate matter with a diameter of 2.5 microns or less. This is 20 to 30 times smaller than the thickness of a strand of hair; these particles are so small they can penetrate deeply into the lungs and may even be able to cross into the blood. TheWorld Health Organisation has classified fine particulate matter as a cause of lung cancer.
- Peatlands: wetland areas composed of soil and made up of thousands of years of decaying vegetation. Peatlands store carbon which, when burned, is released as CO2, a major greenhouse gas and contributor to climate change. Palm oil companies divert water away from this fertile land to make it suitable for palm oil planting. Dried peatlands are like tinder and catch fire very easily. In 2015, 79 percent of fires in the region were on peatlands.
What’s predicted for 2016?
Indonesia’s Climate Agency has already predicted that March will see the return of the haze as the dry season kicks in. Also expected is another surge in the El Niño effect. “The haze problem is not over and will not be over until all plantations, large and small, switch to sustainable practices and ‘no-burn’ policies; as consumers, our purchasing choices can pressure them to do this,” says Kim Stengert.
To help put an end to the haze, support a complete ban on planting on peat in Indonesia at earthhour.wwf.sg.
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This article first appeared in the March issue of Expat Living. To get the print edition delivered to your door each month, why not subscribe?