WHO LIT THE FIRES
Port Barton, Philippines, Oct 30, – For a week now we have been
running out to sea and back in Dole’s bumboat below a layer of toxic haze
blanketing South East Asia for the last two months, sometimes veil-thin other
times thick as yellow pea soup.
My boatman Dole thinks its the weather, a leftover from the last
cyclone. His cousins in Cebu are content because its cooler since the haze
has eclipsed the sun. Lots of people wear wetted face masks now to stifle
the stink of burning wood and ashes part of the air we all now breathe.
Natives in the region complain the haze is so heavy at times they can not go
out to fish because they will not find their way home. That often means no
Yet if you have been reading the regional media for the last months
you’d think everything is normal. The weather reports simply said ‘tomorrow
haze’ without explaining why and the radio and Tv hosts
referred to the phenomenon as ‘smog’ caused by the last cyclone, freak
winds or El Niño.
While the rain forests of Sumatra and Borneo burned during the past
four months to make more space for palm oil plantations the media
failed to inform its audiences the region was facing a man-made catastrophe
experts predict may cripple, kill or negatively affect the health of 44 million
people in the region, perhaps many more world-wide.
Most common people I meet are still guessing what might be
causing the ‘fog’ – and the stink.
I wonder was the media silence prompted by orders from
above to avoid panic, not to scare off tourism and most of all not to upset
the profits of the big regional corporations making big money from the
extraction, the sale or the use of the controversial palm tree oil, now used
in most cheap food products world wide even though health authorities
have warned palm oil is detrimental to humans since it promotes obesity
among other illnesses.
Oh all of this is no startling new phenomenon.
Toxic clouds from deliberately lit burn-off fires in the rain
forests of Indonesia’s Borneo and Sumatra have been drifting across the
region almost annually since 1997 when I first wrote about them as foreign
correspondent based in Manila. http://www.niu.edu/newsplace/intlnews8.html
The tale of havoc and suffering I wrote then could be rewritten with more
horrifying statistics now. At the root, then and today, are permits for
corporations allowing them to burn off massive parts of the forest and peat
land. In addition every Indonesian in the area has the right to burn off two
hectares for himself. The fires inevitably seem to run out of control – or
are allowed to pass the permit limit.
This year the annual burn-off exploded into a global disaster
of record green gas emissions, aided by a mixture of insatiable greed, an
unusual climatic moment of drought and exceptional heat waves. The fires
now emit more green house gas then all of the United States, the world’s
The great rain forests, comparable to the Amazon and among
humankind’s last natural treasures, have been on fire since June, most burn-
offs officially sanctioned with Indonesian government permits. By
September the fires had gone wild, uncontrollable. Nothing was done. The
smog drifted into South East Asia, Brunei, Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand,
the Philippines. Nothing was done. Then this month, at last, the Indonesian
government, faced with escalating ‘diplomatic’ criticism sought foreign aid
(as it does every year) to help put out the fires it had authorized to be set. It
sounds like the story of a fire-bug who lights the bush fire then calls the fire
brigade and volunteers to help put it out.
Only this time, so the experts say, it was too late: The fires,
especially the peat fires which can smolder below ground as deep as a
hundred meters, will have to burn themselves out – apparently, and with
some luck, not before January next year.
Since 1997 the make-belief hunt for culprits has produced no
convictions among the big villains. Even in recent weeks Indonesian
officials insisted their country, as the world’s leading palm oil producer,
had every right to burn down its forests (killing millions of animals and
changing regional climatic patterns) to help feed its poor — when in reality
nearly all the profits from the business flows into Singaporean banks and
the pockets of corrupt officials.
“If you don’t like it, no problem,” the Indonesia deputy minister for
food production, Musdhalifah Machmud, told the media some days ago:
“Another company will come to develop it.”
Rizal Ramli, deputy minister for the economy bluntly rejected
demands to stop the annual burning as an imposition on Indonesia’s
sovereignty. “This is an example to fight for our sovereignty,” he thundered:
“We are the biggest palm oil producers in the world why should the
conservationists from the developed countries set the standards for us as
So burn on Borneo and Sumatra.
Already 57 million hectares of forest have gone up in smoke. A
hundred thousand fires are now burning out of control to make space for
massive palm oil plantations run by huge corporations like Sime Darby,
APP and APRIL and the main users of palm oil Unilever.
Down on the rain forest island where I hang out, we have a
palm oil plant. Around a seven meter perimeter nothing grows because the
ravenous plant absorbs all nutrients in its vicinity. It has left no nourishment
for even a humble blade of grass. Imagine what it can do to a forest in its
Prompted by outraged citizen finally made savvy of the health
hazard the government of Singapore made a token move this week asking its
citizen to boycott the local mega-corporation AAP (Asia Pulp and Paper)
one of the principal palm oil plantation owners annually expanding deeper
into the forests with the inexpensive slash and burn methods. Also on the
‘villain list are palm oil giants Sime Darby and the largest user of palm oil
in the world, Unilever. APP does most of its business abroad. A boycott is
unlikely to even scratch its corporate finances.
Come January the blue skies might be back and as usual all will be
forgotten. Corporations will have pledged to mend their ways (so please no
more boycotts) governments will have promised not to issue further burn
permits (which they will still do covertly) and paid scribes without scruples
or too dumb to understand will have written reams of learned arguments by
paid scientists telling the world palm oil is really not harmful and the forest
is sure to regrow soon.
Back to business as usual, never mind the victims of inhaled
toxic haze, those who suffered heart attacks or respiratory failures. Those
unfortunates will be dead or crippled, classified as collateral damage of the
Palm Oil boom.
Uli Schmetzer was a foreign correspondent for Reuters and the Chicago Tribune during forty years, sixteen of them in Asia. He
is the author of four books, available onwww.amazon.com or kindle.