Phuket’s Indonesian Smog Crisis — And What to Do About It

Smoke and pollutants spread across the Indian Ocean during the Indonesian smog crisis of 1997; how far will they spread this year?

Smoke and pollutants spread across the Indian Ocean during the Indonesian smog crisis of 1997; how far will they spread this year?

by Marque A. Rome

Every year Phuket and other areas of southern Thailand are enveloped in a thick haze of smoke from fires burning on Sumatra in Indonesia. This has been an annual hazard for more than 20 years, but this year’s blanket of smoke is the worst I recall. Indeed the Phuket Public Health Office on Saturday advised denizens to “avoid breathing the air”, according to local publication Phuket News, to avoid strenuous exercise and to wear filtration masks — this because particulate content in the air was measured by the Southern Thailand Area 16 Regional Environmental Office at 125 microgrammes per cubic metre. This actually represented considerable improvement: on the 16th, particulate content was set at 139 microgrammes per cubic metre.

The Public Health Office notes that any reading over 120 is dangerous.

While readings today have improved again (ASTV reported this morning a reading of 91, while newspaper Thai Rath noted that visibility in Had Yai was such that airline flights were no longer impeded), the problem has by no means disappeared: as I write this, overhead the sky is not blue but white, and visibility is plainly impaired at a distance of perhaps 400 metres.

A hazy September in Songkhla.

A hazy September in Songkhla.

News services report that Indonesian authorities are taking action against the perpetrators. From the Jakarta Globe today: “Environment and Forestry Minister Siti Nurbaya Bakar said on Sunday that the government was investigating nearly 300 companies for alleged slash-and-burn practices.

“‘In total there are 276 [private business] entities [with areas which have been on fire]. Some have not been identified because they are cooperatives and bearers of land use permits, which are under the auspices of the National Land Agency,” she said. ‘There are 147 [unidentified entities]. But from an environmental standpoint they are suspected of violating the law.’

“Siti said her office has deployed at least 200 officers to investigate firms with concessions on which fires had been detected, suspecting them of slash-and-burn practices: ‘We will analyze [the officers’ findings] to determine if [the firms] can be penalized or have their operations suspended,’ she said.”

But Indonesia has no track record of seriously attempting to stop serial destruction of rain forests or the menace these fires pose to surrounding nations and to Indonesia’s own citizens. The companies involved are, many of them, large, powerful concerns, for whom such investigations constitute no more than a nuisance.

Sumatran rain forests are being slashed and burnt so that palm oil plantations such as this can be planted.

Sumatran rain forests are being slashed and burnt so that palm oil plantations such as this can be planted.

So, for example, Indonesian police say they are preparing to charge Bumi Mekar Hijau, “a south Sumatra-based supplier to Singapore-listed Asia Pulp and Paper (APP),” with criminal burning violations — a charge for which those found guilty might receive ten years in jail. But this is so much window-dressing: no one is likely to be found guilty. Bumi Mekar Hijau was charged in civil court at the beginning of this year with violating laws against slash-and-burn deforestation in its concession last year. The result? Charges were thrown out of court in February.

“Police have charged 10 companies in Sumatra and Kalimantan (on Borneo) along with 127 individuals for slash-and-burn practices…[that have brought] air quality indexes…to unhealthy levels,” the Globe cheered, adding, “The companies face fines of up to Rp10 billion (US$694,000) each, while suspects face jail time of up to ten years under the environmental protection and forestry laws. [They] also face having permits revoked by the government.”

It is notable that Globe reporters did not crow about previous convictions or fines.

How can this happen year after year? It is part of an on-going disaster of monumental proportions, and involves intense environmental degradation — degradation verging on annihilation — throughout the archipelago, though most notable on Sumatra and Borneo.

To form some idea of its magnitude, consider that the crisis epicentre on Sumatra is in Riau province, 907.48 kilometres from Phuket, yet skies here are blanketed by smoke. Think how much smoke must have poured forth around Riau for it still to be so thick after being blown this far — and that during rainy season!

It’s mind-boggling.

A hazy view of the Bypass Rd west of Phuket Town on 21st September.

A hazy view of the Bypass Rd west of Phuket Town on 21st September.

This year, so far, some 58,000 hectares (362,500 rai) have burned since about 14th June; and the fires aren’t out yet.

The giant island of Sumatra (at 473,481 square kilometres the world’s sixth largest) was for centuries under-populated, covered mostly by jungle. In ancient times it was known in Sanskrit as ‘Swarnabhumi’ (same as Thailand’s largest airport), meaning ‘heavenly’ or ‘golden’ land. Certainly it has been Indonesia’s golden goose since independence from Holland in 1949.

Indonesia long has had a terrible population imbalance:

In 1950, the population of Indonesia totalled 77.2 million, nearly two-thirds of whom — 50.5 million — lived on Java (120,794 square kilometres) and Madura (5,168 square kilometres, an administrative unit of East Java). By 1971, the population of Java and Madura was 76,100,000, about three-fifths the total; whereas the remaining 1.78 milion square kilometres of Indonesia had a population of just 43,083,000. Sumatra in 1971 had a population of 20,808,148; by last year, that figure had risen to 54,339,256 — up nearly four million since 2010. Today, the population of Java accounts for 51 percent (2014 estimate 150 million) of Indonesia’s 255.4 million people.

To solve the imbalance, which, as we see, is gradually decreasing, population was shifted — and is still shifting — to Sumatra. To do that, it has been necessary to clear the forests. Sumatra, with the world’s third largest rain forest, is thus suffering the world’s fastest rate of deforestation, faster even than that of Amazonia in Brazil, according to data published in on-line journal New Scientist: between 2000 and 2012, 60,000 square kilometres of rain forest were burned into the air.

51 percent of Indonesia’s population, however, is still too great a percentage for Java’s carrying capacity to sustain, so we should expect emigration to Sumatra and Kalimantan to continue, with accompanying — and probably expanding — environmental destruction:

“Deforestation has continued despite the Indonesian government declaring a moratorium on further forest clearance in 2011,” New Scientist reported. “The fastest-ever recorded deforestation in the country happened in the first year after the moratorium.”

Lest readers imagine such burning a mere temporary annoyance, New Scientist points out that in 1997-98 alone, “Indonesian forest fires released around 1.5 billion tonnes of carbon into the atmosphere — a quarter of all fossil fuel emissions recorded for the period, [according to the scientific journal] Nature.” Although I have found no data yet relative to the number of tonnes burned into the atmosphere by Indonesian fires this year, I think it safe to say the amount forms a sizable portion of the world’s total carbon footprint (with much of it, obviously, hanging in the air over my head!).

According to the CIA’s World Fact Book, 51.7 percent of Indonesia’s total area (1,904,569 square kilometres) is forest. Susan Minnemeyer et al., in a piece for the World Resource Institute on 16th September entitled ‘Land and Forest Fires in Indonesia Reach Crisis Levels’, note that: “Fire alerts in Indonesia have spiked dramatically in recent days, surging even higher than the crisis-level outbreaks of June 2013, March 2014 and November 2014. Satellite feeds shown on Global Forest Watch Fires have recorded thousands of high-confidence fire alerts over the past two weeks, peaking at 1,189 on September 8th, exceeding the highest peaks of the last two years.”

That’s nearly 1,200 in a single day.

WRI's map of fires by district in Indonesia.

WRI’s map of fires by district in Indonesia.

The authors note that: “Burning is often used to clear land for agriculture and commodity expansion, or as a ‘weapon’ in conflicts over land. More than half of the fires are occurring on carbon-rich peat soils, causing severe smog and haze.” These peat soils can be several metres deep: as with fire in a coal seam, peat fires can burn on months, years — even centuries (and peat’s carbon dioxide emissions are more intense than those either of coal or natural gas).

Some researchers regard them “as a global threat, with significant economic, social, and ecological impact.”

“Pollution from the fires…is leading to diverted and canceled flights and widespread health impacts. In the last week, the air quality index crossed into ‘hazardous levels’ in locations across Sumatra and Kalimantan…the entire population is likely to be adversely affected, and this is considered an emergency…. Thousands of people have been reported leaving Pekanbaru in Riau Province to escape record air pollution levels.”

Of course, it is not only, and perhaps not primarily, people who are affected: “Fires in national parks and other protected areas…are globally significant [owing to those areas’] biological diversity…[they] provide some of the last remaining habitats for species such as orangutans, Sumatran elephants and clouded leopards.” Which is to say nothing of the butterflies, bees, frogs, lizards, deer, buffalo, praying mantises — indeed, the whole cornucopia of God’s creation that are being killed.

air quality 11 Sep 15 ed

Some scientists think the world’s environmental ‘tipping point’ is being reached, that we are on the verge of another mass extinction such as that 250 million years ago which wiped out 90 percent of species. It may be — and it may be that what’s pushing us over the edge is continued environmental abuse in Indonesia.

Why is it happening? So foreign investors and their local joint-venture lackeys can reap obscene profits planting palm oil plantations and exploiting the nation’s cheap labour. Hardly any country has ever been more exploited, has ever profited less from its natural wealth, than Indonesia, which, despite having the world’s 13th largest Gross Domestic Product (GDP), remains for its inhabitants an economic, social and political basket case.

It is not a country whose actions should decide the fate of the world.

Phuket News notes that, “Local weather experts are not yet willing to estimate how long the Sumatra forest fire haze will continue to blanket Phuket.” I think it reasonable to conclude that, after so many years of inaction, and increasing depredation, we should not expect help from authorities in Indonesia, from their crony capitalists who perpetrate and encourage the burning, or from peasants desperate to eke out a subsistence.

Clearly it is time to stop sitting on our hands and seize control of circumstances.

Nations affected by the irresponsible and irremediable destruction occurring there have the right, nay, the duty, to insist that this spreading disaster be stopped at once or stringent economic sanctions will follow. Trade and communications are vulnerable to easy interruption in Indonesia, which comprises 18,307 islands (922 of which are inhabited). It could be crippled economically overnight by intervention of a few modern naval vessels and supporting aircraft — I’m sure that would get their attention; and, while the military option may strike one as drastic, I aver that it is eminently preferable to allowing continued plunder and dissipation of the islands’ natural riches to no good end.

Thailand has used military might against neighbours to enforce its claims in the past, e.g., against the French during WWII. Painting shows the destruction of the RTMS Thonburi in the Battle of Koh Chang.

Thailand has used military might against neighbours to enforce claims in the past, e.g., against the French during WWII. Painting shows destruction of the RTMS Thonburi in the Battle of Koh Chang.

This is a crisis of shocking dimensions, of spreading and incalculable ill-effects. It demands to be dealt with post-haste, and in a way that ensures no future prevarication or dawdling, and certainly no return to slash-and-burn agriculture.

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