Sumatra’s Summer of Smoke

Singapore is choking on Sumatra’s smoke. The Malaysian Peninsula is smoggy, its air unsafe. Government officials blame “hot spots” in Indonesian Sumatra, referring to the rampant fires that burn through the forests and peat lands on the eastern side of the island. What that innocent term, hot spot, doesn’t convey, is that these fires are mostly manmade, mostly set ablaze by farmers clearing land for palm oil plantations.  

Since June, the quality of air in Singapore and Malaysia has been at crisis levels. Big cities like Singapore and Kuala Lumpur — centers of wealth, industry, and influence — are now feeling the effects of the torching of Sumatran rainforests. It’s awful, but it also might be the only opportunity for some serious change in the land use practices that incentivize setting forests and fields ablaze for the cultivation of palm oil plantations. The wealthy businessfolks and tourists in Singapore this summer are seeing up close and personal the problems with the slash-and-burn pursuit of palm oil plantations. They’re breathing those problems right up their nostrils. 

The Singapore and Malaysian governments have taken to chastising the Indonesian government to do something about the fires. One problem: most of the companies that the land is being cleared for are based in Singapore and Malaysia.  

And as Brihannala Morgan of The Borneo Project describes, blame isn’t so easy to assign

One of the most tragic parts of this disaster has been the (predictable) blame game around who is responsible. The government blames the small farmers, and (sometimes) the companies. The companies blame the small farmers. The small farmers, who generally very poor, land-based communities with no access to the mainstream media, just get to breathe in the smoke.

Morgan does sketch out a solution, but it’s not a quick-and-easy fix. We’re talking system wide change:

Until the Indonesian government enforces the laws (don’t hold your breath… although you may need to with all the smoke) companies will continue to use the cheapest and most expedient ways to prepare land for lucrative palm oil plantations. Land-based communities have no option other than to plant subsistence crops whereever they are able to plant. Until they are guaranteed rights to land — enough land to make small-scale swidden agriculture sustainable — communities will continue to use whatever land is available for their farms and will disregard the now impossible practices that made swidden farming sustainable.

One company that we know for sure is contributing to the Summer of Smoke: Wilmar. And, by extension — and a new partnership — Kellogg’s. Here at Forest Heroes, you can tell Kellogg’s to cut their ties with the fires, the deforestation, and Wilmar

Photo: Kuala Lumpur Haze (cc) by servus on Flickr

On August 29, 2013

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