Rainforest Journal

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Our haze season

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A phenomenon that is totally man-made and happens yearly in Malaysia, is the haze. The haze is basically smog caused by open burning due to clearing of vegetation for agriculture, and it is a practice done mainly in Indonesia and to a smaller extent, Malaysia, and other South East Asian nations. You want to clear off vegetation in order to plant your palm oil or crops? Want to get to rid of plant waste cheaply? Burn them. That is what these folks do, from small scale farmers to plantation companies (the main culprits).

Recently, the haze came back. It’s an annual reminder to all the inhabitants in this region that somewhere out there, the environment is being destroyed, especially in low lying or swampy terrain where large concentrations of peat can smolder on and on for weeks, emitting endless smoke.

What are the repercussions of setting fire to such flammable peaty land? Plenty, obviously. Yet some people keep doing it – those oil palm plantation companies. Hundreds of them. And that is basically it, the crux of the problem. Greed, ignorance, avarice, and evil (for them that know exactly what they are doing), these are the things we don’t want to listen or read about, but it is exactly the reasons why the haze keeps on repeating each year.

Haze levels are classified by their Air Pollutant Index readings, to show how severe they are. The most “severe” levels are the Unhealthy and Hazardous levels (above 300 API). But what does it matter to the Indonesians living near to the fires when the API can hit 1000+? These numbers are just mere technicalities. Of more importance is the effect of the haze, both long term and short term.

The haze in Singapore, Johor, and Sarawak have always been particularly bad each year, as they are closest to Indonesian Sumatra and Kalimantan, and the API has reached record levels in the past. The offenders set fire to the land, the fire spreads underground due to the VAST peat layer (a feature of Sundaland) and which makes them quite impossible to quench, the smoke rises, and the wind carries them to Malaysia and Singapore.

It may not be so bad if it is a one-off event, but this is an annual thing. It happens during Indonesia’s dry season which is from June to August, when these folks take the opportunity to clear the land as fast and cheaply as they can. They repeat this annually (from the past 20+ years since the haze “phenomenon” began), as they know people will just kick up a fuss, some affected countries will protest, and that will be all. They just don’t care. The governments merely go after a few companies, issue some fines, and the rest get off scot-free. It’s the same thing year after year. Is this a blatant corruption issue? Yes it is.

haze shrouded jungle

Haze shrouded jungle in Taman Negara. How the haze affects the rainforest ecosystem is unknown, but you can assume it’s all bad. Plus, it happens every year.

People are angry that they are choking, but many also don’t see the bigger picture. The bigger picture is that all this haze is releasing huge amounts of poisonous gases into the atmosphere which is very likely KILLING the trees and ecosystem. Vast amounts of carbon dioxide and methane get released into the atmosphere due to the annual burning, and these gases don’t just disappear somewhere.

The rainforests are probably not adapted to deal with smog that happens this frequently. It is likely interfering in some way with trees’ and plants’ ability to breathe and photosynthesize properly. And animals have a hard time too. There have been no serious studies done on how the birds are doing. Crops are certainly doing poorly, and if that is the case, what about all those trees and plants in the rainforest understory, that sustain daily on only low light levels (which will become lower with the haze)?

It’s indeed a very inconvenient truth, but the continuous decline of the earth will continue unabated, as long as the rich and powerful get to do what they like, companies continue to put profits above everything else, and the man in the street stays willfully ignorant and apathetic.

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