What we can do to prevent haze in the long term

Dear friends, who else is sick of breathing in smelly, smokey, and hazardous air? Haze happens around this time of the year, almost every single year, since 1972. Did you know that? That’s 4 decades of tolerance. I know that we are quite an apathetic bunch. Too much to do, too little time to care. But come on. 40 years? 

No one, no business, no government and no country has the right to subject an entire nation’s people, animals and plants to hazardous air, whether intentionally or not. Especially not on an ongoing basis. We should not accept it as an annual occurrence. Yet, it has somehow become a yearly affair because of smog that gets blown to Singapore every year, due to illegal slash and burn practices in Indonesia. This year is the worst of all, with PSI readings as high as 400 which is in the Hazardous range.

A-gong Laksa, this is not child’s play anymore. 400 is no joking matter. 

Map1Our entire country covered in haze.

Why are they burning down forests?

If you have ever been on a day flight and lucky enough to get a window seat, you might have noticed vast areas of plantations of starburst shaped trees. They look really pretty from an aerial view, in their neat little rows and uniformity. But don’t go oohing and aahing over these seemingly wonderful fields of starburst shaped trees. These are monocultures of palm trees, the culprit of the haze that we have been forced to endure. Forests are burned down to make way for acres and acres of these “money” trees each year. 300 football fields of rainforest is cleared each hour to make way for palm plantations.

palmplantationaerialRows of palm trees in Sumatra have replaced acres of forests. Photo credit: Planetark.

Why are they called money trees?

Palm oil that the palm trees produce is used in food, cosmetics, body products, and cleaning agents (foaming agent Sodium Laureth Sulfate is derived from palm or coconut, so anything that foams is likely to contain palm or coconut oil derived ingredients). People all over the world use these products everyday, including me and you.

palmoilproducts Besides everyday consumer products that have been in use for decades, palm oil is now being used in biofuel. Producers of palm oil must be laughing all the way to the bank. Besides eating it, putting it on our skin, bathing with it, we can also use it as fuel for cars??? We gonna be rich as the Arabs!

Photo from: Arabianbusiness.com

Over 80% of the world’s palm oil comes from only 2 countries: Indonesia and Malaysia, with Indonesia topping the charts.  Imagine being the world’s largest supplier of the world’s most sought after edible oil. Yup, I heard the kachings!

Did we unintentionally cause the haze?

If we used and bought products with palm oil derived ingredients, then unfortunately, we did indirectly cause our detriment. Most of us are unaware of the cause and effect, just like me before researching for this post. But now that we know, it is not too late to stop this from happening next year (being optimistic) or the next decade (still being optimistic). Yes, palm oil products have become pervasive and it is difficult to avoid using them, but we can do it. Many people around the world have done so, even when they were not directly affected by the haze. We, as Singaporeans who bear brunt of it, should take responsibility in saying no to palm oil, no to deforestation, no to hazardous air.

What can we do?

1) Look at the ingredients label before you buy anything that may contain palm oil derived ingredients, like shower products and food. Palm oil is high in saturated fats which is not great for health,  and the foaming agent – sodium laureth sulfate is known for causing skin irritations. In any case, you’re better off without them. Corporations are always monitoring our consumption habits. Every purchase that we make or do not make is telling them what we want and what we do not want. As long as demand exists, supply will always rise up to the occasion. We need to reduce the demand for palm oil, which would decrease the demand of deforestation for palm oil plantations, which leads to a decrease in slash and burn practices, which finally leads to a decrease in haze!

2) Demand clear labeling of palm oil products so that we as consumers, can make an informed choice. Most of them hide behind names like vegetable oil, palmitate, sodium laureth sulfate(can also be from coconuts), glycereal stearate and stearic acid. The EU has established new labeling rules which will require palm oil labeling. Singapore is so much smaller than the EU. If they can do it, we can do it too.

3) Say no to Biofuel made from palm oil as it is one of the most damaging sources of biofuel. Encouraging the use of biofuel made from palm oil is driving deforestation even more rapidly. Besides, palm oil biofuel causes almost as much carbon emissions as crude oil when including indirect land use change. So in addition to polluting the air with carbon emission, we are also encouraging loss of rainforests together with its wildlife and diversity. Not to mention, our yearly haze episode. “Before 2007, the usage of palm biodiesel was close to zero. Today, worldwide, 10 percent of palm oil is directed into biodiesel, so it has grown significantly, and it’s actually supported by all these government policies”. Could there be a link between the worst haze situation that we have had in years and the increase in demand of biofuel?

suspiciousBut I really do love Hello Panda and Yan Yan!

Besides avoiding palm oil completely, we can also ask corporations that use palm oil to find sustainable alternatives by writing in to them. Many corporations have stopped using palm oil or have opted for sustainable palm oil in their products as a response to consumer’s demands. That was partly how Nestle finally got the point.

nestleGreenpeace activists campaigning against Nestle’s use of unsustainable palm oil. Photo from: Adland.tv

Sign as many petitions as you can:
The Body Shop: Stop using palm oil in your products
Nutella: Stop using Palm Oil in Nutella. Save the Orangutans!
Oreo- Stop Putting Palm Oil In Your Cookies
Arnott’s: Stop Using Palm Oil
McDonalds Restaurants: Stop using Palm Oil and Palm Oil derivatives
John Bryant, CEO of Kellogg’s USA: Use traceable sustainable palm oil only !

Share what you know with as many friends as you can. Share this post!

The Bigger Picture

When we look at the big picture, the haze that envelopes our nation for several weeks each year pales in comparison to the other problems that it brings. Indonesia has 10% of the world’s rainforests and by 2001, 99 million hectares are lost to deforestation. By burning down these forests, gigatonnes of carbon dioxide are being released into the air. This causes irreversible climate change. The weather will get hotter and even more unpredictable than it already is.

For those who care about animals and other people (i.e. those who do not care only about themselves), within the rainforests are the homes of many endangered animals like the Orang Utans, tigers and elephants. With deforestation, their homes are destroyed, with many of them being killed or burned in the process. Indigenous people who lived in the rainforests and depended on the biodiversity for their livelihood are displaced by such practices. Many cannot survive without the rainforest and are forced to get jobs as labourers in the plantations.

Click here to watch a 6 minute video which would give you an idea of the scope and scale of destruction that unsustainable palm oil brings. Image from: Paneco

Why would anyone do this?

Of course, no one would tolerate such unethical practices legally. But illegally, when there is money to be made and kickbacks to be received, some people can shut both eyes and burn an entire forest down. Half of the fire hotspots detected are in areas that should have been protected by Indonesia’s forest moratorium.

hotspotsDespite a decade of campaigning by Greenpeace, one of the largest and most visible environmental organizations in the world, and the Indonesian president’s pledge to protect the forests, the number of forests legally protected under the moratorium continues to decrease. There are problems unique to Indonesia that the entire world can see, but unless there is strong support within the government and the local enforcement agencies, the situation is unlikely to improve. It seems that the only way out is to drastically reduce the demand for palm oil products.

KKNImage from: Pojok Hukum Management

This is far from being all-encompassing and conclusive.

It is only my best effort at a summary of the haze issue that we are facing now. Hopefully, it sheds some light on the hazy situation and inspires us to do more to improve the situation. We don’t have to suffer helplessly. Even though it is unfair, unconscionable, and unwarranted, we cannot control where the winds blow. We can only do what we can, within our means to show them that this is not a joke and that we are not playing around.

Quotes by Agung Laksono:
Singapore shouldn’t be like children, in such a tizzy.
“Indonesian citizens also need to be looked after, there are hundreds.”
“It’s not what Indonesians want, it’s nature,”
“If there are, some are owned by Indonesians, Malaysians, Singaporeans,”
“We will take action if they are found responsible. But there must be a process.”

By the way, here is an interesting news article about (the now ceased and license revoked) Adam Air Agung Laksono founded. “Agung Laksono didn’t invest any of his own money into the airline, instead using money available to him through his official government position. This gave him the unfair advantage of receiving heavily regulated licenses and airport landing rights.” This airline and its shoddy management caused the death of all 102 crew and passengers onboard flight 547. I honestly do not think that anyone who has a shred of conscience would allow this sorry excuse for an airline to exist, much less become the founding person. Would I trust what someone like this says? Not a chance.

Quote of the day: “Denial, repression, projection, and blaming others are defense mechanisms, which help you try to avoid feeling guilt and shame. Blaming another person instead of looking at your own part of the problem is called projection

If you want to find out more, please take a look at the websites listed below:

http://www.academia.edu/2458435/Addressing_Transboundary_Haze_Through_Asean_Singapores_Normative_Constraints

http://www.worldwatch.org/node/6099

http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/2008/11/borneo/white-text
http://www.greenpeace.org/international/en/news/features/Down-to-Zero/
http://www.telegraph.co.uk/earth/earthcomment/3317396/Bog-barons-Indonesias-carbon-catastrophe.html
http://www.greenpalm.org/
http://www.greenpeace.org.uk/forests/palm-oil
http://www.buycott.com/campaign/354/say-no-to-palm-oil-products
http://news.yahoo.com/singapore-indonesia-no-smoking-please-155725549.html
http://www.straitstimes.com/breaking-news/se-asia/story/haze-update-indonesian-minister-hits-out-singapore-20130620

One thought on “What we can do to prevent haze in the long term

  1. Nothing frivolous about this blog post and I’ll comment here since it was your blog that originally drew me to your twitter. The rain forests are very precious and it would be good to see shared heritage of mankind translating to shared financial responsibility of mankind. Biodiversity is the result of evolution over a much longer time scale than the lifetimes of the trees and this tends to suffer when rain forest is broken into chunks. I’ve seen palm oil plantations up close in Malaysia and got some idea of the problem.

    The exporting environmental problems to one’s neighbors is, unfortunately, not unique to the Singapore haze situation (which I was pleased to learn from your tweet has been resolved). They say that wars of the future will be about water and relations between countries and their up/downstream neighbors can get very complicated. Some rivers get all the water sucked out of them before they get to the sea and it is very difficult to get salt out of land that has become salinated. I don’t know if you’ve ever come across Jared Diamond (author of Guns, Germs and Steel). He wrote a book called Collapse: How societies choose to fail or succeed that you might find interesting.

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