Even as I sit indoors writing this article with all my windows and doors shut, my eyes sting, my throat is dry and itchy, and a pervasive burning wood smell seeps into my apartment filling my nostrils. Outside my tenth floor window, the scene is surreal. The skyscrapers of downtown Singapore are no longer visible although I live only about 11 kilometers (7 miles) away. Even the closer high rise apartment buildings can barely be seen. Visibility is down to about a few hundred meters outside my window.
Over the past several days, Singapore and its over five million inhabitants have been the hapless victims of the slash and burn techniques of Sumatra, Indonesia’s palm oil plantations.
The Pollutant Standard Index (PSI) measures the air quality in Singapore from a scale of 0 to 400. A PSI over 100 is deemed unhealthy and a reading over 300 is hazardous. The PSI rocketed from 155 on Monday, June 17, 2013, to 371 by the afternoon of Thursday, June 20. The elderly, the young, and those with respiratory problems have been advised to stay indoors and avoid outdoor physical activity. Face masks are rapidly disappearing off shelves all over the island as residents try to cope with the sudden deteriorating air quality.
Sumatra, Indonesia is located approximately 251 kilometers (156 miles) southwest of Singapore. Slash and burn techniques by palm oil plantations have been used for years to clear land. Ancient tropical rainforests are cleared to make room to plant palm trees. Palm oil, often listed as vegetable oil, is used in soaps, cereals, cosmetics and even biofuels. The problem may only get worse as the demand for biofuels from developed nations, like the US, increases.
In a recently updated report, the Worldwatch Institute underlines the devastation of scores of animal species like clouded leopards, gibbons, langurs, Asian elephants, and orangutans as fires continue to destroy their habitat. Indigenous populations are also at risk as their land and way of life are taken away.
Blame and finger pointing abound between Indonesian and Singaporean government agencies. According to AFP, an official of the Indonesia Forest Campaign, Bustar Maitar, insists that some of the top Indonesian palm oil plantations have headquarters in Singapore. He believes the Singapore government should enforce environmental awareness in its companies which have investments in Indonesia. On the other hand, Singapore’s minister for environment and water resources indicated Indonesia needs to name the Indonesian companies responsible for the burning of the forests. Still others, blame the small, poor farmers of Indonesia who must resort to slash and burn practices to clear the land.
Our world is dying from our own doing. We are all accountable. Indonesia needs to take a firm stance and take responsibility whether or not the companies involved are based in Singapore or Malaysia. If resources are not available to educate and monitor the palm oil plantations practices, Indonesia must seek help in its fellow ASEAN members. Stiff penalties and concerted action are necessary, not finger pointing and passing the blame.