PARADISE BURNING: Southeast Asian Haze the Worst in History

By | October 7, 2015

Paradise1As schools here in Malaysia remain closed for a second day due to ‘the haze’ — a rather soft euphemism for toxic pollution coming from burning rain forest — the new issue of TIME Magazine quotes NASA as proclaiming this current event as among the worst in history. United Nations have declared this thing “an ecological disaster for the world.”

In my last post I pointed out that the fires are occurring in Sumatra, an island in Western Indonesia. This rain forest, the third largest in the world, is being set afire to clear land. All of the blame is falling squarely at the doorstep of palm oil companies and their apparent friends in government.

While I wear a mask daily outdoors and recognize the hazard for fellow humans, my heartbreak also continues for the incredible wildlife of Sumatra being destroyed along with the island forest.

Paradise2It wasn’t that long ago that some 1,500 orangutans were clubbed to death by workers after they wandered onto palm oil plantations (Vice News, July 4, 2014). The yearly burning of forest has caused the death of more than 50,000 orangutans in the past two decades.

Orangutans are among the most intelligent primates and have been extensively studied for their learning abilities. Some researchers believe that there might even be distinctive cultures within populations. No wonder their name Orang Hutan was originally used to refer to forest dwelling humans. Today, the Sumatran Orangutan is on the Critically Endangered List. And yet plantation workers clubbed to death 1,500 of them for trespassing?

Paradise3Last night I decided to reach out to Jessica McKelson of the Sumatran Orangutan Conservation Program. Ms. McKelson believes that the current fire crisis is worse than the historic 1997 fires. Connecting directly with someone who is there, on the ground, and active in trying to save a species, was painfully enlightening. While McKelson is obviously no fan of the giant palm oil monoculture — the orphaned orangutans she cares for are victims of palm oil development — she told me that the main issues are not necessarily just with the big palm oil companies.

Smaller scale operations are also to blame, she states. “Many smaller operations are lighting fires to encroach in areas and of course this is not being looked at, and the law is not being enforced to stop them.” But McKelson believes that the big palm oil companies should be pitching in money to help stop the fires rather than turning their backs.

Paradise5And that’s the crux of the immediate solution: Funding. “At the moment funds are desperately needed to be raised to fight fires both in Sumatra and with our friends in Kalimantan,” says McKelson. “Along with raising funds for fires, we also think that getting the word out to all that these fires are dangerous for people and the entire world as it is releasing massive amounts of methane gas. Pressure needs to be put on the Indonesian government through media and other forms – that what they are doing to curb the fires is not good enough. They are only tackling a small part and we need all countries — an International issue really — to get this under control. Along the way, people need to be prosecuted and the legal side of things taken seriously so it has a chance to stop.”

Meanwhile she says, as she cares for 52 orangutans that she calls “the little red heads” at the refuge: “pray for rain.”

*If you wish to help the last orangutans of Sumatra survive this current disaster, as little as $5 makes a difference. From $65.00 you can adopt an orangutan through the SOCP and contribute to medicine, veterinary care, food, and rehab. Click of a button at