Here in Malaysia the skies have been heavy with smoke-haze and even the most smoghardened veterans of L.A. on our crew are finding it daunting. The haze, what the locals here call Jerabu, is a direct result of C0-2 rich peatland burning out of control on the island of Sumatra (western Indonesia and Borneo).
As we wake up each day and check the haze index — anything over 200 is unhealthy — no one seems to really look beyond the haze to question just what’s going on over there in Sumatra. I didn’t at first either. I was somewhat satisfied, even if annoyed, with the report of fires burning somewhere over in Indonesia. But as the Platters once sang, “Smoke gets in your eyes” day after day and you start to think “this is too damn unnatural.”
Here’s what’s behind the haze, the jerabu, the waiters at outside cafes wearing blue masks as they serve martinis to coughing patrons (who would be really smart to wear blue masks):
Pulp, paper, and palm oil plantations, run by big-scale companies, are expanding their operations at a frenzied rate. Environmental research groups suggested that these companies are deliberately setting fires, or recruiting locals to set fires, to the forested coastline. Once burned down and smoldering, the areas are proposed for corporate expansion. And instead of going to jail, the corporations are hailed for being resourceful. “Shit, the jungle burned down. But we’ll step in and plant some palm trees.” Meanwhile, it’s taking a cardiovascular and respiratory toll on people as far away as Singapore, and schools are forced to close down some days. Last Thursday, I saw a marching line of little ones wearing blue masks and carrying lunch boxes to school like something from a trendy dystopian movie that stretches credibility.
So much for the strict Indonesian plantation laws. I wanted to know what these were and did some asking and learned that any company found guilty of burning land can be fined up to US$700,000 and face 10 years in jail. This was enforced earlier this year against a big palm oil producer, a verdict celebrated as a huge win. But it’s apparently not a deterrent to the corporate swine who then get village kids to torch the coastline peat and clear some real estate for more plantation. Why not a deterrent? From what I hear there’s a close relationship between the private sector and the government. That’s how it was explained to me: a close relationship between the private sector and the government. Copy that.
So it’s infuriating when one considers not just the human cost on Indonesia, Singapore, and Malaysia, but the reckless loss of habitat occurring on one of the most magnificent jungle treasures in the world.
Marco Polo (did you really think I’d leave him out of this?) created the name ‘Sumatra.’ He was the first European to visit the island and in his later writings he corrupted the name Swarnadwipa (which means Island of Gold) into the name we all use today: Sumatra.
To study Marco’s writings about the island is to imagine Sam Worthington in Avatar, especially when he came across a most magnificent creature with “hair like that of a buffalo, feet like those of an elephant, and a horn in the middle of the forehead, which is black and very thick. The head resembles that of a wild boar, and they carry it ever bent towards the ground. They delight much to abide in mire and mud.”
Marco goes on to say how thrilled he was to have come across a unicorn. Of course, what he was talking about was Dicerorhinus sumatrensis– the Sumtaran Rhinoceros. Unicorn or rhino, today the species is nearly extinct with less than 99 left. As of this posting who even knows?
Only 30 years ago Sumatra was not that different from the land Marco Polo explored; it still teemed with orangutan, elephants, rhinos, tigers, and ridiculous bird life. No more. In a single generation, illegal forest burning has decimated a veritable paradise.
In a single generation, this third-largest-swath of rainforest in the world has been felled for the production of our vegetable oil, margarine, and toilet paper.
So when I walk out at sunrise tomorrow and head to the studio, wearing a bandanna Jesse James-style to protect my lungs, I’ll try not to blow it off as “just the haze.” Because what’s really happening out there is no small thing. When someone next asks me “what’s up with the smog,” I really feel I need to say it: One of the 21st century’s greatest ecological disasters.
That’s what’s causing the jarabu.