Travellers throughout certain parts of south east Asia have in recent weeks faced disrupted or cancelled flights, rerouted travel plans, smoke filled landscapes and other minor inconveniences that are minor symptoms of an ecological catastrophe known as the Haze. A catastrophe that is going largely ignored on a local and global scale.
A few weeks ago in Indonesia, one of my planned trips to Kalimantan to visit an Orang Utan sanctuary was cut short due to the haze. This was an annoyance at the time but of course plans were changed and I along with everyone else did other things instead and simply got on with the rest of our trip.
That’s what you do right?
As a traveller it was a part of the trip I had been looking forward to and of course it was disappointing that I wasn’t going to experience it, but things don’t always go to plan when you are backpacking and a big part of being a traveller is learning how to adapt and change to those situations. That wasn’t the problem.
The bigger problem for me personally was the level of apathy or even ignorance of the reasons why, not just from other travellers on the ground, but the worlds media too.
Yes I missed my chance to see Orang Utans in Kalimantan, but those very same Orang Utans very existence across both Indonesian and Malaysian Borneo is being threatened partly because their habitat is being razed to the ground. Which is more important here?
Vast swathes of Indonesia is currently burning on an industrial scale, increasing clouds of smoke and smog into the air that are large enough to choke the life out of large parts of Indonesia, Singapore and Malaysia. It costs billions of dollars to the respective economies of each country, causes countless respiratory diseases and even deaths, and is a huge contributor to the destruction of countless wildlife habitats and puts already endangered species such as the Orang Utan at further risk.
This environmental disaster is colloquially known as the haze. It happens every single year. And it is both deliberate and premeditated.
An environmental disaster.
Every single year vast tracts of jungle and farmland are systematically burned to the ground. It isn’t just the trees and grass that burn, the ground across much of the jungle in Borneo itself is largely made up of combustable peatlands, and can keep the fires burning for weeks if not months and make them almost impossible to control.
These fires release levels of CO2 and toxic gas into the atmosphere in a short period of time than many western nations do in a year, and that creates a cloud of toxic smog known as the haze.
And this isn’t just an environmental disaster it is a very human one too, with hundreds of thousands of deaths every single year attributed to the haze, and negative health effects for countless others.
Why does this happen?
It happens because the huge and powerful logging, paper and palm oil companies want to expand their empires even more and clear even more land for their destructive industries, and let’s not waste any time bullshitting here, they set these fires purposely either through direct or indirect means. I’m not having any of this absolute crap that they ‘may’ in some way be involved and it needs to be investigated that the respective governments and powers that be peddle every single year. They are involved. They are the ones who are doing it. And they get away with it frankly because of the huge sums of money involved. Or is it just all a huge coincidence that these companies move in to expand into the burned down areas of rainforest as soon as the fires are put out?
The haze is caused by the logging, paper and palm oil industries, and is effectively sanctioned by successive and numerous governments who are too incompetent, too corrupt or too complicit to do anything about it.
This is illegal deforestation on an absolutely industrial scale.
The federal system of government allow powerful elite local governments who have vested interests to control and veto any legislation aimed at curbing destructive practices, and this is not a new thing. It has been happening for the past two decades at least and creates the perfect storm for cronyism and corruption.
Government support and subsidies for the palm oil industry in particular, and weak lip service in catching and convicting those involved ensure that this will continue for the foreseeable future. Despite technically having extremely strict plantation laws, very few convictions have been made, or even sought for that matter, against those industry heads responsible for these environmental crimes.
A lack of interest?
And yet what do we do about it? We put on little surgical masks handed out at hotels and major airports and roll our eyes at how it affects our travels. I have spent a lot of time in Singapore and Malaysia in recent years, and every single year the haze has a negative impact in some way. It happens so frequently and so intensely that so many people simply view it as normal.
Television adverts calmly give out public health warnings in Kuala Lumpur that citizens should wear their masks or set their car’s air con units to not utilise outside air. Surgical masks are given out as if they actually make any difference and everyone grumbles about how their lives are being disrupted.
News reports state how tourists experiences are being affected by the haze, tourism industries bemoan the fact that their image and their bottom line are being affected.
I’ve heard plenty of backpackers and travellers complain about their cancelled flights, their ruined trips, the obscured views of the cityscapes that they had travelled to see. I have heard no one complain about the scale of the widescale environmental destruction that is taking place.
Wake up people. This is about more than your cancelled flight. Major industry is being allowed to destroy some of the worlds last primary rainforest for pure, simple greed.
What can we do as travellers about this? Sadly very little. There are of course actions such as boycotting products or companies that use palm oil,but it is so widespread and so ‘hidden’ in many ways I understand completely the complexities in taking such an action and honestly I’m not even sure it’s possible. The best thing we can do as travellers for the moment is make ourselves aware of these issues, to spread the word. To make people understand what is going on and that it is wrong.
And that is what I hope to achieve, even in a small way, here. Will it make much difference? Probably not.
I don’t know what the answer is. I really don’t.
I just wish the media would pay more attention to what is one of the biggest environmental crimes of our time. I wish more people were aware of the issues around why their flight is cancelled again or why they suddenly can’t see three feet in front of them. I wish more pressure was put on the respective governments to get off their arses and do something about it! But of course nothing will happen until these industry heads are truly brought to justice and removed from society (by whatever means deemed just) and the industries themselves systematically dismantled. Slaps on the wrist and tiny fines simply won’t cut it.
What do you think about the haze? Has it affected your travels recently? I would love to hear your thoughts in the comments section below or on my Facebook or Twitter pages and please feel free to share it with any or all of the social media buttons. If you want to get more great backpacking tips, advice and inspiration, please subscribe to updates via email in the box to your right.