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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Asian Haze

Air Date: Week of

Huge fires continue to darken skies over Southeast Asia, choking millions of people. Laura talks with BBC correspondent, Jonathan Head about the origins of the fires, and response to them.


KNOY: This is Living on Earth. I'm Laura Knoy, sitting in for Steve Curwood. In Southeast Asia, huge fires continue to burn on, darkening skies over 6 island nations: Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, the Philippines, Brunei, and Thailand, and choking millions of people. Indonesia's farmers stand accused of the crime because during the dry season they traditionally clear crop land with fire. But larger forces are at work this year. For starters, the global climate engine, El Nino, is at a 50-year peak. This warming Pacific current disrupts weather patterns worldwide and has brought severe drought to the region. As the BBC's correspondent in Jakarta Jonathan Head tells me, satellite pictures show that agribusinesses gobbling up land in former forest areas are largely to blame, and along with them the Indonesian government's economic policies.

HEAD: This is a rapidly developing country. It's in the sort of dynamic Southeast Asian sphere of economic growth. The government has been making a prolonged bid to pull the country out of its underdeveloped status and become a much more prosperous country. And one of the methods they've used is to encourage the conversion of forested land into productive land: into plantations for rubber, cocoa, palm oil. This has been expanding very fast, and a lot of big businesses have been going into what were forested areas that have already been logged, and trying to convert it. And they're burning on a massive scale. We've got hundreds of thousands of hectares of land still on fire at this moment.

KNOY: You've been to one of the centers of the fires, in Kalimantan. Tell us about that. What did people say to you there?

HEAD: Well, I've been to Kalimantan and Sumatra, the two worst affected areas, and it is absolutely devastating on life there. I mean, people are used to smoke and fires each year, and it's certainly been bothersome for them before. It's caused sort of problems like breathing difficulties and eye irritation. But nothing like on the scale of this year. They're living in a permanent gloom. I mean it's as though the sun never rises; all you have is this ghastly yellow glow through a thick smoky haze. You can never see more than about 20 or 30 yards in front of you. And in one town I was in, in Sumatra in Jambi, there were hundreds of people lining up outside the main medical clinic every day, many of them mothers with young children, coughing away, their eyes red. Really seriously distressed. I was in Jambee for only two and a half days. I've been coughing ever since. My eyes were very, very sore when I was there. All I can say is, if that's what this has done to me in 2 days, what about the poor people who have been living in this for more than a month?

KNOY: Are people talking about the long-term health effects?

HEAD: They're a little in the dark over this because nobody's really experienced massive smoke from forest fires before. But we do know that what are called particulates, small particles from combustion, either from petrol or from any carbon product like wood, when they get into lungs they are known carcinogens. They do cause lung cancer. And the irritation they cause and the constant coughing can, if untreated, lead to very severe long-term respiratory infections.

KNOY: What's been the Indonesian government's reaction to these fires getting so out of control?

HEAD: Well, they're very embarrassed about it this year, because it's had such a devastating effect on their neighbors, let alone their own people. But so far, there's not really any sign of a coordinated action plan to try to stop it.

KNOY: What about the neighboring governments, whose people have also been very badly affected by the smoke?

HEAD: Well, I think they're a lot more angry than they're letting on. You have to remember, there's a very strong tradition among the Southeast Asian nations of not openly criticizing each other, but I think that principle is being tested sorely by this environmental problem. Malaysia in particular has suffered very severely as a result of this smog. And while the Malaysian government is trying to be as polite and cooperative as possible with its Indonesian counterparts, Malaysian citizens and some opposition politicians are shouting from the rooftops saying, "You should impose sanctions on Indonesia. You should stop this practice." And I think privately they're probably putting a lot of pressure on their Indonesian colleagues.

KNOY: Jonathan, as a westerner, have you observed cultural differences in how the Indonesian culture has dealt with this crisis and how a western culture might react to an event such as this?

HEAD: Well, I think the tradition of not challenging authority here has been a problem. This is essentially an authoritarian system. The government acts as a kind of big brother or father figure, especially in local areas. There's not a very strong or dynamic media, there's no way in which people can really protest. And they've just tended to sort of shrug their shoulders and accept it as their fate, although they are beginning to get angry at what's happening. We are seeing the newspapers saying this is a national disaster, ministers ought to resign. And I've never seen that before.

KNOY: You mention this tradition of not challenging authority. How does that work with another tradition of looking after the group, the health and well-being of the larger group?

HEAD: Well, it is a very strong tradition, the tradition of the community here, and it's one that's often cited by Southeast Asian governments. I have to say my experience, while that is quite important--people feel very strongly they're belonging to a group--their behavior as development takes over, and as Indonesia modernizes, is much more akin to western individualistic behavior now than it used to be. Communities are changing fast, breaking down. Values are changing. This is no longer strictly a traditional society except in very rural areas. Java, the most populated island, which has a population of 120 million, that's about 60% of the population, is now 50% urbanized. So, I think all this talk about the value of the community and so on, it's there still as a value but it's breaking down fast. And Indonesia needs to embrace some modern methods and modern attitudes of damage limitation in what is becoming a modern society.

KNOY: Well, Jonathan, thanks a lot for talking with us.

HEAD: That was my pleasure.

KNOY: Jonathan Head is a correspondent for the BBC. He talked to us from Jakarta, Indonesia.



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