One of my favourite subjects in school was Geography. I studied  it for 6 years, and taught it as a teacher for 3 years.

My love for the subject grew when I topped the standard at 15 and 16. It was a ‘living’ subject that ignited my imagination. I saw in my mind an amazing world outside my classroom. And it’s one of the reasons I suffer from Wanderlust today.

In those formative years, I learnt about “slash and burn” agriculture. Our case studies were all from Indonesia.

 

WHAT I KNEW

With the advent of the worst haze in Singapore’s history (PSI hit 401 on 21 June), I found myself revisiting what I learnt in those early years.

This is what I remember:

“Slash and burn agriculture is the process of cutting down the vegetation in a particular plot of land, setting fire to the remaining foliage, and using the ashes to provide nutrients to the soil for use of planting food crops. 

The cleared area following slash and burn, also known as swidden, is used for a relatively short period of time, and then left alone for a longer period of time so that vegetation can grow again. For this reason, this type of agriculture is also known as shifting cultivation.” (Source: About.com)

thumbnail-1.phpWe studied “slash and burn” as a method used by shifting cultivators. It was a form of subsistence farming. Small scale and sustainable. Practised in many parts of Southeast Asia, and widespread in Indonesia.

Back in the 1980s, these concepts were theoretical to me. I do not remember ever having to deal with the haze or having to wear a mask to school. My learning was not experiential.

Apparently, the haze problem started 40 years ago, back in 1972. My friend Michelle pointed me to a blog post that outlined specific years where the haze was particularly bad. Personally, I don’t remember much of it.

But 10-15 years ago, things changed. I started to feel the effects of this annual fires in Indonesia. But this year has been the worst in Singapore’s history, with the Pollutant Standards Index (PSI) hitting 401 on June 21. (>300 – hazardous)

I look back and I ask this question: What exactly has changed?

 

WHAT I KNOW 

An article in The Star has surfaced, suggesting that land ownership laws (or the lack of) in Indonesia is to blame.

Based on this article entitled ‘Why Indonesia Cannot Stop Fires and Haze‘ by Francis Ng, it’s hundreds of thousands of peasant farmers who “claim land” by burning who are to blame. He writes that until the government institutes proper land laws, this will not stop. It’s a cultural, traditional mindset.

thumbnail.php“The custom in Kalimantan is that any land cleared and occupied belongs to whoever clears and occupies it. Any land that reverts back to jungle is open to others to clear and claim. As a result, each settler clears as much land as possible although he is able to farm only a small part of it. The rest would revert back to jungle but is prevented from doing so by fires set by the settlers themselves whenever the weather is dry. So the same land is burnt year after year after year.

These are fires on low vegetation, deliberately set by hundreds of thousands of independent poor farmers who barely survive from hand to mouth, living in absolutely primitive conditions. When will it end? When somebody buys the land and converts it to permanent organised agriculture, as for growing oil palm. The land that the settlers clear and claim represent their only hope of escape from poverty.” ~ Francis Ng, The Star

He ends off his article by making this claim:

“I cannot help but suspect that the real reasons for the fires and haze were known long ago by people on the ground, but it served the purpose of the international environmental NGOs and the international news agencies to put the blame on their favourite baddies the logging and oil palm industries. So long as the problem is not examined honestly, no implementable solution is likely to be found.” ~ Francis Ng, The Star

I’ve been told by a journalist in the field that this phenomenon of “owning by burning” has been mentioned in conversations with villagers in Riau. It does happen. How widespread? We can’t be sure. Is this is the source of the haze problem? We also can’t be sure.

But the question remains for me: Has the number of peasant farmers suddenly exploded to such an uncontrollable number in the last 10-15 years that their “slash and burn” method is causing this regional problem?

sumatra-fires

While Singapore is enjoying a temporary respite from the haze, Johor is experiencing the brunt of it right now. In Muar yesterday, the Air Pollution Index (API) hit a ridiculous 750!

(The air quality in Malaysia is reported as the API, which is based closely on the PSI. Unlike the PSI, the index number can exceed 500. Above 500, a state of emergency is declared in the reporting area. Usually, this means that non-essential government services are suspended, and all ports in the affected area closed).

“Slash and burn is a method of agriculture primarily used by tribal communities for subsistence farming (farming to survive). Humans have practiced this method for about 12,000 years, ever since the transition known as the Neolithic Revolution, the time when humans stopped hunting and gathering and started to stay put and grow crops. Today, between 200 and 500 million people, or up to 7% of the world’s population, uses slash and burn agriculture.

When used properly, slash and burn agriculture provides communities with a source of food and income. Slash and burn allows for people to farm in places where it usually is not possible because of dense vegetation, soil infertility, low soil nutrient content, uncontrollable pests, or other reasons.” (Source: About.com

12,000 years is a long, LONG time. To give this some context, I was at the Mummy: Secrets of the Tomb exhibition at the ArtScience Museum yesterday, and the mummies there were 3,000 years old. That’s Ancient Egypt. Multiply that by four.

It has been somewhat manageable – even tolerable – till today. So what has changed? What is causing hot spots in Indonesia to number several hundreds, and some larger than the size of Singapore?

There are 437 hotspots in Indonesia today, nearly double yesterday's. (Source: Channel NewsAsia)

There are 437 hotspots in Indonesia today, nearly double yesterday’s. (Source: Channel NewsAsia)

 

SIZE MATTERS 

The finger is now pointing to large companies in Indonesia with vast oil palm plantations – some larger than the size of Singapore – that are clearing their land by burning.

sumatra-fire-palm-oil

Yes, it is cheaper. You set fire in the centre of the plantation and let it burn its way outwards. And with June being the hottest month in the year, this hot dry season is perfect for keeping the fires going.

ken TehI saw images of oil palms burning on Channel NewsAsia. Flames of fire licking the charred leaves and dancing from branch to branch. It’s a little curious to me that the whole tree is burning. Traditionally, farmers slash the plants first before they burn the low vegetation to clear the land.

My ex-colleague reporting from the field tells me that for some plantations, the nearby villagers say that the hot dry weather started the fires and some of the plantation owners aren’t even aware of the fires! They are desperately trying to reach them.

Maybe the situation is not as simple and straightforward as it seems. Maybe we are all trying to find one reason, one scapegoat, but maybe it’s a combination of a few.

But from aerial photos, one thing is clear: The role of the large companies cannot be overlooked or downplayed.

indonesia-forest-fire

Singapore has pressed Indonesia to name these companies responsible for using “slash and burn” as a method of clearing. The approach is to name-and-shame, and Malaysia is joining in to pressure Indonesia.

Cheap, primitive methods used by small subsistence farmers are being employed by these large companies on plantations the size of a small country. Now that is a scary thought.

Is the difference then.. SCALE?

Sometimes, what is meant for “subsistence” (farming to survive) should stay at the “subsistence” level. Imagine. What if businesses used dynamite fishing for profit? What would happen to our coral reefs and marine life?

Sharks fin was meant for the Emperor in Imperial China. Look what happened when businesses decided to turn this exclusive delicacy meant for royalty to food for the masses.

shark-fins-dna_10403_600x450

Many people do not understand this, I realise. It’s not common sense.

Always. Always. It’s cents over sense.

foreign-currencyI acknowledge that there is great value in studying Economics and Mathematics – it makes one think logically in facts and figures. But without a sprinkle of common sense, such approaches can be dangerous.

Perhaps it’s a good thing that the U.S. is setting up a 54-member task force in Congress to look into boosting the Humanities and Social Sciences.

The committee includes distinguished jurists, business leaders, artists, scholars, university presidents and politicians, many of whom offer stirring testimonials on the value of their own liberal arts training. A 61-page report, entitled “The Heart of the Matter”, has also been presented in the U.S. Congress. (Source: NY Times)

I believe that without some form of Humanities education, the humanitarian balance in decision-making will be missing. And our world would be a scary place to live in.

I know I’ve raised more questions than I have answers. But I also think that while it’s important to not complicate simple matters, it’s also dangerous to simplify complex issues.

If nothing else, this is a timely wake-up call for Indonesia. And I only pray that they will respond swiftly and with compassion for their neighbours and for their own.

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