Indonesian Fires Spread an Ill Wind

I just returned home after a three-week trip to America to learn that the supermarket chains here no longer sell my favorite brand of four-ply toilet paper. The reason? Its producer — Asia Pulp and Paper — is one of five companies being investigated by Singaporean authorities in connection with forest fires in Indonesia that have left parts of Southeast Asia blanketed in a choking, dangerous haze for weeks.

For the first time, Singapore is applying pressure to businesses that could be responsible for making its air almost unbreathable. But banning a brand of toilet paper and other paper products is not likely to curb the Indonesian fires, which have happened every fall for decades at great cost not only to the regional economies, but also to the global environment. Countries affected by the smoke are unhappy with the lack of action — despite the agreement to reduce haze pollution by addressing land and forest fires signed by all 10 members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.

Indonesia was the last to ratify it last year. Singapore and Indonesia are friendly neighbors, but the much larger Indonesia tends to view Singapore as a younger brother. A former Indonesian president called our city-state of 5.3 million people “a little red dot” years ago. Recent comments by Indonesian leaders, including Vice President Jusuf Kalla, about how Singapore should be grateful for fresh air during the 11 months when there is no haze, reflect their cavalier, almost derisive, attitude toward their tiny first-world neighbor. Singaporeans are angry at Indonesia, but many are even more determined to ensure that Singapore remains successful.

As the haze swept across the region, schools were closed, sporting events canceled and flights disrupted. Over 300,000 people have suffered respiratory diseases and other ailments. Animals were affected too, with veterinarians reporting more cases of sick pets; hundreds of Indonesia’s endangered orangutans were threatened as well. Friends told me I was especially fortunate to be away at the end of September, when the haze was at its worst and poor air quality prompted fast-food chains to stop food deliveries. Singapore’s Pollutant Standards Index reached a record high of 322 on Sept. 25. Any P.S.I. reading from 201 to 300 is considered unhealthy and a reading over 300 is hazardous.

My wife tried to make light of the situation by sending me a photo of our Persian cat wearing a pollution mask, which most Singaporeans use regularly. “I also just bought another air purifier,” she messaged me. That’s our second air purifier. The first was bought in 2013, the last time the haze was this bad.

Scientists have warned that Indonesia’s forest fires this year are among the worst on record, because of a prolonged dry season linked to El Niño. The smoky pollution is not expected to dissipate until the end of the year or early 2016. For decades, farmers, palm oil plantations and locals have been illegally clearing cropland by burning because it is far cheaper than doing it with machines. While the Indonesian police recently identified seven companies and 133 individuals suspected of starting the fires, there are few prosecutions because of conflicting rules, corruption and a lack of political will.

The Indonesian president, Joko Widodo, has visited the worst-affected areas, deployed thousands of soldiers and accepted help from foreign countries to fight the fires. He says he needs three years to solve the problem, which some analysts believe is too ambitious given its scale.

“The issues and interests behind the fires are complex and will not be resolved just by the word of one person, even the president,” Simon Tay, a law professor and chairman of the Singapore Institute of International Affairs, wrote recently, citing how powerful corporations are involved and politicians have often played down the problem. A “Jakarta-only” mind-set persists, and the fires and haze do not affect the capital, some 850 kilometers southeast of Singapore, where the rich and political elite live, he added.

Last month, Singapore’s foreign minister at the time, K. Shanmugam, accused Indonesia of showing “complete disregard for our people, and their own.”

Indeed, those most affected are the poor villagers living near the hot spots in the provinces of Sumatra and Kalimantan, where P.S.I. readings commonly soar above 1,000. It is hard to imagine what the air was like in Central Kalimantan when the P.S.I. hit a record high of 2,300 in late September. Yet many residents there went about their daily routine without masks.

In the long term, the Indonesian government has to come up with a plan to prevent forest fires and the damage they do to the environment. It already has the world’s highest rate of deforestation, losing over 6 million hectares of forest between 2000 and 2012, according to a study by the University of Maryland. Not surprisingly, Indonesia is one of the world’s largest emitters of climate-changing greenhouse gases.

And the impact on warming could get worse. Over 100,000 hectares of peat-land forests are cleared each year. The peat-lands — essentially dead plants that have remained wet under swampy conditions — are an important carbon sink. When burned, large quantities of stored carbon are released into the atmosphere. Greenpeace has called the situation “Indonesia’s carbon bomb” and estimates that the fires will emit more carbon this year than the entire United Kingdom.

This activity worsens global warming, which in turn makes forest fires more prevalent, thus feeding a vicious cycle. At some point, even the powerful Indonesians who now enjoy the relatively haze-free air in Jakarta will have to pay a price for their inaction.

Jason Tan is the associate editor of Today, a daily newspaper in Singapore.

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