Against the Tide: The Political Ecology of the Fog

Irritation and frustration are two necessary ingredients for change. They nurture civil society actors to relentlessly push for positive change. Our frustration and irritation at having to tolerate haze almost every year should lead to such change, provided we are sufficiently informed about the various causes of the problem and united in our ability to urge those with power and influence to develop political will and action.

Transboundary haze pollution, an almost annual phenomenon in the region since 1982, occurs during the southwest monsoon season between June and September, and is exacerbated by periods of dry weather. The haze is affecting several countries in our region apart from Malaysia. The hardest hit are Malaysia, Singapore, Brunei and even the main culprit, Indonesia.

If we don’t, a possible scenario for Southeast Asia by the end of this century might look like the following excerpt from a regional newspaper article in the 2090s: that about 50 million people will die of hunger. to death in the first half of the 22nd century due to the global shortage of food supply. Despite great advancements in biotechnology and various agricultural sciences, one thing that seemed impossible to provide but is essential for growing food is clean skies. Since the 1990s and until the 21st century, forest fires have gradually wiped out the great tropical forests of the Malay-Indonesian archipelago. An additional feature of this tragedy is the near-permanent gray skies shrouding virtually the entire region and spreading over parts of Western Australia and southern India over the past 30 years, euphemistically referred to as the ‘haze’ in the 1990s and 2010s. Fires destroy forests and acid rain destroys crops…”

Some people may laugh at this scenario and dismiss it as too unrealistic and alarmist. But others have realized that smog is a global disaster and an international catastrophe. For example, between 1990 and 2005, Indonesia lost 28 million hectares of forest. Its rainforest cover has fallen to 49%, down from 82% in the 1960s. It is precisely this kind of alarmism that is essential if we are serious about protecting our planet.

The first thing to realize is that our ecology, which involves the interaction between man and the environment, is not without its political dimensions. Ecological issues are not exempt from the interplay of political forces. In this regard, there are central issues facing the ecology of Southeast Asia. The first is that environmental issues such as smog are intimately tied to politics. Second, the solutions to such ecological disasters are no less political than technical.

Politics must bear some of the blame for the smog as greed and poor forest management led to the Sumatra and Kalimantan wildfires. It is estimated that in the 1990s around 80% of fires started in oil palm plantations, which then spread to adjacent forested areas. These areas had been heavily logged over the years and therefore burned very easily. In addition, the conversion of forest to areas of cash crops meant that the cheap technique of slash and burn was used to clear the land, increasing the risk of out of control fires. Nowadays, a lot of land is being cleared for pulpwood plantations.

Companies believed to be involved in the clearing practices responsible for the fires, however, blame the traditional slash and burn method used by smallholder farmers. This is highly unlikely to be the case as the traditional slash and burn method is used to clear very small areas of land in a way that respects and preserves the environment. Rather, it is the big logging companies, which are said to have close ties to high-level politicians or public figures, who have been accused by environmentalists of burning forests, instead of resorting to the more expensive alternatives of clearing. mechanical or manual or the use of chemicals. Moreover, these conglomerates make profits and pass on the costs of health consequences and various ecological losses.

The World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) has pointed the finger at large logging companies and plantations. Many of Indonesia’s wildfires have also been started deliberately as “a weapon in social conflict” used by big business to drive out smallholders and by smallholders to retaliate against what they see as injustice, according to a report of the International Center for Research in Agroforestry in Bogor, West Java. All of this suggests that the problem is far from a natural disaster. Far from it the idea for nature to inflict such evil on itself.

To the extent that this political dimension of smog implies a role for civil society politics, we are then faced with two other problems.

One is the lack of alarmism. There seems to be a lack of alarmism about the severity of short-term and long-term damage to health caused by smog. The region’s press has generally not referred to the smog as a regional health disaster, although experts have warned us to that effect. In Malaysia, medical experts have been warning for years that smog has serious short- and long-term health consequences.

The dangerous elements of smog include deadly substances such as carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide, ozone and lead. Short-term effects include dizziness, memory problems, irregular heartbeat, and nervous system damage. Long-term effects include low birth weight offspring, infant mortality, and low infertility. The effects of sulfur dioxide and lead have also been reported. Some estimates of health effects were very alarming. Professor Anthony Hedley, a pollution scientist at the University of Hong Kong, compared the effect of smog to millions of people in Southeast Asia who started smoking and predicted tens of thousands of illnesses, including cases of chronic bronchitis, emphysema, diseases of the blood vessels in the head and pulmonary and cardiovascular diseases.

The other is the problem of anthropocentrism. What is quite alarming in everyday discussions of smog as well as media coverage is the lack of interest in the broader ecological dimensions of the disaster. In other words, the media coverage of the mist tends to be limited to its effects on human beings, hence its anthropocentrism. Even after several years of smog, the public seems little aware of the extent of the environmental degradation perpetrated by the wildfires and the long-term consequences on the ecosystem of Southeast Asia and on the global climate.

The massive amount of carbon dioxide released by forest and peat fires in Indonesia will contribute to global warming by increasing the rate of greenhouse gas emissions. Bees and plants have been reported to have been affected by smog in Malaysia. Several years ago, agronomist Zakbah Mian of the National Apiary Center in Johor explained how lack of sunlight during foggy periods affects bees’ ability to feed. Bees usually leave their hives at dawn. During smog, however, they will wait until the afternoon when visibility is better. With fewer hours to forage for food, their growth is affected. In addition, smog also reduces the supply of nectar and pollen, which is essential for bees.

The smog reveals to us the dark side of industrialization, development and the so-called Asian miracle. To the extent that there is a political dimension, it follows that the solution is also political. The only way to prevent this environmental disaster from happening again is if the governments and people of Southeast Asia don’t just admit that the haze is man-made smog.

It must be seen as an international ecological disaster. The region must collectively take responsibility for this so that governments, the media and citizens can work to ensure that this does not happen again. If we are not vigilant about our regional ecology, which constitutes one of the oxygen lungs of the world, the Asian miracle of the 20th century will become the Asian curse of the 21st century.


Syed Farid Alatas is a professor of sociology at the National University of Singapore