THOSE who were out and about yesterday around Metro Manila may have noticed an odd, dull quality to the sunlight on what was otherwise a fair and pleasant day.
While it has not yet been determined what the possible source of the gloom is – after all, Metro Manila is not exactly a monument to good air quality – there is growing concern and more than a little circumstantial evidence the haze is the result of the widespread and still growing forest fires in Indonesia. These have already been blamed for hazy conditions in several parts of Mindanao and the Visayas, where the phenomenon has even inspired a new word: “smaze,” a portmanteau of “smoke” and “haze.”
The problem is more than aesthetic; “smaze” has already interrupted airport operations in a couple of locations, most recently in Tagbilaran, Bohol, and on Saturday, the Region VII office of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) issued an advisory that air quality levels in Cebu City had reached an unhealthy range that afternoon, putting ‘sensitive’ people – the very young, the very old, and those with respiratory ailments – at risk.
Places much closer to Indonesia, such as Singapore, Malaysia, and southern Thailand, have been subjected to even dirtier skies and greater inconvenience, including the closing of schools and some businesses, interruptions to air travel, and an increase in health problems from the “smaze.”
The summer fires in Indonesia are a perennial issue for the country and its close neighbors, but this year’s El Niño climate phenomenon, the strongest it has been in years, has greatly aggravated conditions. In an update last week, the Indonesian government admitted – far too late, in our opinion – that the fires in the forests and peatlands across the country were spreading, and that outside help was needed to combat them.
Indonesian policy partly at fault
The fires are primarily blamed on palm oil companies clearing forest and brush to create new plantations, and Indonesia has even charged a number of erring companies and individual executives for violations of the law. All well and good; if violations have occurred, they should be addressed in accordance with the applicable laws. What the government in Jakarta seems less reluctant to discuss, however, is how much its own policies are contributing to out-of-control fires in their own land and “smaze” in everyone else’s.
Over the weekend, Agustin Teras Narang – the former governor of the province of Central Kalimantan, one of the areas of Borneo hardest hit by the fires – publicly complained that he had warned President Joko Widodo’s office almost a year ago of the danger of allowing slash-and-burn land clearing under the One Million Hectare Peatland Project, an initiative begun in 1995 during the Suharto era to create new rice farming areas. Narang ought to know; it was his decree while he was a governor in 2010 that clarified the number of hectares in sub-districts and villages that could be cleared by burning – a measure that his critics say is contributing to this year’s particularly difficult fire season, but which Narang says helped to reduce fires.
Although the extent of the problem was certainly unintended, the mere fact that Indonesia even still has such a quintessentially third-world program as the “One Million Hectare” project – on top of whatever fires can be attributed to the greed of the palm oil industry – at a time when the entire region is struggling with more acute climate effects is unfortunate and un-neighborly.
We in the Philippines do not want your “smaze,” Indonesia, and we are certain the citizens of the other countries affected by it would agree. The annual fires are bad for people’s health, bad for the environment, and undermine the Asean’s collective efforts to reduce climate change impacts, and hold to account polluters among the developed economies.