Students at the vocational high school in Pontianak, Indonesia always start their week with a ritual that’s familiar to many American students: a flag-raising ceremony. They line up in the central courtyard to sing the national anthem and pledge their allegiance.
Well, almost always. When over a dozen students recently fainted, the school suspended this ritual. They didn’t faint in a fit of patriotic fervor. The filthy air we were all breathing knocked them out.
A blanket of thick smoke has been smothering this port city on the island of Borneo, along with much of the sprawling Southeast Asian archipelago that makes up Indonesia, for months now. As Fulbright teaching assistants here, we’re experiencing the devastation wreaked by the fires raging across the country’s vast rainforests alongside the locals.
Classes have been cancelled, many foreigners have evacuated, and about half a million people have been quarantined in their houses. In Pontianak, particulate matter recently registered at 262 micrograms per cubic meter. That’s five time as high as levels in Modesto, California, which according to the American Lung Association has the worst air quality in the United States.
What’s causing these apocalyptic blazes? Two words: palm oil.
Palm oil — sometimes misleadingly labeled “vegetable oil” or identified with hard-to-place names like sodium laureth sulfate, palmate, stearic acid, or cetyl alcohol — is used in approximately half of all the processed products on American shelves. Manufacturers mix this ingredient into everything from soap to candy bars.
As the industrial demand for palm oil has increased, so has the illegal burning of rainforest throughout Southeast Asia. From 1990 to 2010, an area twice the size of New Jersey was cleared for new plantations.
Every year during the dry season, Indonesia’s air fills with smoke as rainforests are burned to make way for the crop. It doesn’t let up until the rainy season. And every year, the rainy season starts later and later because of climate change.
Coupled with a challenging El Nino weather pattern, this year’s dry season was among the worst ever. The rain was delayed by some two months.
Talking about the haze here is like discussing weather in the United States. When the conversation slows and people grasp for new topics, everyone reverts to lamenting the smog and wishing for rain.
There’s a certain apathetic tone to the conversation. Most Indonesians have accepted the inevitability of unbreathable air. As long as there’s demand for palm oil and few enforced regulations against illegal logging, rainforests will continue to burn and students will continue to faint.
So what can you do?
For starters, you can show solidarity by avoiding products that contain palm oil — by any of its names. But Americans consume just 2 percent of all palm oil globally. We can make a much bigger difference if we persuade U.S. companies that play a large role in global supply chains to stop selling products made with the stuff in any country.
Getting every U.S.-based company that uses palm oil to start sourcing it from sustainably managed palms would also have a big impact. According to the Union for Concerned Scientists, which keeps a list on its website, U.S. companies that haven’t yet taken this step include Pizza Hut, Domino’s, and KFC. All of those fast-food chains, by the way, have branches here in Indonesia.
The situation sometimes seems hopeless, especially when the smog blocks out the sun for months. People walk around wearing ineffective surgical masks to filter the air, and students have missed almost an entire semester of school. Many residents — and a few of us visiting Fulbright teachers — have acquired upper respiratory infections and hacking coughs.
After a long dry season, our prayers for rain are beginning to be answered. All we can do from here is call on consumers to hold these corporations accountable.
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