After three months of choking its own people and millions in neighbouring countries with a toxic smog, Indonesia's president Joko Widodo has finally travelled to Sumatra to investigate what is now a national emergency. The country is producing more carbon monoxide from its thousands of kilometres under Fire than Germany produces in a year and hundreds of small children and elderly have been evacuated by warship from the worst affected areas in Sumatra and Kalimantan.
The haze problem has been around for over 50 years due to land being burnt off as a cheap way of clearing it and avoiding the replanting of forests. This year fires have got out of control with an estimated 120,000 fires burning, due to an unusually dry period. With only 7 people charged so far for starting the fires, it is clear that the Indonesian government is doing little by way of punishments or fines to prevent this wholly unnecessary annual blaze.
Although half a million people in Indonesia alone have suffered from respiratory illness with reports of up to 100 deaths, agricultural Companies such as Palm Oil manufacturers and small farmers get away with lighting these fires year in and year out - causing billions of others in the region to suffer not just harm to their health but a loss to business, tourism - and with schools being closed, millions of students have been deprived of their education.
How can this be allowed to continue simply to save timber, paper and Palm Oil Companies from spending a bit more on clearing the land? The reason is that the Indonesian government is so used to taking bribes that it turns a blind eye to almost anything that is done by companies which keep its coffers full. Initially refusing help from neighbouring countries, there were so many fires blazing that even the army failed to douse the flames. Now Indonesia has finally accepted help from six other countries to battle more than 200 fires, as the smoke heads for Java, the most populous of the Indonesian islands.
The lack of concern by government ministers, who have been playing down the crisis has been shocking - vice president Jusuf Kalla has mentioned the "eleven months of clean fresh air from Indonesia" as though this was some kind of bonus. Another minister responsible for Law and Security, Luhut Pandjaitan, has laughably said that 'economic considerations' prevent the government from naming those responsible (around 50 companies are being investigated) as the courts must be allowed due process - in fact, the government has offered financial subsidies to palm oil companies, making the situation worse. The way land is allocated by local headmen or bupatis, encourages corruption too with many local people exploited as cheap labour, and too many headmen enriching themselves at the expense of their communities.
In Singapore, where the International Grand Prix was almost cancelled and international sporting events such as swimming have since been axed, ministers are fuming. Sick of the failure of the Indonesian government to impose justice and revoke licenses to companies who are known to be guilty of slash and burn policies, they have recently brought in laws to allow them to prosecute the culprits themselves - and the newspapers have exposed the fact that many of the palm oil companies are based in Singapore and owned by Singaporeans, Malaysians and Chinese.
Not only have countries lost billions economically in the region - the haze has affected Malaysia, Thailand, Cambodia, Philippines, Singapore as well as Indonesia, but the fires have led to a huge loss of wildlife including endangered species such as the Sumatran orangutans which have been badly affected.
There was little press coverage of the haze in western newspapers until the rare wildlife such as the orangutans and snow leopards started to suffer, suggesting that western sensibilities are more concerned with the senseless loss of animal life than they are with thousands of children choking on the toxic fumes or the terrible damage being done to the environment. This is an eco-disaster on the scale of the recent tsunami, but the media is not responding to it in the same way due to the fact that the fires are not a tragic natural calamity but one that is entirely caused by individuals and companies whose motive is financial and whose care for their community and the environment is nil.
What we can do is encourage governments to label palm oil in products so that we know what we are buying. Palm oil is used in 50% of processed food as well as in chocolate, make-up and biscuits. We can boycott companies such as Mars, Starbucks and Heinz which use unsustainable palm oil, paper products or wood from Indonesia. We can name and shame these big companies in much the same way as the fashion industry was shamed into improving conditions for factory workers in Bangladesh. Only by consumers in the west doing so, can we influence the appalling behaviour of those responsible annually for forest destruction and the worst pollution in the world.
For those who have to carry on living and working in these conditions, such as my husband, now in Singapore, who suffers from asthma, this annual pollution is a nightmare. For those of us who can leave, we do, in vast numbers.