The here and now and a bit of way back then

I relived my journey to 40 and found there's so much more to say

#Xthehaze – We Breathe What We Buy

The atmosphere has been a bit unpleasant in Singapore lately. Nothing to do with the General Elections that took place yesterday.

The atmosphere I’m talking about that is hanging over Singapore is something we can all influence. We just don’t know that we can.

The Haze has once again descended over Singapore. An annual event that can rear its ugly head to a greater or lesser extent. In the seven years that I have lived in Singapore, this is the third time that I have experienced such an extreme change in the air quality which is generally very good here.

October 2010 was the first time I came across the word Haze and even then it didn’t leave much of an impression. I was more confused over how I could go out for a couple of hours and return home to find my kitchen was covered in a layer of soot. How was that possible? I cleaned it up, grumbled a bit and that was that.

Until June 2013 when the Haze hit hard. It descends like fog and hangs heavy in the air with a lingering smell of burning, much like being out on Bonfire Night. Except the air is hot and humid. Your energy levels feel drained, your eyes feel itchy and your throat becomes dry and irritable. You become irritable in fact. Irritated that you can’t go outdoors, swimming lessons and outdoor pursuits get cancelled, the kids can’t go to the playground or park and when it starts affecting your health and that of your children then naturally people start to get angry and concerned. The shops ran out of face masks, people who can leave Singapore take the opportunity to do so and question is Indonesia to blame for it all.

But then just as suddenly as it arrived, the Haze disappeared after a week and once you could see Marina Bay Sands, all becomes well again it seems.

Until the Haze returned last week. Causing a storm in the news and on internet forums about what is it, where does it come from, are we safe, how can this happen, why isn’t the government doing anything about it, why isn’t Indonesia doing anything about it, should we leave Singapore for good, what is palm oil, boycott all palm oil products, never buy anything from Nestle.

The Haze is air pollution caused by land clearing activity in Indonesia and Malaysia. Forests are burned down as the quickest method to make way for growing crops, mostly palm oil crops which is commonly labelled as vegetable oil in food items. Peat is the soil that is found nourishing the tropical rainforests, it is made up of decayed plant matter and forms boggy peat swamps. Unfortunately, there is a lot of deforestation going on in the tropics, natural peat swamps are being drained of water for agricultural purposes. When dry peat catches fire it can smolder for days and be difficult to extinguish because of how many metres deep it lies in the earth. Then when the fires get out of hand and burn for weeks and the wind carries it a certain direction and it affects a whole neighbouring nation it becomes a bone of contention again.

Singapore, and Malaysia even, suffer the consequences of the irresponsible actions of Indonesia who seemingly are doing nothing to stop the matter. How selfish of them. Don’t they know how harmful their actions are to our health? To our children’s health? Don’t they know how badly they are affecting our quality of life? How can they just erase the rainforest like that? Don’t they care about the orangutans? And so we rant on.

And yet, is it really all Indonesia’s fault? Are we totally innocent bystanders here? Why is the land being cleared? What are they using the land for? To grow palm oil crops? Let’s all avoid palm oil I’m never buying anything with palm oil in the ingredients ever again. Boycott Nestle and all other big name brands. Switch to other oils. What can we eat then? What do you mean it’s in my toothpaste and favourite shower gel and shampoo? But I recycle and buy organic, how can I be harming the environment and leaving the rhinos homeless? I’m so confused!

And it is a confusing issue. It is a complex issue. It is not one that will be solved overnight by one NGO, one company or one country. It needs to be driven by a whole global consumer movement where knowledge is power to create an effective market shift change that will ensure all sides receive mutual benefit. Consumers are safe in the knowledge they are buying sustainable products, companies can still turn around a profit using sustainable resources, local communities thrive through growing crops in a sustainable way. Is this a lot to ask for? Perhaps. But it’s about time we found a way to make it happen.

And how could it happen? Well firstly to know that yes, the forests are being burnt to make way for palm oil plantations. But palm oil is not the evil here. Palm oil is a very useful oil as is already proven by the multitude of uses it has. You can find it in lots of food products that has vegetable oil as an ingredient. This makes it difficult to avoid because most products will not have ‘palm oil’ labelled as such so you can’t easily avoid it. But should we avoid it and feel better buying products that uses only sunflower, soy, coconut or rapeseed oil instead? Consider the effect this would have if we boycotted palm oil altogether. The same products that need oil would need to find alternative types of oil instead and so wouldn’t this be like creating the same problem in a different guise? So far palm oil is proving to be the most effective crop per hectare in the amount of oil it yields compared to the other oils mentioned. So that is why it is best not to say let’s not have palm oil altogether.

Deforestation is a big issue in Indonesia, the rainforest is rapidly decreasing and along with it the natural habitat of wildlife species such as the tigers, rhinos, elephants and orangutans. Does this matter? Does it matter if you live thousands of miles away? Yes it does. Because we share this earth with many species and who says one has precedence over the other. The other issue is that as a whole, we are consuming the Earth’s natural resources far quicker than the Earth is able to replenish them and so it’s time to take responsibility for our actions.

Indonesia is the biggest supplier of palm oil. The production of palm oil provides indigenious communities with much needed livelihoods. If this was taken away what would happen to the future of these communities? How would they live? Considering it’s mostly the developed countries who demand the need for palm oil the most, it’s a bit unfair to chastise and hold back a country when it’s our demand that is driving part of the problem. So how can this be solved? By being better informed on the how and the why. Then lending your voice to the what can be done about it.
WWF are leading a campaign to Stop the Haze by raising awareness of what causes the Haze and how it can be stopped. Eventually. You may have seen the campaign We Breathe What We Buy doing the rounds on social media. The campaign clearly outlines how the Haze is caused, what is palm oil, what does it mean to demand sustainable palm oil and what can we as consumers do to help make this change. 
I’ve seen some scepticism about whether switching to sustainable palm oil will make any difference. Well the definition of something being sustainable is that it doesn’t cause long term harm to the environment or to people. Wouldn’t that make you feel better? And if you needed further proof, if you take a look at a map of where the fires are burning, you will find it is coming from unsustainable palm oil plantations only.

And if hundreds of kilometres away we complain how awful the Haze is affecting the air quality in Singapore, can you imagine just how detrimental it is to the communities who live right by these plantations in Indonesia. Is it fair to them either?

This is a really important issue to support and even though you may never have to feel the effects of this kind of Haze before, please support from the perspective that as consumers of products that contribute to the problem then we should all share the responsibility to find a way out of it. The farmers can only supply what there is a demand for. Will the companies voluntarily demand sustainable palm oil if there’s no need for them to do so because their consumers don’t know to ask for it? Some do to be fair and that’s great news and a good start to prove to other companies that it’s not going to affect their profit margins. But not enough are and farmers are willing to supply sustainable palm oil but there needs to be a guaranteed market for it. So until consumers start shouting out to all the companies that they know they can do better at this game then they’re not going to change.

So please, let’s all do our part now. For all the good reasons. To consume less that will reduce demand. To demand what is sustainable. To provide local communities a good source of income. To get corporations to act more responsibly.

Please sign the pledge the following link will take you to:
(And Yes, I’m back in Gainful Employment with WWF Singapore.)


%d bloggers like this: