SINGAPORE, 20 September 2019: Fires in the Amazon River region made headlines earlier this month spurring us to reflect on how we are destroying our planet and accelerating climate change.
This week the annual forest burning in Indonesia has hardly gained a mention beyond the region, but it is just as significant, and the annual destruction of forests should shame ASEAN governments.
Every year vast areas of forested land are deliberately torched to extend plantation land. The culprits are regional corporations based in Indonesia and neighbouring countries. They appear to be immune to prosecution. They prosper at our expense.
Enjoying virtual impunity, they pay villagers to set fire to vast areas of forest. It’s the cheapest way to clear land for their palm oil plantations. They view their balance sheets recording massive profits without considering the flipside; a public health disaster, tourism losses and irreparable damage to the environment.
More than 2,000 hotspots have been identified in Kalimantan province in the Indonesian portion of Borneo Island. The thick smoke or smog carries on the prevailing winds reaching as far north as Hat Yai in southern Thailand.
Fires in Riau province in central-eastern Sumatra on the coast of the Malacca straits deliver toxic smog to Malaysia and Singapore. Depending on the monsoon wind, the smog can drift north almost to Phuket bringing with it a risky AQI yellow zone
It repeats annually with varying degrees of risk to public health. In Singapore officials earlier this week said if the smog worsened it could threaten the hosting of the F1 night race 20 to 22 September.
ASEAN is sandwiched between two smog disaster zones. Indonesia in the south delivers smog in August and September while Laos, Myanmar and Thailand cause a smog crisis in the northern regions of ASEAN from February to May.
Of the 10 nations that make up ASEAN there is clear, documented evidence that Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, Laos and Myanmar are guilty of allowing corporations to torch national forests to make way for commercial plantations. The burning of vital natural forest cover, whether in the Amazon or ASEAN, is a disgrace. Greed poisons our planet for profit.
Earlier this year, North Thailand suffered its worst smog crisis in decades based on the burning intensity and the four-month duration that triggered a long-term health crisis.
Mae Fah Luang University in Chiang Rai completed a study that showed the smog crisis remained a health hazard from late January to mid-May. There were solid blocks of red and purple when the AQI exceeded 200, and some occasions went off the scale entirely at around 400.
The message for tourism companies is clear. Beware the 2020 smog season could repeat with a marathon performance to match or surpass the 2019 disaster. If so, North Thailand will suffer a tourism decline lasting four months. It should concern hotel and homestay owners who survive year-round on the revenue earned in the traditional tourist season November to March.
The smog threat could reduce the high season in North Thailand to just three months, November to January. That would slice off the lucrative months of February and the reasonably positive business earned in March and April. In May the rainy season brings relief with the smog levels dropping dramatically. June to mid-January are clear with AQI rates mainly in the green zone except for December when the AQI hits the yellow zone with patches of green here and there.
Long-stay visitors who make North Thailand their home during the European winter will look elsewhere for places with cleaner air, or they will cut short their stays, returning home in February rather than in March or April.
North Thailand residents should not count on local authorities or even their governors to step in and end the burning. They will argue it is too complex an issue for a single province to tackle.
It will take an entirely different approach to resolve a plight that damages health and the region’s economy. It requires Prime Ministers to intervene to establish top-level cooperation with neighbours and introduce trans-border task forces to protect a shared forest environment. Corporates who burn forests for private gain are dinosaurs. They should be named and shamed. Stiff fines should be introduced to ensure the wholesale burning of forests across ASEAN is no longer a cheap or viable option.