Hazy days: the smoke that’s affecting Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore

Smoke haze is affecting Indonesia, Singapore and Malaysia
Near Bengkulu, south Sumatra, October 2015

You see those rolling hills? Me neither. You know why? Because your lipstick won’t melt.

Right now 40 million people are breathing in noxious smoke. The fires that are burning across the mega-islands of Sumatra and Borneo have released about a billion tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, and are churning out smoke that’s smothering Indonesia as well as Singapore and parts of Malaysia (on some days, these fires release more emissions than the entire US economy). Don’t believe me? The pic below is the view right now from our hotel room in Kuala Lumpur. And today’s a good day.

Haze from Indonesian fires in Kuala Lumpur

Kuala Lumpur city centre, October 2015

In this part of Asia there are cities that have been choking in smoke since August. The smoke can be seen from space, and people haven’t seen blue sky, or clouds, or stars, or the sun for more than two months. Sometimes they can barely see 50 metres in front of them. Critically endangered orangutans are starving; burning; being driven from their forests by the flames that are destroying their biodiverse natural habitat. Babies – human babies – are dying from lung infections. You know why? Because your favourite cookies taste smooth and creamy. Because your chocolate looks glossy when you open the packaging. Because margarine can be left on the kitchen counter and won’t melt.

What? Give me a few seconds to connect the dots…

The lipstick that promises to stay on all day, that block of margarine, the shampoo that’ll make our hair shine, those hard-to-resist cookies – they all contain palm oil (one reason manufactures use it is because the oil is solid at room temperature). In fact, according to the World Wildlife Fund almost half of the packaged products on supermarket shelves contain palm oil. It’s big business, the palm oil industry, and every year across Sumatra and Borneo, land is illegally burnt to clear vegetation and make way for oil palm, acacia pulp and paper plantations. And it’s wrecking the planet.

Smoke from fires in Indonesia is affecting Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore

Palembang, south Sumatra, October 2015

I know this because I’ve seen it: from plane windows I’ve seen the sterile landscapes of the Malaysian and Indonesian oil palm plantations that have replaced biodiverse rainforests. My social media timelines are filled with images of pathetically helpless wildlife whose habitats have been incinerated. It’s become common for me to have conversations with people who wear masks. Our flights have been cancelled and delayed because the smoke is too thick. Mark and I have both suffered detox headaches after spending only a few days in south Sumatra and Kuala Lumpur.

Oil palm nursery in south Sumatra

The road between Bengkulu and Palembang in south Sumatra, October 2015

While my detox headache is the least of your worries right now, you might be pissed off when you book that bucket-list trip to Borneo to see orangutans, and then arrive to discover there aren’t any left.

We don’t exist in isolation and it’s time to make better choices; to become conscious consumers. I’m not suggesting we all boycott products that contain palm oil, but if you’re going to lament the destruction of rain forests and wildlife, then why not change one small thing: read food labels. Buy one chocolate bar instead of two. Choose products manufactured by companies that use sustainably produced palm oil. Cut back on foods that contain palm oil.

We might not be able to put out fires, but by carefully choosing what we buy we can start to save this planet. One cookie at a time.

People in Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore are wearing masks to protect from the smokePalembang, south Sumatra, October 2015

The GreenPalm website gives details on companies that use sustainably-produced palm oil. It’s easy to use: simply search by the country you’re interested in. If you’d like to cut back on the amount of palm oil you consume, take a look at this WWF page to see what sort of products the ingredient is used in. And if you’re into reading labels then save the image below onto your phone and refer to it when you’re shopping:

Names of palm oil in products


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