I lived in Singapore for two years, and I go back to work there every summer. I love Southeast Asia. But in 2013 there was a horrible haze from fires in nearby Sumatra. And this year it's even worse. It makes me want to cry, thinking about how millions of people all over this region are being choked as the rainforest burns.
This part of the world has a dry season from May to October and then a wet season. In the dry season, Indonesian farmers slash down jungle growth, burn it, and plant crops. That is nothing new.
But now, palm oil plantations run by big companies do this on a massive scale. Jungles are disappearing at an astonishing rate. Some of this is illegal, but corrupt government officials are paid to look the other way. Whenever we buy palm oil - in soap, cookies, bread, margarine, detergents, and many other products - we become part of the problem.
This year the fires are worse. One reason is that we're having an El Niño. That typically means more rain in California - which we desperately need. But it means less rain in Southeast Asia.
This summer it was very dry in Singapore. Then, in September, the haze started. We got used to rarely seeing the sun - only yellow-brown light filtering through the smoke. When it stinks outside, you try to stay indoors.
When I left on September 19th, the PSI index of air pollution had risen above 200, which is 'very unhealthy'. Singapore had offered troops to help fight the fires, but Indonesia turned down the offer, saying they could handle the situation themselves. That was completely false: thousands of fires were burning out of control in Sumatra, Borneo and other Indonesian islands.
I believe the Indonesia government just didn't want foreign troops out their land. Satellites could detect the many hot spots where fires were burning. But outrageously, the government refused to say who owned those lands.
A few days after I left, the PSI index in Singapore had shot above 300, which is 'hazardous'. But in parts of Borneo the PSI had reached 1,986. The only name for that is hell.
By now Indonesia has accepted help from Singapore. Thanks to changing winds, the PSI in Singapore has been slowly dropping throughout October. In the last few days the rainy season has begun. Each time the rain clears the air, Singaporeans can see something beautiful and almost forgotten: a blue sky.
Rain is also helping in Borneo. But the hellish fires continue. There have been over 100,000 individual fires - mostly in Sumatra, Borneo and Papua. In many places, peat in the ground has caught on fire! It's very hard to put out a peat fire.
If you care about the Earth, this is very disheartening. These fires have been putting over 15 million tons of carbon dioxide into the air per day - more than the whole US economy! And so far this year they've put out 1.5 billon tons of CO2. That's more than Germany's carbon emissions for the whole year - in fact, even more than Japan. How can we make progress on reducing carbon emissions with this going on?
For you and me, the first thing is to stop buying products with palm oil. The problem is largely one of government corruption driven by money from palm oil plantations. But the real heart of the problem lies in Indonesia. Luckily Widodo, the president of this country, may be part of the solution. But the solution will be difficult.
Widodo is Indonesia's first president with a track record of efficient local governance in running two large cities. Strong action on the haze issue could help fulfill the promise of reform that motivated Indonesian voters to put him in office in October 2014.
The president has deployed thousands of firefighters and accepted international assistance. He has ordered a moratorium on new licenses to use peat land and ordered law enforcers to prosecute people and companies who clear land by burning forests.
"It must be stopped, we mustn't allow our tropical rainforests to disappear because of monoculture plantations like oil palms," Widodo said early in his administration.
Land recently burned and planted with palm trees is now under police investigation in Kalimantan [the Indonesian part of Borneo].
The problem of Indonesia's illegal forest fires is so complex that it's very hard to say exactly who is responsible for causing it.
Indonesia's government has blamed both big palm oil companies and small freeholders. Poynton [executive director of the Forest Trust] says the culprits are often mid-sized companies with strong ties to local politicians. He describes them as lawless middlemen who pay local farmers to burn forests and plant oil palms, often on other companies' concessions.
"There are these sort of low-level, Mafioso-type guys that basically say, 'You get in there and clear the land, and I'll then finance you to establish a palm oil plantation,'" he says.
The problem is exacerbated by ingrained government corruption, in which politicians grant land use permits for forests and peat lands to agribusiness in exchange for financial and political support.
"The disaster is not in the fires," says independent Jakarta-based commentator Wimar Witoelar. "It's in the way that past Indonesian governments have colluded with big palm oil businesses to make the peat lands a recipe for disaster."
The quote is from here:
• Anthony Kuhn, As Indonesia's annual fires rage, plenty of blame but no responsibility, http://www.npr.org/sections/parallels/2015/11/01/453141693/as-indonesias-annual-fires-rage-plenty-of-blame-but-no-responsibility
For fire data, see:
For how to avoid using palm oil, see:
• Lael Goodman, How many products with palm oil do I use in a day?, http://blog.ucsusa.org/how-many-products-with-palm-oil-do-i-use-in-a-day
First, avoid processed foods. That's smart for other reasons too.
Second, avoid stuff that contains stearic acid, sodium palmitate, cetyl alcohol, glyceryl stearate - various forms of artificial grease that are often made from palm oil. It takes work to avoid all this stuff, but at least be aware of it. These chemicals are not made in laboratories from pure carbon, hydrogen and oxygen! The raw ingredients often come from palm plantations, huge nasty monocultures that are replacing the wonderful diversity of rainforest life.
For a while, me and a couple of friends have been building a web-based team chat application. We needed such a tool, and we were looking at alternatives, one of them being Slack. We liked it, but the fact that they didn't have any self-hosted solution was a problem. We also wanted something that we could extend to our liking.
So, we had to develop our own tool, and we are just about ready to release it as open source. There is a bit of cleanup left before the release in order, including making sure that the deployment works properly.
If anyone wants to see the application in action, I've set up a test system that anyone can access. It's on the smallest Google Cloud Compute engine, so if it seems slow, that's the reason.
The reason I'm posting about it now is that I would like to know if anyone has problems using it. The deployed version uses only HTML5 EventSource for pushing messages to the browser, which has had some problems with certain proxies. If you decide to try this and any message you send remains grey, it means that the messages are not sent to the client properly. In that case, I'd love to hear about it so that I can fix the code that does the fallback to long poll.
This deployment uses Mandrill, and I can see that the messages are sent properly, but they just seem to be blocked on Mandrill's side until they're finally sent.
- Murex S.E.A.Architecture Consulting, 2005 - present
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- Sun MicrosystemsProduct Specialist, 1997 - 2001
- OmicronUnix Support, Software Developer, 1994 - 1997
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