The forest fires that have ravaged Indonesia and poisoned the air in Singapore now have a known cause—palm oil, the same ingredient used in so many modern conveniences like preservative-laden donuts and other prepackaged grocery-store items.
Reuters reports that after a week of attempts to subdue the fires, Indonesian officials announced those blazes were most likely the fault of a handful of companies illegally clearing the land to make way for palm oil plantations.
The resulting toxic smoke has led to one of Southeast Asia’s worst air-pollution crises ever. Singapore has experienced record levels of smog and soot that require pedestrians to wear air-filter masks outside.
On June 19, the country’s Pollutant Standard Index reached an all-time high of 471. (400 is considered hazardous.)
Malaysia has shut down its schools in the south, and Indonesia has utilized seven military aircraft to water-bomb and rain-seed the disaster sites, which are all located on its island of Sumatra.
The scene over Singapore, on June 21, when air quality had 'improved.' (Photo: Nicky Loh/Getty Images)
Forest clearing is nothing new in this region. Ninety percent of all palm oil is made in Malaysia and Indonesia. While it can be sourced sustainably, it almost always is not, and manufacturing it usually includes the (illegal) burning of huge swaths of rainforests.
It’s a process that directly contributes to climate change, and decimates the natural habitats of many endangered species, such as orangutans and elephants. And as fire-starters learned this season, when it gets out of control, rainforest clearing can also endanger millions with hazardous smoke.
Because of the environmental detriment, Dunkin’ Donuts recently pledged to remove all nonsustainably sourced palm oil from its products, but scores of others have yet to follow suit. Palm oil can still be found in well over 200 international brands that range from packaged snacks to makeup products.
While the fires rage on, Singapore is expected to continue suffering under the weight of a toxic smog, which could last well into next month, effectively shutting down summer tourism in the country.
Indonesian officials state that whomever is responsible will be held accountable, but Greenpeace is calling on those palm oil producers to send in rescue help now.
Bustar Maitar, head of Greenpeace Indonesia's forest campaign, said in his public statement, “Fires across Sumatra are wreaking havoc for millions of people in the region and destroying the climate. Palm oil producers must immediately deploy fire crews to extinguish these fires.”
So far, none have heeded his call.
What should happen to the palm oil manufacturers responsible for setting the fires? Let us know in the Comments.
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