Sci-fi scene: Southeast Asia is Choking

Rohit Khare (
Sun, 26 Oct 1997 16:31:07 -0800

This page 3 story today buried a historic development. Well, historic
to me, because I remember Nature's End, a 1988 sci-fi novel that
predicted almost precisely this kind of spectacular transnational
ecological collapse triggered by uncontrolled forest burning. In the
form of NYT dispatches, no less. In fact, intertwingled with
*existing* NYT coverage from the 80's that predicted this kind of
'unprecedented disaster'.

Please. Stop, get off the carousel of daily news feeding and ponder this
article in its historical context. It is a timeless warning of what we will
be living through for the rest of our lives. In SE Asia, it may be war over
forests, but in the Negev it will be war over riparian rights and in the Urals
over groundwater toxins.

It is almost fictional for its unabashed peek into dark terrors. Here it is:
greedy corporates, international paralysis, death by inches, unintended --
and intended! consequences. This episode is history in the making folks,
straight from the pages of sci-fi.

This from an unabshed technoptimist, too -- it takes a lot to alarm me.



October 26, 1997

Its Mood Dark as the Haze, Southeast Asia Aches


KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia -- Tigers and elephants are
fleeing the burning jungles. Birds are falling from
the murky skies. School children are fainting at their
desks. Ships are colliding at sea.

As a filthy haze from vast Indonesian forest fires
continues to darken the sky across seven Southeast Asian
nations, illness, ecological destruction and economic
hardship are growing.

After four months, the man-made fires, set on the
heavily forested islands of Borneo and Sumatra to clear
land for crops, are spreading rather than shrinking. And
with Indonesia suffering its worst drought in 50 years
-- a result of El Nino weather disturbances -- no one
knows how many weeks or months it will be until the
monsoon rains finally arrive to douse them.

Smoke from the fires, mingling with urban pollution, has
spread from Indonesia into Malaysia, the Philippines,
Singapore, Thailand, Brunei and Papua New Guinea.

The calamity coincides with the worst economic crisis to
hit the region in many years, darkening people's spirits
even as it shortens their daylight hours.

Like the economic slump, it could have been foreseen and
perhaps prevented. In both cases, warnings were ignored
because the money was just too good. With Government
officials and private businesses growing wealthy
together, short shrift was given to the environment.

As with the economic crisis, the government response to
the ecological disaster has been ineffectual and
hampered by corruption.

Well-connected palm oil plantation owners and
pulp-and-paper companies in Indonesia have continued
clearing land by burning off vast tracts of jungle,
seemingly immune to laws or punishment. Firefighting has
been disorganized, and villagers in some of Indonesia's
worst-hit areas say they have received little or no

"The way the government is handling the forest fires
simply shows its inability to face such crises," Emmy
Hafield, director of Indonesia's leading environmental
group, said last week. "So far, the government's
commitment is not wholehearted; it is only a token."

The immediate effects of the smog have been dramatic.
Airports have closed and flights canceled around the
region. Uncounted days of work have been lost as
factories and mines have shut down and hundreds of
thousands of people have fallen ill with respiratory

Huge amounts of overseas investment are draining away as
foreign businessmen begin to avoid the region and as
tourism -- a $26 billion industry in Southeast Asia --
declines sharply.

"The haze is not only a national disaster; it has become
an international disaster for the tourism industry,"
said Andi Mappi Sammeng, the director general of
Indonesia's Tourism Department.

Smog has dimmed the sun on beaches from Phuket in
Thailand to the east coast of Malaysia to the southern
Philippines. Hotels, restaurants and retailers in
Singapore complain of a falling tourist trade.

The longer-term costs are harder to gauge.

The fires have burrowed deep into vast peat bogs and
seams of coal, where experts say they may continue to
smolder for years. Environmentalists say that if the
drought and the forest fires continue for much longer,
and resume again when the next dry season arrives in
June, the haze could be a continuing blight.

Already it has affected agriculture, and food shortages
and rising prices are predicted. Reduced sunlight is
slowing the growth of fruits and vegetables and reducing
yields of corn and rice. The smoke is tainting cocoa
crops. Birds, bees and insects have disappeared in many
areas, disrupting pollination.

Indonesia is the world's leading producer of robusta
coffee beans, largely used for instant coffee. It is the
world's second leading producer of cocoa and palm oil
and is a major producer of rubber. All have been

The delayed monsoon and the spreading drought have been
caused by the warming Pacific waters of the El Nino
weather pattern, which has begun to affect the region
with unusual power.

"This year's El Nino was being predicted by various
experts as one of the most severe this century," said
the Food and Agriculture Organization in a report last
month. "The food supply and water situation, therefore,
is likely to deteriorate significantly."

The island of New Guinea -- including the Indonesian
province of Irian Jaya and the nation of Papua New
Guinea -- is already suffering. Hundreds of people are
reported to have died from starvation, dysentery and
influenza. Haze is slowing deliveries of relief supplies
to remote areas that can only be reached by air.
Officials say hundreds of thousands of people are in
urgent need of food and water.

If the smog lingers, the quality of life in hard-hit
areas like much of Malaysia could be seriously affected
and some foreign companies and investors -- already hurt
by the economic downturn -- could begin to avoid the

Some embassies and large foreign companies have already
withdrawn many of their employees from cities like Kuala
Lumpur, where white smog blurs the skyline and sears
throats and lungs and eyes.

William Jackson, a U.S. government medical official,
said no region had suffered through such a prolonged
bout of pollution from cars, factories and fires. "The
bad news is we just don't have the answers we need," he
said. "The data just doesn't exist."

Some doctors say there could be a severe long-term toll
on health that may not show itself for years,
particularly among the young, the old and people with
respiratory problems.

The disaster is putting a strain on the carefully
nurtured good fellowship of the region. Questions are
being raised among some of Indonesia's neighbors about
its handling of the fires, following warnings in past
years about forest burning.

"If Indonesia refuses to address its deadly pollution
seriously, its neighbors must force the issue," The
Bangkok Post said, with a bluntness unusual in Southeast

But the Indonesian government -- while issuing an
apology -- has continued to duck responsibility, blaming
the weather. And the big plantation owners have hurried
to distance themselves, pointing their fingers at small
farmers and wood thieves.

Indeed, the palm-oil producers, who have set most of the
fires, may be one of the few beneficiaries. They have
cleared huge new areas for planting, and as the disaster
has spread, palm-oil prices have risen sharply on the
world market.