The Palm Oil Industry Is Choking Southeast Asia

The view from Kuala Lumpur's city center.
The view from Kuala Lumpur's city center.

For the past week, Singapore and Malaysia have been plagued with the annual phenomenon locals call “the haze” — a cloud of smoke so thick it blocks out buildings and causes sore throats, watery eyes, and even asthma attacks. The cause of this recurring summer problem? Palm oil farmers in neighboring Indonesia illegally clearing land by burning down rainforest to make room for their crops.

As an American expat in Malaysia’s capital, Kuala Lumpur, I’ve had the exciting experience of my first “haze season” this past week. I watched as the skies became a little gray and then slowly filled with so much smoke I could no longer see buildings 2 kilometers down the street. The pharmacies and convenience stores I visited quickly ran out of the recommended N95 respirators for those planning to go outside — most weren’t even stocked with the much less effective surgical masks that are popular in Asia for allergies and colds.

On the worst days, even the inside of my air-conditioned apartment smelled a little like burnt wood. I accepted a runny nose and watery eyes as inevitable. All this at pollution levels deemed “unhealthy” but not a serious risk for the general population. A few friends with mild asthma have had it much, much worse. (That picture up there? That’s the actual view from my building in the middle of the afternoon, with no filter.) Local schools have even had to be shut down because of the unhealthy outdoor air.

Naturally, Malaysians and Singaporeans have been upset about being confined indoors and the risk to their health. In some areas the haze has spiked to levels of over 700 on the Air Pollutant Index — more than twice the “hazardous” level of 300, which is deemed life-threatening to the elderly and people with existing health problems. But when local officials have demanded action from Indonesia to punish those responsible, the reaction has been, well…less than promising. First, an Indonesian official accused Singapore of “acting like a child.” Then the government changed tactics, accusing companies in Singapore and Malaysia of hiring local farmers to start fires on their palm oil plantations.

Whether or not these companies are to blame, that doesn’t absolve Indonesia of responsibility. It needs to enforce its own laws against slash-and-burn agriculture regardless of who owns the land — but this has been a recurring problem since the 1980s because perpetrators are simply not punished. At some point soon, the air will clear…but that doesn’t mean that we should forget about the haze and do nothing to keep it from happening again next summer.

It’s not just human health that’s being affected by this practice, either. Deforestation in Indonesia is contributing to climate change and driving species like the orangutan to the brink of extinction. The only way to end this practice once and for all is for people worldwide to boycott products that use palm oil as an ingredient. Even products which claim to use “green” or “sustainable” palm oil can’t necessarily be trusted and should be avoided.

Since palm oil is snuck into many household goods and often disguised on food ingredient labels, it can be a little tricky to avoid. Say No To Palm Oil has a few suggestions to help you identify palm oil in products. They also have a list of brands who often use palm oil to watch out for. If you a brand you use includes palm oil in their products, write to them and let them know why you won’t be buying their products any longer. Maybe with enough consumer pressure on the palm oil industry, this ecologically devastating practice can finally end.