Southeast Asia — A report from the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) links unsustainable palm oil production practices with significant air pollution in Southeast Asia in the form of debilitating haze. The report, Clearing the Air: Palm Oil, Peat Destruction, and Air Pollution, outlines how palm oil production practices, including deforestation, landscape fires and draining peatlands, contribute to toxic air pollution and haze, which in turn cause severe health and economic ramifications.
Now that palm oil is a common ingredient in everything from muffins to moisturizers, the demand for palm oil is increasing. In the scramble to meet demand, some oil palm plantations are using practices that contribute to climate change, endanger human health and weaken the economy, said Lael Goodman, analyst for the Tropical Forest and Climate Initiative and author of the report. Ultimately, these unsustainable practices are making a lot of people sick.
According to the report, fires are often intentionally set to clear vegetation and debris from agricultural fields and peatlands, areas of carbon-rich, decayed vegetation. While cost-effective fires are 30 to 98 percent cheaper than mechanical techniques, even small fires can easily burn out of control and become large-scale landscape fires.
With land at a premium, growers are increasingly cultivating oil palm on peatlands. These swampy soils have high water tables and store significant amounts of carbon. To develop peatlands, the land must be drained, releasing the carbon and contributing the climate change. The dried peat then becomes highly flammable. Fires set on peatland can burn on the surface and underground. Once a sub-surface fire is ignited, the fire can burn horizontally at times without burning the surface. Due to its flammable nature, peat fires can burn for weeks, months or even years.
When summer arrives in North America, we prepare for droughts and heat waves. But for many in Southeast Asia, summer is heralded by thick clouds of toxic air that result from landscape fires. This haze blankets communities, said Goodman. And once it sets in, some area residents are forced to cope with illness and lost wages.
Landscape fires, including peat fires, spew smoke and haze into the air, producing harmful air quality that endangers local populations. Haze causes significant health effects ranging from skin and eye irritation, to decreased lung function and respiratory issues to cancer and even death. All told, exposure to particulate matter from these fires claims 110,000 lives in Southeast Asia each year.
Not only does treating the sick cost money, but the haze can be so severe that workplaces temporarily close, resulting in lost wages for the company and its workers. At times, the haze also makes air travel difficult. When flights are cancelled, the region forfeits profits from tourism because travelers cannot fly into Southeast Asia. In addition, when fires burn out of control, the national and local governments must pay firefighters and other costs associated with controlling the inferno.
During the worst haze event in recent history, fires started in Indonesia in 1997 produced haze that spread into Malaysia, Brunei, Singapore, the Philippines and even Thailand. Between 60 and 80 percent of the haze from this event was the result of fires on peatlands. This haze event lasted for several weeks, closing businesses and schools, and affecting the health of millions of people. In fact, the health care costs in Indonesia alone are estimated at $1.8 billion. Tourism also suffered, with losses amounting to almost $400 million in Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore. In terms of lost productivity, estimated at 2.5 million work days in Indonesia were lost in just three months.
Given the high demand for palm oil, multinational companies purchasing palm oil from producers in Southeast Asia can reduce their contribution to haze by committing to sourcing palm oil that is peat-free and deforestation-free produced without the use of fire. By demanding peat-free and deforestation-free palm oil, companies can protect the environment and human health.
While the problems associated with landscape fires are well established, we are seeing that the palm oil industrys involvement in landscape fire is a big part of the problem, said Goodman. And the best solution is for multinational companies to demand a product that is produced without harming the environment or the surrounding populations.