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Photos: Palm oil production has been smoking out Southeast Asia for 20 years

Reuters/Edgar Su
Singapore shrouded in haze from Indonesia in 2013—a photo that could be from any number of years.
By Steve Mollman
Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

Every year in Indonesia, fires are set to cheaply clear land and make it more suitable for palm oil plantations and other uses. In some cases, rainforests are burned down, destroying wildlife habitat. In other cases, the flames consume drained and dried peatlands, which when lit produce enormous amounts of toxic smoke, as they smolder deep in the soil and are fiendishly hard to extinguish. Either way, over time more and more land that was once wild (and full of wildlife) is giving way to neatly ordered rows of oil palms.

The Indonesian government actually encourages this, and not without reason. Palm oil is a key export for the nation’s economy, and a crucial source of income and jobs. But the government often dismisses calls for more sustainable production methods, and Indonesia has become the world’s worst global warming offender by some calculations.

It’s also the world’s largest producer of palm oil. Most of the production comes from Sumatra and Borneo—the two islands worst-hit by the smoke, not coincidentally—but the industry is also rapidly expanding on the Indonesian side of New Guinea, which it considers the next frontier.

The toxic smoke from this year’s fires has been some of the worst on record, but it’s hardly unusual. In fact, the fires and resulting haze have been recurring since at least the mid-1990s.

Each year, many people (and especially those outside of the region) seem to forget about the problem once the rainy season starts.

It’s easy to see why. When the haze is at its worst, media reports sound the alarms. In especially bad years, the Indonesian government might send some military personnel to combat the fires. But eventually the haze recedes—not because the issue has been adequately addressed, but rather because the rainy season starts. Once dry conditions return, so do the fires and haze, and new (but old) headlines. The cycle has been repeated for decades now.

Below we present a “yearbook” of sorts, one showing the haze problem recurring year after year. We’ve kept the captions that ran at the time, slightly edited.


Reuters/Edgar Su
A view of the Singapore skyline on Sept. 14, 2015. Indonesia said on Friday it will send more than 1,000 troops to fight fires in southern Sumatra, as smoke makes thousands sick, delays flights, and pushes air quality to unhealthy levels in neighboring Singapore and Malaysia. Indonesia has vowed before to end the seasonal fires but has failed each time to stop the so-called “haze.”
REUTERS/FB Anggoro/Antara Foto
Indonesian students hold posters as they protest against the palm oil industry in Pekanbaru, in the Riau province of Indonesia, on Oct. 23, 2015. Indonesia is preparing warships as a last resort to evacuate children and others suffering from smoke inhalation from slash-and-burn fires, a minister said on Friday, as the country struggles to contain fires expected to continue for weeks.


Reuters/Samsul Said
A view of the Kuala Lumpur city center covered by haze on March 3, 2014. Thick haze blanketing parts of Indonesia’s Riau province continued to ground helicopters and obstruct water bombing efforts, while Malaysia saw a return to hazy conditions on Sunday.


Motorists drive through the haze in Indonesia’s Riau province on June 24, 2013. Malaysia declared a state of emergency in two parts of the southern state of Johor on Sunday as smoke from land-clearing fires in Indonesia pushed air pollution above the level considered hazardous.
Reuters/Edgar Su
A man jogs along the deserted Marina Promenade as the skyline of Singapore’s central business district in the background is covered in haze on June 21, 2013. The haze from fires in Indonesia drove air quality in Singapore to “hazardous” levels and disrupted business and travel in the region.


Reuters/Sigit Pamungkas
Residents cycle through the haze-blanketed town of Sampit, in Indonesia’s Central Kalimantan province, on Sept. 28, 2012. The haze that blanketed Sampit is believed to have originated from forest fires and land clearing for plantation use.


Reuters/Vivek Prakas
A couple relaxes in an infinity pool overlooking the haze-covered skyline in Singapore on Oct. 22, 2010. Singapore, blanketed under a smoky haze, beseeched neighboring Indonesia to douse fires lit for the clearing of forests.


Reuters/Najla Tanjung
A man rides a bicycle in the haze-shrouded city of Pekanbaru in Indonesia’s Riau province on July 5, 2009.
Reuters/Najla Tanjung
An AirAsia plane takes off from the haze-shrouded Sultan Syarif Qasim II airport in Pekanbaru, the capital of Indonesia’s Riau province, on July 5, 2009.


A Sumatran elephant walks near burnt trees at the Elephant Training Centre in Indonesia’s Riau province on Feb. 29, 2008. The Sumatran elephant, the smallest of the Asian elephants, is facing serious pressures arising from illegal logging and rapid forest conversion to palm oil plantations.


Reuters/Hardi Baktiantoro
Haze blankets a damaged rainforest in Indonesia’s central Kalimantan province on Oct. 3, 2007.


Reuters/Bazuki Muhammad
Motorists drive through the haze-covered Malaysian village of Ayer Hitam, about 120 km (75 miles) southwest of Kuala Lumpur, on Oct. 8, 2006. Visibility plunged to 50 meters (164 feet) in parts of Borneo island on Saturday, and Singapore recorded its highest pollution reading in nearly a decade as fires in Indonesia sent acrid smoke across Southeast Asia.
Reuters/Bazuki Muhammad
Malaysian landmarks Putra Mosque (left) and Putra Perdana in Putrajaya are seen shrouded by haze on Oct. 9, 2006. Forest fires were still raging across Indonesia on Sunday, with visibility cut to as low as 30 meters (100 ft) in parts of Borneo island, forcing cars to use headlights and throwing air travel into chaos. In Malaysia, several areas in southern Johor state near Singapore were still recording unhealthy pollution levels on Sunday.
Indonesian activists rally outside a hotel where ministers from Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, and Brunei hold a meeting in Pekanbaru, in Indonesia’s Riau province, on Oct. 13, 2006. Indonesia appealed for help on Friday to fight forest and brush fires that have spread choking smoke over much of Southeast Asia.


A man wears mask as he walks through haze near burnt peatland in the Riau province in Indonesia. Malaysia choked on its worst pollution crisis in eight years on Wednesday, as forest fires from neighboring Indonesia smothered the capital in thick smoke, forcing schools, an airport and a port operator to shut down.


Local security officers try to extinguish a fire at a plantation on the outskirts of Indonesia’s city of Banjarmasin in the East Kalimantan province of Borneo on Sept. 7, 2004. A smoke haze from slash-and-burn land clearing activities interrupted flights in Indonesia’s Jambi province on Tuesday and resulted in authorities handing out thousands of face masks.


Haze blankets Supadio Airport in Pontianak, in West Kalimantan province on Indonesian Borneo, on Aug. 23, 2002. Choking smoke from forest fires and slash-and-burn land clearing delayed flights and forced the country’s forestry minister to cancel a visit on Friday.


An Indonesian man covers his face as thick smoke blows through a forest about 40 kilometres inland of Balikpapan in East Kalimantan on April 3. Fires continue to ravage out-of-control through parts of East Kalimantan province, destroying thousands of hectares of forest and dropping visibility, in some parts, to below 100 meters (330 feet).


This satellite image shows smog over parts of Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singpore on Sept. 25, 1997. Colors are added to help identify and highlight various features. Generally, smoke haze shows up yellow. The hot spots, which can be seen as red dots, are fires burning on Sumatra. The smog, a thick blanket of smoke, trapping everyday industrial and car pollution, is caused by forest and bush fires in Indonesia. Thousands of firefighters on Friday struggled to control bush fires burning through huge swathes of Indonesian forest which president Suharto has called a national disaster. Malaysia and Singapore are seen at top left, and Borneo at the right.
In Sumatra, an Indonesian woman waits to cross the main road from Palembang to Lahat, on Sept. 10, as a becak or trishaw cycles past into the thick smoke drifting across the road from one of many scrub and grass fires. The smoke from the fires is drifting across the Riau archipelago to neighboring Singapore and Malaysia, where it is adding to the haze causing increasing health concerns in those countries.
Smoke from forest fires in Sumatra turns daylight into evening light and reduces driving visibility down to 200 meters in a central Sumatra village on Oct. 2 as a truck drives with its headlights on at 3pm local time. Forest fires in Indonesia and Borneo spread a thick blanket of smog over Southeast Asia, prompting alerts from world health bodies.


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