Saturday, September 26, 2015

Indonesia Burning

We came to Indonesia to mostly do two things.  See the Komodo Dragons, and see the Orangutans.  The town of Kumai on the island of Borneo is the place where you get access to the Tajung Puting National Park.  The last remaining sanctuary for orangutans on Borneo.  The other is on the island of Sumatra.

Heading up the Kumai River.  This is not fog but smoke.
During the night before our arrival, when playing 'spot the fishing boat' with our high beam light, the light just made the haze glow and the beam dissipated maybe 20 meters away.  It was like using your high beams in the fog.  You really couldn't illuminate anything except the air around you.  Thought, however, it was just fog on the water. 

It's pretty bad when you can't even see the mosque.
We arrived at the mouth of the Kumai River in the early morning.  It took us another 4 hours to travel the 15 miles to Kumai Town.  The tide was not helping.  As we progressed up the river, the smell of smoke got worse and worse.  At the town, the visibility was about a half mile.  It was like being downwind of a campfire but nowhere to go to escape it.  As the day progressed, the smoke lifted some but we were a little discouraged that this beautiful tropical river setting was obscured by a white haze.  We looked for dust masks on the boat from boatyard projects but didn't find any.  The smoke was so bad and we were discouraged that our trip to the park would be a bust.  This was a once in a lifetime experience for us and it was being ruined by burners.

The sun, almost obscured by the smoke

For 18 years, large pulp and paper and palm oil plantations have farmed the rich peatlands that run along the Sumatran coast of Indonesia and Borneo Island.   Every year, existing farmland is dried out and burned for the next season's crop and to clear surrounding forests for expansion. The fires are large and hard to control and dry, CO2-rich peatlands can burn for many weeks.
"Those big scale companies are also eager to expand their operations into the adjacent peatland," ...
"Whether they deliberately set the fire, or they can also ask people in the communities around their areas to burn the land, that's also a possibility. And then at the end, those burned areas are proposed as the expansion of their plantation." (2)

There were easily 20 barges in the Kumai River waiting to be stacked high with timber.

It's not just the smoke but the ash was everywhere
Former Indonesian strongman President Suharto distributed large tracts of forest to cement political relationships with army generals. Thus, logging expanded significantly in the 1980s, with logging roads providing access to remote lands for settlers and developers (1)

Even today, with a more progressive Indonesian government, lack of oversight has led to Singapore and Malaysia telling Indonesia to stop the burning.  Seven corporate executives have recently been arrested in Indonesia and Singapore has passed a law which allows it to fine companies that cause smoke pollution, even if they’re not Singapore-based.  (2)

Another barge waiting to be loaded with lumber
We awoke the day after our arrival to find the visibility at 1/4 mile.  We heard that all flights had been cancelled for the past two days.  We went on our trip to the park and the smoke was not as bad in the National Park.  It rained for 10 minutes and may have helped.  We stayed in the Rimba Ecolodge that night because it has air conditioning and we needed a 'breather'.  We heard planes landing on the second day of our trip and had hopes that things were clearing up.  We returned to the boat and planned to leave in the morning but we could barely see the trees on the shore just 30 meters away.  The smoke lifted by 10AM to about 1/2 mile and we were able to get down river where the fresh sea breeze would be a nice relief.  We anchored as far down the Kumai River as possible and thought we would be out of it.  Instead, ash has been falling on the boat all afternoon.

Should have bought some dust masks in Kumai.  Now there's a Free Market opportunity.

The sun setting into the smoke.

Our next stop, on the island of Belitung, was 250 miles away. When we arrived, we could already see the smoke getting worse.  There was some small burning around the village but since Belitung is not downwind of the burning in Borneo, but instead, downwind of the burning in Sumatra.  We knew is wasn't going to be good once the wind shifted offshore as it always does at night.  The smoke was so bad that night that we couldn't see the village and we could see whiffs of smoke coming through the boat.  I did not think it possible but it was worse than Kumai.   Everything on the boat smelled of smoke.  In the morning, the wind shifted and it cleared up.  We went to shore to explore and were going to stay another day to recover from our two day passage but figured why sit around and have to breathe this nonsense again.  So we left for Bangka Island at noon for an afternoon arrival the following day.
The Bangka anchorage is on the right side of this photo.  No way we wanted a repeat of Belitung.

As we approached Bangka, we really couldn't see the island but as we got close to the northeast tip anchorage, we could see fires burning along the coast and the anchorage was directly downwind of several plumes of smoke.  Neither of us wanted to go back into that so we decided to keep going to the next anchorage, 100 miles further on the southeast end of Lingga Island.   This anchorge is behind a small island on the upwind side of the larger Lingga.  We had good hope that 500 miles since Kumai, we finally would be able to get away from the smoke.  It turned out to be quite hazy but no smoke.  So far, so good.


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