Addressing the haze with transformative change

While reading about the Zapatista Army of National Liberation in Chiapas and marveling at how the Zapatistas have been able to resist the onslaught of neoliberalism since 1990, I am reminded once more of how violent globalization can be by just looking out of the window.

The deadly haze enveloping Singapore and Malaysia is now into its third week. And I do not use the word "deadly" lightly. There is plenty of documented evidence showing that the tiny particulates that make up the haze coming from deliberate slash-and-burn fires started in Indonesia can give rise to asthma, allergies, premature death to people with underlying lung and heart conditions and even stunt lung development in infants.

And who is behind the burning? Of late, commentators and the local media have called attention to not only the farmers, but to the large transnational corporations (TNCs) that buy these raw materials, such as wood, pulp and palm oil. These TNCs include producers and traders such as Golden Agri-Resources, Wilmar International, Asia Pulp and Paper (APP), Cargill, Musim Mas and April Group to buyers like Kellogg, Nestle and Unilever. All these companies are either Singapore-listed or have operations in Singapore and elsewhere.

So while the knee-jerk reaction would be to boycott everything they sell, if that is even possible, one niggling thought remains. How would such a move impact on the many Indonesian farmers, who are themselves very much complicit, or co-opted, in this man-made disaster and whose health - and those of their family members - suffer too?

For while the pollutant standards index in Singapore ranges now from the very unhealthy range of 201-300 to beyond the hazardous line of 301, that same index has been hitting well over 2,000 in parts of Indonesia. Imagine that!

Surely no human being, especially the Indonesian farmer, his wife and children, can be enjoying this air and think it health-giving? Surely, slashing-and-burning cannot be something they would happily do, if they had a real choice? If they were to be imbued with the knowledge of what prolonged exposure to such air can cause in themselves and their children, would they not steer clear of it, if given a choice?

Reflecting on the CCA, perhaps it is here that a new order of things can come to be. Governments must act with the crushing force of the law with errant TNCs. Activist-researchers should begin a dialog with this subaltern community and really listen to what they have to say. What are their means of survival? How much is this slash-and-burn affecting them and their families? For too long, the voice of the subaltern farmer has been erased and even in the midst of this three-week-long saga (so far), I cannot remember a single article that placed at the centre the farmer and his experience, and it is as though the subaltern in this whole narrative is passive, silent and without agency.

And let there be dialog, and solutions proferred by the subaltern, ground-up. For this terrible problem to be resolved, neoliberal forces have to stop exploiting the subaltern as a profitable resource and the state must do its part to invoke powerful laws to effect this. All parties must then sit together respectfully and sincerely to make meaningful, enduring and transformative change because the alternative is simply too terrible to imagine. There can be no other way.


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