Lift the haze of political profiteering

THERE is a quote commonly attributed to environmental lawyer and advocate Gus Speth:

“I used to think that top environmental problems were biodiversity loss, ecosystem collapse and climate change. I thought that 30 years of good science could address these problems.

“I was wrong. The top environmental problems are selfishness, greed and apathy, and to deal with these we need a cultural and spiritual transformation. “And we scientists don’t know how to do that.”

Reading the Wikipedia entry on the haze in South-East Asia, I came across this bit of information:

“Fire is the cheapest and fastest method to clear land in preparation for planting. Fire is used to clear the plant material left over from logging or old crops.

“Mechanically raking the plant material into long piles and letting them rot over time, is expensive and slow, and could harbour pests. Clearing land with machines and chemicals can cost up to US$200 per hectare while using fire costs US$5 per hectare.

“After a peat swamp forest has been cleared and drained, the peat soil is still unsuitable for agriculture, because peat soil is nutrient-poor and acidic (pH 3-4).

“To make the soil suitable for agriculture, the pH has to be neutralised and nutrients added. Pests and plant diseases also have to be removed. One method is to use chemicals such as limestone to neutralise the acidity, as well as fertilisers and pesticides.

“This method costs about 30-40 million rupiah (approximately US$2,100-2,850) per hectare.

“Alternatively, fire is used to clear the plant material left over from logging. The fire kills pests and the resulting ash serves to fertilise the soil and neutralise the acidity. This method costs two million rupiah (US$142) per hectare.”

(US$1 = RM4.17)

The financial figures in these two paragraphs alone is probably the most important explanation as to why most of us are suffering through such terrible haze right now.

With those kinds of massive price differentials, the fact that burning is an illegal method of clearing land appears to no longer carry any meaning.

An obvious assumption that comes to mind is that a good chunk of money saved by burning land and earned from agricultural profits go into the pockets of politicians and authorities who turn a blind eye to the burning.

That appears to be the long and short of it.

So once again, profits have triumphed over the environment and our health.

The people at the top raking in millions from the burning get to sit out the haze in some Swiss spa resort or a beach paradise far away, while the rest of us literally choke on what they leave behind.

This is not about nationalist conflict. If the fires are burning in Sumatra, and the haze is this bad in Kuala Lumpur, imagine the air in Sumatra.

In fact, you don’t have to imagine; you can check it online:

At time of writing, Senapelan in Central Suamatra is registering an API of 474.

So this is not an Indonesia vs Malaysia problem. This is a corrupt, rich people vs the rest of us problem.

Spin doctors understand that one of the most important tools in the arsenal of a politician when it comes to handling crises is time and patience.

Give enough time and news cycles, and eventually people will forget even the most stupid, foot-in-mouth comment, or the most sordid sex video.

In this, political crises are not unlike the haze itself – seasonal, and often forgotten once the air finally clears.

It calls to mind the episode of The Crown that dealt with The Great Smog of London in 1952, which caused the death of at least 4,000 people after an extreme fog that lasted only four days.

The episode highlighted the ineptitude of the British government, marked first and foremost by ignorance and fatal indifference.

The show depicts a meeting between then Prime Minister Winston Churchill and the Queen. When pressed by the Queen about the unfolding crisis, Churchill angrily dismissed her concerns, stating: “It is weather! It will pass!”

Some 67 years later, one wonders if we have evolved at all with regards to the problem of pollution, or whether our general response is the same as that of the fictional Churchill.

Every year the haze recurs; every year writers like me join the general public in bemoaning the situation; committees are formed, announcements are made; governments come, governments go; and in the end, every year fails to be the last year of the haze.

Perhaps all we can say is that without some fundamental changes of not only political actors, but political systems, we are doomed to continue burning in this cycle.

One wonders if putting profits before the people is also becoming a trend in the new government.

I am all for foreign direct investment, but lately, the degree to which Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohammad is obsessing about trying to bring money into the country – at any cost, it sometimes seems – is troubling.

Is Dr Mahathir privately seeing numbers that indicate the country is much closer to financial ruin than the government is letting on?

There seem to be precious few other explanations as to why the government is pursuing some projects that have the potential for financial profit, but also involve the danger of very severe costs further down the road.

These projects resemble the haze in that they may involve people looking to make short term financial profits, while potentially costing governments so much more in hidden, hard to enumerate costs over the long term, such those involving healthcare and productivity.

Until we see thorough, independent, and credible scientific reports verifying claims of tolerable environmental impact, Lynas should be one project classified as such.

There are other projects with other dubious long-term costs.

Is an aerospace university facilitated by Russia worth exonerating them from any responsibility over MH17? What will this cost the next of kin who lost loved ones on that plane?

In an era where other countries are pioneering renewable energy, is Dr Mahathir’s bewilderingly obsession with a third national car an indication that his thinking is stuck in the industrialism of the 1980s or 1990s? Won’t more cars just mean more pollution and haze?

Are there studies that demonstrate good prospects of the East Coast Rail Link (ECRL) actually being profitable in the long run?

As an aside, PKR president Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim’s latest comments that the ECRL project as a whole should be reviewed in light of testimony in the trial of former prime minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak could be seen within the context of some internal politicking worth watching.

The ECRL project seems closely linked to Tun Daim Zainnuddin, who was involved in the negotiations with China to bring the price of the project down.

Anwar’s comments could be a shot fired in the conflict about who gets to be the next Prime Minister.

Coming back to the present Prime Minister, perhaps we should hope for at least one of two things.

FIrstly, if the country really is in some sort of dire financial straits, there is a good chance that a bit more transparency regarding this matter will be healthy.

Secondly, if the country is not facing such dire straits, then perhaps the Prime Minister could consider not focusing purely on bringing more money into the country at any cost, but also on solving problems that are tearing the nation apart.

A concerted effort to solve environmental problems, as opposed to being a grumpy old man yelling “It will pass!”, would be a welcome start.

NATHANIEL TAN is a communications consultant specialising in identifying the right goals, and using the right tools for the right job. He can be reached at The views expressed here are entirely the writer’s own.

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