Meet Josie Stoker, who interviews Sumarni Laman, a youth who is out fighting the fires in Indonesia every day. These are the stories from Indigenous youths who share their thoughts from the frontlines of the fires in Central Kalimantan.
The haze is back in Singapore, and like many others here I’ve been wondering what life must be like at the source of it all. It can be challenging to imagine everyday life shrouded in a cloud of thick smoke with a jungle burning nearby when for us in Singapore it’s easy just to put on a mask, withdraw into the air conditioning and wait for things to blow over.
That was until I got a call from my friend Sumarni Laman in Central Kalimantan. I’ve known Sumarni for nearly a year now, and have been providing her with some simple editing support for her writing every now and again — Sumarni writes articles for Ranu Welum, a foundation empowering Indigenous youth in Kalimantan. She is also a coordinator at Youth Act.
I hear a lot of similar questions about the haze (and indeed have them myself). The most common questions are: What’s the reason behind the burning? Why can’t the fires simply be put out? How can we prevent this from happening every dry season? I’m by no means an expert, but Sumarni is since she’s on the ground fighting the fires every day. So I decided to interview Sumarni and bring first-hand information from the front lines you, and help people learn more about what’s the situation on the ground in Central Kalimantan. Here are the answers to some of the most common questions surrounding the Kalimantan and resulting haze…
GITNB: Sumarni, thank you for taking some time away from quite literally fighting fires to share your views with readers of Green Is The New Black.
Sumarni: I want to thank everyone who wants to hear our story and help spread the word. In Indonesia, not many people understand the situation in Palangkaraya. The forest fires have been blazing now for three months, but the public attention has not been as focused here as it is in Sumatra.
Could you start by sharing a little about yourself and your organisation?
My name is Sumarni Laman, I’m a young Indigenous Dayak, and I’m also the coordinator of Youth Act. Youth Act is a youth movement that coordinates Indigenous people from all over Indonesia to speak up about issues and take action to be part of the solution. Right now, we are facing forest fires, and we don’t want to stay silent and do nothing. We want to be on the front line protecting our home, our land, our people and our rainforest ecosystem.
We’ve previously spoken about the fire in 2015. What’s changed since then? Do you have any thoughts on why this is happening again in 2019?
In Kalimantan, forest fires have been happening for 23 years. In 2015, we experienced some of the worst forest fires to date in Central Kalimantan due to a long dry season — the fires started, and control was lost. It was horrible. Fires have still happened after that though, in 2016, 2017 and 2018. But this year, there are even more forest fires raging because we have had a very long dry season, and the peatland itself is also very dry. We also don’t have the water we need to be able to put out fires, and we have not received as much help from the government as in places such as Sumatra.
The big question on a lot of people’s minds — what are some of the causes of the fires?
The root cause of the fires is 99% a result of human activity. Just throwing out a cigarette in a dry field can start a fire. For example, on the street to Palangkaraya from Barito, many fires there are beginning next to the road. Oftentimes people pass by and throw a cigarette, and since it’s far from the city are there are no firefighters, the fire spreads quickly.
Also, in Palangkaraya, an area in Central Kalimantan, there is an issue surrounding the movement of Indonesia’s capital (Jakarta). At the time, people thought that Central Kalimantan was the best place for the new capital city of Indonesia. So they started clearing land through burning because it’s effortless (not for farming or palm oil, but for residences).
The news has shared information on one person asking people to burn the land and offering money to do so — this is a political barter. Palm oil companies are also clearing large areas of land through burning for planting.
Some farmers still practise slash and burn, but they actually don’t even own vast areas of land — they only have around two hectares for farming. They are just small-time farmers. But people still often only blame farmers for the fires and don’t see the bigger picture, which is that corporations are also responsible for such large areas of land being burned. In Central Kalimantan, police have only held four big corporations accountable for the fires. But another 100 farmers have been put in jail.
What is life like for people living in remote areas around Central Kalimantan during the haze?
This is a complicated question to answer because, in the last three months, we have frequently gone to villages or remote areas and heard so many untold stories. This situation is literally killing the people. They have been inhaling toxic haze for three months.
Mrs. Sri Aswati is 58 years-old and her husband, Mr. Sumarsono, is 69 years-old came. They came from Mahir Mahar, one of the more badly area that affected by haze, by riding her motorbike for 45 minutes to reach our shelter. In their neighbourhood, many forest and land fires have been blazing for three months now. As such they’ve been plagued with asthma because of the extremely thick haze. Mr. Sumarsono also has a cardiovascular disease that makes him especially vulnerable to this haze season. And that’s why his wife, even with shaky hands and sore eyes due to the haze, drove their motorbike so far to seek safety in our shelter and protect their health.
There is another story of a grandmother who was trying to wash her surgical mask; she did not know that you can’t wash masks. But since it’s difficult for her to find a mask, she wanted to wash her existing one to keep using it. In another area, many children and elderly have gotten sick with running nose, flu, and headaches. These small diseases that they are experiencing.
There is yet another story about a mother who did not want to leave her home because she wanted to protect all that she has, which is her home and livestock (pig and chickens). Since her husband was working in another village, she stayed alone with her only son, who has asthma, and every night all they could do is pray for protection.
People here say it’s like living in hell. Inhaling haze for three months is slowly killing the people. And many people don’t even know the dangers behind inhaling smoke, and they do not have proper health protection.
Why is it so important to work with and listen to the voices of Indigenous people during this time?
We are the protectors of the rainforest. The Dayak people have been living in harmony with nature for many decades now. We are the ones who know about preserving and protect the rainforest ecosystem. Many people blame the Indigenous community as being the ones who started the fires, but there are so many untold stories about how the Indigenous people are actually protecting their only home from destruction.
Indigenous people also have the answer to forest fires. Regarding slash and burn, we do exercise this practice, but we also protect the fires we start by stopping them within 1-2 days. Therefore, they don’t spread to other places because we have methods to stop the fires. Many of the Indigenous people are now on the front line to fight the fires, especially young people like us in the Youth Act.
What can everyday people around Asia do to help?
There are many things you can do. The easiest thing is to share and spread the word about the forest fires. The fire has been blazing not only for three months, but for around 22 years. It’s important for the world to acknowledge this as a crisis and work together to find a solution to this problem.
Right now, we really need health protection to continue our work. We need masks, milk and some medicine for the people because many elders, children and pregnant women have become very vulnerable because of this pollution.
Thank you again Sumarni for taking some time to share this information with GITNB readers. Good luck to you all.
For those who would like to find out more about Ranu Welum and the situation, please take a look at the link here where you can find out more about options to donate.