On Peatlands, Haze and Hope
Good morning everyone,
It is such an honour to be up here speaking to you all today. Congratulations on successfully completing the International Baccalaureate!
I was sitting in your place, at this same school, about 8 years ago. And so, when invited to give this speech to you today, it was also a great chance for me to reflect on the journey that I have taken since my graduation from the ISH in 2009. I will share some of my experiences with you today, as well as what they have taught me, and hopefully give you all a sense of the amazing adventure that is to continue for each of you following today.
When I graduated from this school, I went on to do an undergraduate degree at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland. I began my studies in Ecological Sciences with Honours in Conservation and Ecological Management. My dream was to be a tropical ecologist. I spent my undergraduate degree gaining as much fieldwork experience as I could because I knew that would vital in getting any position after graduating. My fieldwork took me around Scotland, to the Peruvian Amazon, and finally the Bornean rainforest which ended up determining the following 6 years of my life.
My first experience in Borneo happened after my second year at Edinburgh, when I spent the summer volunteering for the Borneo Nature Foundation. For the first time in my life, I saw wild orangutans and I waded through in deep red waters of the peat-swamp forest. Life at camp was full of people who were excited about this crazy insect, or that stunning bird. It was a place where I could be myself, where I walked around barefoot, shared my passions with others at the dinner table. After that summer, I was hooked with field work life in the tropics.
And so, I was thrilled to be asked to return to Borneo the following summer, where I worked for the Borneo Nature Foundation as now the volunteer coordinator. I was in charge of training volunteers in field skills, and making sure everyone followed the protocols for data collection. This was a huge step for me, and being only 20 years old, I felt pretty nervous with the responsibility. I definitely blew it completely out of proportion in my own mind. A lesson I keep learning over and over again (clearly I’m not learning), is that your own mind is often your biggest obstacle, as of course, it all went fine!
Towards the end of that summer, Dr. Mark Harrison who is the Managing Director of BNF introduced me to Professor Susan Page, who by chance, was in Indonesia and visiting camp for a day. I spent the final year of my undergraduate emailing with them and Dr. Caroline Upton, designing what was to become my PhD project. While my experiences during my bachelors were fundamental to who I am now, the PhD was to become the greatest learning experience of my life. This was the ultimate personal challenge, physical challenge, mental challenge, and academic challenge. So, let me briefly share with you what I have been working on for the past 4 years.
Together with my great supervisory team we designed what truly was my dream PhD, which was about exploring the importance of fish and fishing for local community livelihoods in Indonesian Borneo. I lived in Indonesia for a year and a half, working around the Sabangau peat-swamp forest.
I worked with two local communities, trying to understand their perceptions and experiences of environmental changes, learning how to fish using local fishing methods, and surveying the rivers and waters for their water quality and fish species. With a team of 6 research assistants we trapped, counted and identified over 61,000 fish. This helped me put together a species list of 54 species for the Sabangau area. We now know that the Sabangau is an important area for peat-swamp fish species, and we now have methods for long-term monitoring of the rivers and the fish. I also collected vital information on the importance of fish and fishing to the local communities and their culture, and all of this information will inform future conservation projects in the area.
While it might not look like it from these photos, I spent really tough days in the swamp, dealing with venomous snakes, mosquitoes and exhaustion. I spent even more days on the river, with the hot Indonesian sun beating down on me and my research team as we collected more data than I would ever be able to handle. And through this all, I was surrounded by amazing, inspirational people, we laughed, we ate delicious food, and also less delicious food. We explored the forest, followed orangutans, searched for tarsiers. And then, towards what should have been the last, wonderful months of my fieldwork, the fires came.
To explain to you how these fires started, why they happen and why we should all care about them, I need to first introduce you to a particular type of soil – peat. For those of you who are unfamiliar with peat, it forms when organic material, such as moss or fallen leaves build up over time. It occurs in waterlogged areas where the water has low oxygen levels and high acidity. When the organic material gathers, the bacteria that usually would break the material down doesn’t have enough oxygen available in the water, and therefore the material just build up and up, eventually forming peat. And we have peatlands in the temperate regions and tropics. In the temperate areas, we find peat bogs, fens and mires. In tropical regions, we find tropical peat-swamp forests, like the Sabangau forest. The thing with peat is that when it dries out, it is very easy to burn. In northern European countries, we have been using this to our advantage for centuries by cutting, harvesting and burning peat as a fuel. In the tropics however, this characteristic causes significant problems every year. As you probably know about, peatlands are now being used for agriculture, for palm oil, and smallholder farming. To plant anything on peat, you have to drain it, and this eventually leads to the peat drying out in the Indonesian dry season and easily catching on fire.
Peatlands are vital to us all: not only are they important habitats for biodiversity, including the largest remaining populations of orangutans in the world, but peatlands contain more than 30% of carbon stored in soil worldwide. Estimates suggest that peatlands contain four times as much carbon as our atmosphere. Every year, peatland degradation contributes to the equivalent of 11.5% of all global fossil fuel emissions. For our global climate, we need to save the remaining peatlands across the world.
Temperate peats are 1.5 to 2.3 m deep. Tropical peatlands on the other hand can be up to 20m deep. Once fires start in these deep peat areas such as the Sabangau, they are almost impossible to put out and can burn underground for months.
Peatland and forest fires occur pretty much every year now, but the problem was exacerbated in 2015 by a strong El Niño weather event. These fires are anthropogenic, they are started by people to clear land (fire is the cheapest method), as weapons in land tenure conflicts, for increased access to rivers for fishing as well as accidentally. Oil palm plantations as well as smallholder farmers are the main contributors to the fire crisis.
So, in 2015 the fires caused a hazardous smoke haze covering Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore. Where I was living in Borneo, indicated by the blue star on the image, this was the hardest hit area by the fires and smoke haze in 2015. The concentration of dust particles in the air can be measured on a Pollutant Standard Index (PSI) ranging from 0-300+. Anything above 300 is considered hazardous (healthy levels range from 0-50). While I was there, the Sabangau area experienced a horrific PSI level of 2,300 in late September. With the dust, the haze contains a cocktail of dangerous components: ozone, carbon monoxide, cyanide, ammonia and formldehyde to name a few. There was an estimated 500,000 cases of respiratory tract infections, with research suggesting that the fires potentially caused more than 100,000 premature deaths in the region. This was a human, environmental and climate catastrophe.
So what is it like living in the haze? I described it in a blog post I wrote upon my return from Indonesia because of the fires:
“Living in the haze, you are aware that what you are breathing is harming you – you can see it and feel it. Your eyes are constantly irritated and even indoors you can see the thick smoke haze hanging in the air in an acrid cloud…Living in the haze was what I imagine living in a post-apocalyptic world to be like… Living in these conditions makes you inevitably suffer not only physically, but mentally as well. My colleagues and I experienced prolonged and significant stress, fatigue, and desperation to leave, and I cannot begin to imagine the mental health impacts of people who face the haze every single year.”
I returned to the UK after 3 weeks of being in the haze. The haze would continue for two more months. I already experienced short-term health impacts, with chest pains, shortness of breath and a decrease in my lunch capacity, but these cleared up after 2 weeks of using an inhaler. But imagine what 3 months does to people, imagine what a lifetime of yearly haze does to people, and what about those more vulnerable? The young, the elderly, the sick?
While the world that I loved back in Indonesia was literally burning, there was almost no media coverage that I could see in the UK or International News. I knew of the catastrophe that I had just left behind, but it seemed like no-one else did. This to me was a very frustrating and hopeless reality, and I suddenly experienced the bias of our international media and news like I had never known before.
I handled my sadness, anger and frustration by becoming active. I figured, the least I could do was make sure that people in my direct community, the University Campus, knew about what was happening in Indonesia. I created and printed posters, and flyers which I plastered all across the University. I wrote blog posts, and shared them as widely on social media as I could. I organised fundraisers at our Student Union for the firefighting efforts back in Borneo. I talked to as many people as I could. It was only through, what felt like yelling at the top of my lungs about what was happening in Indonesia, that I could feel any sense of peace at all.
And that’s how I found what being active, what activism could give me. Hope.
As Rebecca Solnit writes in her fantastic book, Hope in the Dark, Hope just means another world might be possible, not promised, not guaranteed. Hope calls for action; action is impossible without hope…
So when I returned from my fieldwork in 2016 I knew that the only way I could spend the next year and half writing about issues of deforestation, overfishing, climate change, fire and poverty, was to be active locally. I joined my local Friends of the Earth group, and more recently our local Stand up to Racism group and have been active in campaigns and peaceful protests across the UK ever since. So that’s a little tip I want to give to those of you who feel frustrated with the world you find yourself in, a world that you didn’t choose. Be active.
And while the fires happen every year, they are always a catastrophe, and I will carry that experience with me for the rest of my life. I am also very grateful for that memory, because being able to tell people a first-hand story can make it so much more real and impactful. I now need to use my privilege to inform others about the fires, and spread the information that I know, of how important peatlands are to all of us, and hopefully, that way, I can make a little bit of a positive difference.
Indonesia, the beautiful Sabangau forest, the peatlands that I lived on and all they consist of showed me how life can be scary and exciting, terrible and beautiful.
It was my dream to be a tropical ecologist, working in communities trying to understand their lives and do my best to make a positive contribution to this world, however small it may be. I was never certain I’d make it, and my journey certainly continues. But I actively searched for, and created opportunities to help me get to where I am now. I worked so hard, right from the beginning, just as I will keep working hard for the causes that I continue to fight for. I will always believe that a better, more just world is possible, but we all need to be active and be willing to stand up for what we believe in.
Every single one of you here has the most amazing adventure ahead of you. There will be tough days on the horizon, and there will be the best days of your life. You decide now what you will do with this precious crazy thing called life. And so I will end now, not with a final statement, but with one question to you all:
Who do you decide to be?