Posted by: masaranghk | October 16, 2015

They stole my stolen view!!

I took this picture of Father Jacques in his beautiful garden at the edge of the forest. You will have trouble noticing him standing in the middle of his tropical garden even though he is just 20 meters away from the point where I took the picture. The smoke and haze of the forest fires almost completely obscures the colors of his batik shirt and that explains the title of this blog, which is what Father Jaques exclaimed this morning when we stepped outside the house on his back terrace and looked into his garden.

Father Jacques has been living in this location for some 20 years now and the house of the Kobus Foundation that he founded stands on the edge of the Baning Forest in Sintang city. His meticulously maintained garden seamlessly becomes the jungle background as if the jungle is all his and this led a former Bupati (district head) to exclaim “you have a stolen view!”

But now the stolen view has been stolen by the thick smoke of rampant forest fires in Kalimantan. The trees, at 40-meter distance only from the terrace where I am standing and from where I took the above picture, are no longer discernable through the thick smoke. The green line shows more or less the canopy line. And the Sintang airport has not had a flight coming in or leaving for more than a month now. Here is a picture of the landing strip, or rather the smoke behind the fence of the airport. Anytime the visibility falls below 1.000 meters airplanes cannot land but that has not happened for over a month now.stoll2 The picture in Father Jacques’ garden was taken at almost 9 am when normally the garden is bathing in sunrays, this morning the visibility is only 40 meters!

Let’s put this in perspective. In Singapore there were warnings that the smoke from forest fires in Sumatra was becoming hazardous for the health of the people in Singapore with PSI (Pollution Standard Index) values of above 300 are classified as hazardous and around 400 as extremely unhealthy. It led to closures of schools and cancellations of various events. But a PSI of 300 still gives you a visibility of 1.0stoll300 meters. So high is our PSI in Sintang, a few hundred kilometers into the interior of Borneo?


I made the graph to the left here using various published data showing the relation between PSI values and visibility. When we extrapolate from these data points to a visibility of less than 50 meters we end up with a value of more than 2000 PSI for air pollution today! This is more than five times the highest warning level! No wonder our orangutans are moving much less and we here them wake up coughing as a lot of the people here experience just as well! The staff here is talking about the first deaths due to breathing problems a few kilometres from our station and the Kobus Foundation. I feel my own throat becoming raw, I have the headache that I remember from earlier fires and clearly my energy level is much less than normal too in this thick smoke. stoll4

I don’t smell the smoke anymore here in Sintang. But two days ago, when trying to reach West-Kalimantan, I instantly knew we were close when the smell of burning peat I know so well all of a sudden engulfed the airplane cabin! The plane had already delayed its departure for a window of opportunity to reach Pontianak, but when we finally reached it we circled for an hour before the plane still had to return to Jakarta because the smoke was still too dense. After another 2 hours waiting in Jakarta we finally made it to Pontianak when the wind briefly changed direction. Here is the map of the smoke and haze distribution that day:

The dark brown areas have a PSI above 1.000 and Sintang is just on the edge of it.

The satellite image at the left here of the same day shows that the thick yellowish smoke almost completely originates from burning peat areas. Once peat starts burning it is almost impossible to extinguish the smoldering fires deep under the surface and they produce dangerous smoke.

When we finally reached Sintang after a grueling 9 hour drive through the night with thick haze, and sitting at the terrace of the Kobus Foundation, Father Jacques, just returning from leading his Sunday mass, exclaimed: “Look at that! My forest is gone! They stole my view! I have never in my almost 50 years here in the interior of West Kalimantan experienced anything like this!!


Fortunately the wells of the Kobus Foundation are still providing water, but people in other places are not so lucky. The saltwater has gone up far the mighty Kapuas River that now looks like a giant beach hundreds of kilometers inland! The same is happening on the other side of Borneo in the Mahakam River basin. In Pontianak people only get saltwater from their taps, if any at all comes out! Gold miners even pay with gold dust to buy drinking water!!

But some people have to pay a much higher price than completely missing the sunrays for weeks, or having difficult access to water and food. Near the Kobus Foundation I heard of the first deaths due to breathing problems. It is especially the sick and elderly as well as babies that suffer most and die first. It is not surprising if you look at what clean air means for people. For instance, in Hong Kong some 3.000 deaths per year are attributed to air pollution. I can only shiver by the thought how many there might be in Jakarta.

Masarang and Orangutan Rescue through their support are able to give people and orangutans and the rest of nature long term solutions like the sugar palm programs, the tengkawang (Illipe nut) factory, production of biochar, non timber forest products like honey, setting up new protected areas, etc. etc. But for now we will face a very hard situation for the months to come. Food prices will get ever higher, more orangutan orphans are bound to arrive at the Sintang center, and the haze will hang around for many months to come and might even worsen since the dry season may last till spring next year. For now we have to focus on what we can achieve, that is to help the animal victims in our care as good as we can and try to prevent forest fires. The Saran mountain is the rain machine of the Sintang region and in another blog I will tell you more about what promising results we have obtained over the last 8 months of hard work with all the surrounding Dayak communities.

Here a picture of our latest two arrivals Aming and Mona. I hope you will think of them and all of the people in our team that are trying to deal with the situation ahead of us. If you can spare something to help us in our efforts, please, now is a good time…

Willie Smits

Sintang, October 1st, 2015

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