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The Burning Woods Really Freak Me Out!

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Flying was not a big deal for me until an incident I encountered a couple of years ago. I had to fly in four different planes for 30 hours almost non-stop, squashed in economy class. The trip ended in Slovakia under the tight scrutiny of heavily armed troops. Now I despise flying. In fact I have never met anyone who really takes joy in flying. Who would have a high time sitting in cramped rows of poorly padded chairs, in between strangers who are either a chatterbox, having flatulence problems or taking delight in resting their lolling head on your shoulder, which will gradually develop an unsanitary pool of sweat.

My recent trip from Yogyakarta to Jakarta brought back the jittery feeling. The plane was approaching the airport, when I suddenly sniffed something suspicious. I smelled smoke. ‘Fire! The darn plane I’m taking is on fire!’ I whispered to myself. I looked through the diminutive windows to find out if the wings were still safely attached and not raging in flames. Finally I alerted one of the ever-smiling female attendants. She said, “It’s okay; it’s only the smoke from the burning forest in Sumatra. The wind picked up the smoke and it’s been pulled into the plane’s air conditioner systems.” Phew, the plane was safe. ‘Alright then, the fire probably has eaten up half of Sumatra’s forest, but most importantly, my friggin’ plane is safe,’ I thought while sucking the mint-flavoured candy the attendant gave me to blot out the smoky scent.

Since early this year, the seemingly permanent forest fires in Sumatra and Kalimantan have breached the tolerable limit, again. A lot of people who never dreamed that they’d be affected by the fire, like myself, suffered. Millions of people who live in Singapore and Malaysia for example, not to mention the poor people who are trapped inside a plane because the pilot doesn’t dare to take off or land due to the limited visibility.

It’s rather strange – if you ask Jakartans about the fire, most of them will probably reply something along the line of ‘O yes, it’s happening somewhere in Indonesia.’ They’re ignorant, like in my case on the plane, and not aware about the facts that due to fires, in 1998 for example, almost 10 million hectares of forest and non-forested land in Indonesia was burnt, affecting the lives of about 75 million Indonesians. And not only that, even though it covers less than 6% of the earth surface, the tropical rainforest contains more than 50% of the total world’s biodiversity. Meaning? Well, maybe, just maybe, one tiny moss that could help cure AIDS has been burnt in this year’s forest fire? Who knows.

Can’t we just strictly ban the setting of fires, no matter how small, in a forested area? Especially in Sumatra and Kalimantan which are heavily infested with juvenile peat, peat swamp and coal seams which hello … is almost as combustible as gasoline? The penance for these pyromaniacs should be a ten-year jail term inside a tiny aluminium cubicle under the scorching heat of the sun. The ban idea sounds easy – unless a million dollar project happens to be in the way, of course. And I suspect perhaps there are many idiots out there who choose to see innocent people like me get freaked out on a plane trip. To see many Singaporeans wear masks to protect their lungs, to witness fellow Indonesians lose their homes, and the world’s green treasures blackened to ashes; just so they can pocket the enticing financial reward.

Almost a decade ago I was standing in the middle of a virgin rainforest in Sumatra, watching five local people standing before a giant tree with a chainsaw ready in their hands. The diameter of the tree was close to two meters. I imagined the life the tree had endured, for hundreds of years, was about to end. The chainsaw roared. The tree was bleeding, the strong fibres cracked, the canopy swayed wildly before it crashed to the earth with a loud boom. Tears flowed down my cheeks – not because of the friggin’ tiny debris that flew right into my eyes. Really, I don’t oppose development. But why does something so beautiful have to suffer from it? Now I know a lot of people who are standing nearby the raging forest fire perhaps also have tears rolling down their cheeks, but is it because of the sad phenomenon or is it merely because the hot smoke gets in the way?

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