The world is burning – from the Amazon to Asian jungles

The world is burning. We’ve seen the smoke. Literally.

The fires in the Brazilian Amazon have recently made international headlines. From half a world away, I read that even President Trump took notice and offered U.S. assistance. It’s a strange but welcome comfort to know he’s now so concerned about the environment.

Here in Asia, there are fires in the jungles too. And of course, the cause is the same: man conquering nature for profit by clearing the rain forest.

We’ve been in Southeast Asia since late 2018 (Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, Indonesia). Yet, until a few weeks ago, deforestation was never a thought.

We have had concerns at various times about air quality.  Vehicle exhaust has assaulted us in many large Asian cities. We’ve witnessed numerous small scale ‘controlled crop burns’. And we even wore surgical styled ‘particulate filtration’ masks in Bangkok, Thailand due to dangerous pollutant levels.

two people wear masks for pollution in southeast asia

But the never-ending haze and smell of smoke that we experienced in our last two weeks in Malaysia has truly alerted us to the global scale of this issue.

It began near the end of our six-week stay in Penang, Malaysia. At first we thought is was fog or mist. There was a general haze, especially noticeable at distance; looking at sunset or mountains or the skyline. When I inquired, I was nonchalantly told “they are burning the jungle”.

smokey horizon on penang island in malaysia from deforestation in southeast asia
Smoky air near George Town, Malaysia during the 2019 burning season.

We subsequently came to understand that areas of tropical forest on the large Indonesian islands of Sumatra and Borneo are being cleared using fire — and the resulting smoke is drifting over the the whole country of Malaysia, hundreds of miles away.

smokey horizon at the cameron highlands in malaysia - the smoke is from deforestation all over southeast asia
Smoky air in the Cameron Highlands during the 2019 burning season.

When we visited the Malaysian Cameron Highlands; a beautiful, mountainous, mile-high, agricultural area – sometimes shrouded in smokey haze – our Airbnb host showed me how he monitors the the situation on his cell phone.

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He casually flashed an image like the one below which shows what appear to be hundreds of burning ‘hot spots’ all over Southern Borneo and Sumatra… and even in Malaysia. It’s shocking – and depressing.

a NASA image that shows where the world is burning in southeast asia
a NASA image that shows where the world is burning with malaysia, borneo, indonesia labeled

We have since left Malaysia; flying from Kuala Lumpur – where the smoke is visible and pungent – to Bali, Indonesia, where thankfully, there is no smoke.  Apparently, the winds take it all toward Malaysia. And beside, I’m told it’s only a ‘seasonal’ practice. So don’t worry? I am worried!

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And honestly, I feel guilty for flying around Southeast Asia on airplanes and adding to the pollution problems. Worse, the attitude of everyone, including me, seems to be of resigned acceptance. I don’t really know what to do or expect, but obviously, this is how the world turns — with its jungles on fire! Seasonally.

I don’t know where things stand currently in Brazil. Has the global outcry put out the blazes? Does Trump have any answers (besides office tower or condominium development)?

Apparently, in a few more weeks the season for planet burning will wind down in Asia. I guess I will feel and breathe better. Until then I’ll keep an eye on the global inferno on that phone app.

Happy trails and more beer. Life is now.

(A link to the NASA map is here.)

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