In the Autumn of 2015, a thick yellow toxic haze — the likes of which had never been seen before — fell over Kalimantan. Peatland fires from slash-and-burn agriculture and their accompanying toxic smoke are by no means unprecedented in the region, but the exceedingly hot and dry El Niño event that year exacerbated the already-precarious conditions on parched and previously-burnt swathes of peat, making the smallest spark from a roadside fire into a regional liability. Over the course of a few months, over a hundred thousand fires burned 2.6 million hectares of land.
The fires that year were a watershed moment for Emmanuela Shinta, founder of the youth indigenous filmmaking community Ranu Welum, based out of Central Kalimantan’s capital Palangka Raya. A speaker at the opening plenary of the Global Landscapes Forum: Peatlands Matter in May 2017, Shinta has experienced the devastating human impact of the toxic smoke from these fires, and become a passionate advocate for her community’s right to breathable air.
Not content to merely shine the spotlight on the issues facing her home with an impassioned speech, at the GLF: Peatlands Matter event, Shinta networked with representatives of UNICEF Indonesia and the UN’s Pulse Lab Jakarta, thereafter launching a collaboration to bring harm-reducing technologies and protocols to her city and province at large.
Having already partnered with Wally Tham — designer and founder of Singapore’s Big Red Button — to build everything from grassroots public health campaigns to haze shelters, Shinta’s Ranu Welum Foundation also made connections with the Bali-based social enterprise Kopernik to test the efficacy of some of these technical solutions, including a haze-proofing kit for cement homes, and a “nest” haze shelter for rural, wooden homes.
The GLF team caught up with this multi-stakeholder initiative during a week of intensive co-design workshops in Palangka Raya in July 2017, in order to follow through with the on-the-ground impact of the GLF: Peatlands Matter event.
Kopernik, an organization that emphasizes an, “empathetic approach to technology adoption,” brought the equipment to test the prototypes from Big Red Button, including air quality monitors that can detect PM2.5 particulate matter: also known as particle pollution below a size of 2.5 micrometers. This kind of pollution cannot be filtered by the surgical masks many residents don during peak haze season, and cannot be filtered by the lungs. Thus, it dissolves directly in the bloodstream, increasing the risk of heart attack, stroke, miscarriage, low birth weight, and causing a range of problems for children, the elderly and those with pre-existing respiratory conditions.
According to Shinta, the impacts can be cumulative. “I have known many activists and workers in the region who have begun to be sick one, two, five years later.”
Meanwhile, UNICEF and Pulse Lab worked with local youth leaders and firefighters in order to co-design community-grounded and culturally-congruent strategies for harm reduction during peak haze seasons, including community alert systems that harness data from social media, and action plans to create community safe spaces in schools and public buildings. During the worst months of haze season in Autumn, schools often shut down, compromising the education of youth in the community.
Conventional solutions to pollution crises like these, such as personal oxygen tanks, are expensive. Proper face masks that can filter PM2.5 are warm, and cannot be work for more than eight hours (after which time they can cause oxygen deprivation, owing to the increased effort it takes to breathe through them).
Solutions for this community and others facing similar issues must therefore involve creating indoor refuges from the omnipresent plumes of toxic haze. Youth representatives were on the case, innovating technical and social interventions.
The efforts of the week culminated in a national dialogue, with representatives from local and provincial governments meeting with members of Ranu Welum, UNICEF, Kopernik, The Borneo Nature Foundation and the GLF team. For the #HazeHacks innovated during the week to work, support is needed across all sectors: from all levels of government, from social enterprises and from NGOs.
“Indonesia is a country where so much is based on relationships,” asserted Shinta. She hopes the face-to-face meetings are just the beginning of a landscape-level collaboration that will lead to real on-the-ground impact for people across the region.
Just after the GLF team left this collaboration in Palangka Raya, five Indonesian provinces — Riau, Jambi, South Sumatra, West Kalimantan and South Kalimantan — declared a state of emergency in preparation for the coming plague of fires during the dry season.
While the fires are anticipated to be milder in this La Niña year, those in the region are nonetheless gearing up for their yearly efforts to breathe clean, safe air through a carpet of toxic smoke.
See all the pictures from this collaboration on Flickr.