Forest and peat fires in Riau, Indonesia Photo by Julius Lawalata, World Resources Institute.

Sound of an approaching motor bike broke a long reflection on the devastation caused by fires that have raged across Indonesia’s peatlands in recent years producing suffocating smoke haze across the region. Joining an expedition to explore the causes of the smoke haze was sure to provoke such thoughts. Here on Tebing Tinggi Island, close to Riau Province’s Kampar Peninsula had also drifted to the fire regime in my own country. In my lifetime now a few months shy of three score years and ten the great warming was undeniable.  Fire was increasing in incidence and I could only conclude that we were no longer theorising about global warming but dealing directly with it’s consequences.


Our small group parted opening the way as a solitary man on a Honda step-through moved between us. This was a common event in many parts of Indonesia, but the man rode with a small sway-back pig trussed and draped in front of him.

“Strange that he’s carrying a pig. Isn’t everyone here Muslim,” I asked the young man standing beside me.

“He’s from the forest.  His people don’t have a religion,” he replied.

“None, at all?”

“No, they believe in forest spirits.”

“Where is he going?”

“Into the forest. His people live there.”

Endangering the primal spirits of the land

The archipelago’s first people understand God as a host of presences in the forests, on the mountains, everywhere throughout Nusantara.  Mountains, had the most important status in the spiritual understandings. Early religion frequently involved the worship of mountain deities and a belief that ancestors also dwelt in the mountains. [i]

Forests too were important affording access to a realm crowded with forest spirits.This man no doubt followed such a primal path. In Riau, his people once called themselves Batin. They lived in swidden-clearings often close to rivers trading forest products downstream as Dayak groups did. Some came to be named after their rivers and, like other beings inhabiting the forests, were often forced from their places into areas of swamp forest or secondary re-growth.

Habitat loss and endangered species were well documented, tigers and orang utan the iconic faces of this process. Yet, El Nino’s smoke haze, plaguing Singapore and Indonesia’s cities masked another tragedy the threat to Riau’s Indigenous people. Sadness and disquiet filled me.

The People

The man on the motorbike was travelling into a forested area.  It seems that, as with the nearby people of the Kampar peninsula 20kms south on the mainland, he was Indigenous and most likely related. Where forests remain in this part of Riau the Indigenous people use them for hunting, charcoaling, fishing and small-scale farming, while supplementing their incomes with wage labouring for the concessionaires (oil, gas, logging and plantations).

Most of the communities with customary territories on the southern side of the Peninsula were relocated to the northern side of the Kampar river.  This isn’t a recent phenomenon in Indonesia.  I saw it being applied back in 1988 when visiting the Mentawai Islands.  Then people were taken from their Uma on the dendritic branches of rivers and concentrated in camps near the main branches.  The same process is evident in Kalimantan.

Despite this enforced relocation Indigenous people, all over Indonesia, still go back to their territories where they farm, hunt, fish, gather herbs, fruits and resins or do a little cash cropping.

Many Indigenous people, in the Riau area will refer to themselves as Melayu at first asking but their roots lie far back in prehistoric times.  In historic times they have been ruled by coastal Hindu, Buddhist and Malay kingdoms. Often referred to as Siak by the ruling kingdoms, they adopted the generic name Batin for themselves. They lived in swidden-clearings often close to rivers trading forest products downstream, just as Dayak groups did. Some came to be named after their rivers and, like other beings inhabiting the forests, were often forced from their places into areas of swamp forest or secondary re-growth.

Habitat loss in Riau

Riau has experienced one of the fastest rates of deforestation in Indonesia. When I attended middle school, 50 years ago it was known as an area of equatorial forest and swamp of great diversity but intensive resource extraction (logging, oil and gas) and conversion of forests to oil palm and pulpwood plantations means that today the province has lost over 80% of its original forest cover.

Asia Indigenous Peoples’ Pact

Just as I began to write this piece I received an email from Emmanuela Shinta.  It linked to a new book

HerStory3: Championing Community Land Rights and Indigenous Women’s Leadership in Asia, published by Asia Indigenous Peoples’ Pact. 

Click on the cover to download your copy.

The notes on the publication read

“This book, as a compilation of indigenous women’s “her stories”, is a reflection of the conditions and struggles on the ground of indigenous women. They are the stories of Katima, Jannie, Endena, and 13 other indigenous women who are extraordinary women in their own right. They are in the hearts and minds of other women and villagers because of their suffering, struggles, sacrifices, commitments, dedication and lifetime achievements in advancing the dignity of women and indigenous peoples.

This is now the third volume of her stories to be produced by AIPP to amplify the voices and struggles on indigenous women across Asia. This year we are focussing on indigenous women as land rights defenders, in line with the Global Call to Action on Indigenous and Community Land Rights.”


[i] Kempers, B. A. J.                  Monumental Bali: Introduction to Balinese archaeology and guide to the                                                     monuments. Periplus Editions. Singapore. 1991. pp. 4.



In 2015 I was forced to leave Singapore when the smoke haze, mainly from fires burning on Sumatran peatlands, became so heavy it was unhealthy for me to remain. My exit was easy but the people in Sumatra and Kalimantan, particularly Central Kalimantan, were not so fortunate.  All of those in affected areas were living in far higher levels of smoke, without my means to escape.

Understanding the gravity of the problem I began blogging about it.  Shortly after this I met Tan Yi Han Co-Founder at People’s Movement to Stop Haze (PM.Haze). Yi Han’s clarity, patience and commitment to educate people about this problem was inspiring.

Founded, in 2014, by a group of Singaporeans who believe that everyone can play a part in bringing an end to trans-boundary haze in Southeast Asia, PM.Haze aims to empower people with the knowledge, values and skills needed to build a broad social movement to stop the haze and ensure clean air for present and future generations.

Exacerbated by the El Nino conditions of 2015 the smoke haze problem was grave. Harvard researchers and their colleagues estimated that the smoke caused more than 100,000 deaths across Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore. Most directly affected were infants and those with pre-existing cardio-pulmonary conditions. Beyond this the impact on global warming was already well established.

Click here for the latest El Nino watch updates

Should El Nino take off in 2017 further smoke haze can be expected, despite the moratorium on further peatland plantation development.   The Australian Bureau of Meteorology on 23 May, 2017, reported that,”The El Niño–Southern Oscillation (ENSO) remains neutral. With the tropical Pacific Ocean warmer than average, and around half the international climate models reaching El Niño levels later in the year, development of El Niño in 2017 cannot be ruled out. The Bureau’s ENSO Outlook remains at El Niño WATCH, meaning there is around a 50% chance—double the normal likelihood—of El Niño developing in 2017.”

Peoples’ Expedition to Experience Peat (PEEP)

It was with great interest that I joined members PM.Haze on the Peoples’ Expedition to Experience Peat (PEEP) 0n Thursday 18 May. Until this point most of what I knew about peat was theoretical.  I had played on the margins of a small peatland swamp as a child, walked through a peatland forest in East Kalimantan back in 1988 and recently took a helicopter flight over peatlands in Riau Province with a PM.Haze. This was my first opportunity to have a close-up view.

Tan Yi Han (right) co-founder of PM.Haze with Taufik Rahman from WALHI Riau


Ng Iris and Zhang Wen, Executive Director PM.Haze, travelling to Sungai Tohor


PEEP participants, media teams and community members from Tebing Tinggi Timur, Sungai Tohor.

The Program

Our journey took us to the Sungai Tohor area on Tebing Tinggi island, Riau Province.


Tebing Tinggi is a peat island formed by slow accumulation over the past 8000 years, since the end of the Pleistocene Ice Age. This process has been part of the coastal stabilisation of Riau province.

Beginning in 2007 two companies began cutting canals through the island and draining the peatland for plantations of sago palm and pulpwood for paper production.

This resulted in land, comprising the concessions issued to the companies, being taken from the local community. Now as the peatland dried out, there was not only subsidence of the land but it also became more vulnerable to fire. In 2014, fires burned across the island.

These coconut palms show the effects of land subsidence.

Peatland where fires raged in 2014, now covered with secondary re-growth, a climax community of ferns and small trees.

After the fires the community invited Indonesian president Joko Widodo (Jokowi) to visit the island.  Villagers presented him with an alternative peat management plan leading to the revocation of one company’s license. The land was returned to the community for sustainable management. We visited this land which is now being rehydrated through the building of canal blocks. PM.Haze members and those joining PEEP helped build the latest canal block.

Canal block under construction. Peat filled bags give it strength.

Zhang Wen digging peat to fill bags used in the canal block

Low Ying Hui filling bags with peat soil

Ng Iris, tying up a peat soil bag.

L to R  – Darlene Kasten, Aurélie Charmeau, Ng Iris and Tan Yi Han who is explaining the canal blocking process

Future plans

Attempting to develop self-sufficiency based on the cultivation of sago palms is a major objective of the village.  At present raw sago starch is sent to Malaysia for further processing. Current plans are to explore ways of value adding, perhaps expanding the existing cottage industry that is already producing sago noodles and sago snacks.  The community hopes to increase its income by adding value to sago production.

Splitting lengths of sago palm trunk before extracting the starch.

Feeding lengths of sago palm into the milling machine. The milled sago is then washed to extract starch.


Sago palm bark and fibre residue present both an environmental challenge and a business opportunity.

Sago starch is cooked for processing into sago noodles in a simple cottage industry.

Preparing the starch dough

A noodle cutting tool ready for use.

The challenges confronting the people of Tebing Tinggi can be found throughout the peatland of Indonesia.  One area where people have also confronted the problem of peatland drainage and wild fires producing toxic levels of smoke, is in the Pelangkaraya area of Central Kalimantan.

For more on PEEP visit the PM.Haze Blog

Ranu Welum Foundation

At the Ubud Writers and Readers Festival (UWRF) of 2016 I also met Emmanuela Shinta, a young Dayak leader.  She was instrumental in organising young volunteers to help villagers affected by the smoke, bringing medical services, supplies and health education during the 2015 peatland fires. In May 2016, she and others founded the Ranu Welum Foundation which continues grassroots education on the smoke haze problem

With the help of Emmanuela Shinta I plan to write more on this in the future.

Posted by: maximos62 | December 9, 2016

Nusantara: Earthquakes and Vulcanism

I began the day thinking about the

This set me thinking again about volcanoes and earthquakes in Indonesia.

According to the Smithsonian Institute there are 1,337 active and extinct volcanic features in Indonesia. Andesite volcanoes associated with subduction predominate. Over the past 400 years 80 Indonesian volcanoes have been active and 64 are Andesite and Basaltic Andesite producing. 48 of these are strato-volcanoes the most explosive types.


Mt Agung last erupted in 1964.

Looking for resources on volcanoes and earthquakes I found this brilliant animation showing global volcanic and earthquake activity since 1960.

Subduction, Strato-volcanoes and Earthquakes

To the nortn Australia, ocean floor, the leading edge of the India-Australia earth plate in the region, collides with the Eurasian plate. This happens a little south of the Indonesian archipelago along Indonesia. The India-Australia plate is forced down below the Indonesian archipelago. As the India-Australia plate descends along this collision zone it forms the deep sea Java Trench. This narrow trench includes the deepest point of the Indian Ocean, over 7,700m below sea level.


When one colliding plate slides below the other plate the process is known as subduction. The India-Australia plate has been subducting below the Indonesian front for 70 million years, to the north it collides with the Eurasian plate to cause the uplift of the Himalayas.

Parts of the plate may have descended to depths of 1,200km below Indonesia. The descending plate triggers the many, large and often deep earthquakes felt in Indonesia. Friction, compression and heat from the earth’s mantle promotes melting in the sub ducting plate edge and in overlying rocks. Molten materials rise up as magma and erupt at the surface, where they form Indonesia’s volcanoes. It is the process that provides the molten material feeds Indonesia’s volcanic growth.

Earthquakes can either be the direct result of this tectonic movement or more localised events associated with one particular volcanic system.

94 people are known to have perished as structures collapsed throughout Aceh after a magnitude of 6.5 earthquake shook the province on Wednesday. More are feared dead and, as with all such natural disasters, the full extent of the event will not be known for some time.

Aceh has been troubled by natural disaster, the tragic 2004 Tsunami prominent as the most severe in recent history.

Nusantara and tectonic forces

A complex tectonic division sweeps from the Indian to the Pacific oceans creating an archipelagic complexity, once known as Nusantara. Perhaps the best known, in former times was Krakatau’s cataclysmic eruption, in August 1883. Although modest in magnitude by the standards of Nusantara, or the Dutch East Indies as it was called at the time, it was still massive enough to convince stockmen driving cattle across the Hammersley Range that there was artillery fire to the north west. The explosions were heard in Saigon and Bangkok, Manila and Perth, and at a lonely cattle station south of Darwin called Daly Waters.

In the history of Nusantara,  Krakatau’s eruption was small compared with Mt Toba’s eruption 75,000 years earlier.

The six year long volcanic winter and 1000-year-long instant Ice Age that followed Mount Toba’s eruption may have decimated Modern Man’s entire population. Genetic evidence suggests that Human population size fell to about 10,000 adults between 50 and 100 thousand years ago. The survivors from this global catastrophy would have found refuge in isolated tropical pockets, mainly in Equatorial Africa. Populations living in Europe and northern China would have been completely eliminated by the reduction of the summer temperatures by as much as 12 degrees centigrade. Professor Stanley H. Ambrose

Sea levels fell as much as 150 metres so island hopping through the vast archipelago of Nusantara became a comparatively simple event finally enabling human passage further to the south and the east. In those days it was probably possibly to walk between the sites of modern day Merauke, in West Papua, and Darwin in about three weeks.

This was a time of heightened biophysical continuity that is still obvious.

For more on this see my earlier post from October, 2008, Australia’s iegional Interests: strategic or an ancient story

Implications of living on Asia-Pacific Ring of Fire

The 2009 Padang earthquake, The Christchurch earthquake of 2010, the Samoan tsunami and the Japanese earthquake and tsunami of 2011, along with the more recent earthquake activity in New Zealand and Indonesia are all examples of a long standing instability that continues to have an undeniable impact on life in the Asia-Pacific region. Within the region over the past year there have been:

  • 6 earthquakes in the past 24 hours
  • 36 earthquakes in the past 7 days
  • 149 earthquakes in the past 30 days
  • 1,732 earthquakes in the past 365 days

Such recurring events underscore regional connections and the continuity.








Posted by: maximos62 | October 27, 2016

#UWRF16 – Paradise Revisited a Panel Discussion

The panel was tasked with considering the proposition that:

From busloads of tourists and bustling beaches, to Balinese Hinduism and a global voice, Bali is a place that knows how to adapt.

This is a summary of my introductory comments and a little more that there was insufficient time to express.

As the only foreigner on this panel I’d like to say a little about misunderstandings.

Recently Melbourne Barrister Jim Mellas posted this anecdote on. His Twitter stream.Uber driver: what sort of work do you do?

Jim: I’m a barrister

Uber Driver: I like coffee! Where you work? I come for coffee.

When I first came to Bali such misunderstandings were common enough for me.

One day I was asked

Ke mana, Russell

Saya ke pasar, mau mendapat penjahat

Penjahat, Russell?

Oh, maaf Penjait

My friends were very forgiving.

Misunderstandings arising from language were common in those days and continue but I was determined to learn as much as I could about Bali.

So when I’m confronted with a statement as blunt as Bali is a place that knows how to adapt, in the interests of clarity and efficient communication many questions arise. First, what is adaptation.

In biology – the process of change by which an organism or species becomes better suited to its environment. In evolutionary terms this is predicated on the existence of natural selection.

In a social sense: the process of changing to better suit a situation.
Now that makes sense Desa, Pala, Patra – adapting to time – place and context is a commonly understood principle in Bali and therefor a potential strength.

There its no doubt that the connectivity and creativity of Balinese society affords a degree of resilience in the fast of major changes offering many opportunities for social adaptation, many creative solutions.

Indeed the early emergence of cultural tourism in the Gianyar Regency, Ubud in particular, is one such positive adaptation, so too is the Ubud Writers and Readers Festival now in its 13th year. Events such as this add value to tourism, strengthen local capacities to respond and adapt to a changing world, to make a creative response to the the globalised industrial and post industrial economic system now so predominant.

Where I must question Bali’s adaptability is in the domain of the biophysical environment, it’s management and the associated environmental mangement economics or the green economy where the answer to the question is problematic.

At this stage I contend that Bali isn’t successfully adapting in this domain, but retain a significant degree of optimism, given the creativity of the human resources on this small island.

I shape my answer to this question with  spiritual, scientific and economic perspectives.

Spiritually my position accords with that of Patriarch Bartholomew when he writes:

“. . . to commit a crime against the natural world is a sin.

For human beings to cause species to become extinct and to destroy the biological diversity of God’s creation; for human beings to degrade the integrity of the earth by causing changes in its climate, by stripping the earth of its natural forests, or by destroying its wetlands; for human beings to injure other human beings with disease; for human beings to contaminate the earth’s waters, its land, its air, and its life, with poisonous substances – all of these are sins.”

As a corollary he adds:

The way “. . . we treat the earth and all of creation defines the relationship that each of us has with God. It is also a barometer of how we view one another.”

When I first came to Bali, I hadn’t developed such insights, I brought my background in Geography and Economics but it wasn’t long before I came up against a Balinese spiritual tool Tri Hita Karana.

In simple terms it asserts that there are three causes of prosperity and happiness and that these states proceed from harmonious relationship between:

(1) Humans and God – Parhyangan;

(2) Humans and their neighbours – Pawongan,

(3) Humans and the natural world – Palemahan.

Its roots are far more ancient, although this doctrine only came into wide use as recently as the 1966.  My sense was that Tri Hita Karana could be applied in a material as well as a spiritual sense yet I saw many examples of lack of material harmony or equilibrium, particularly in the relationship between humans and nature.

What I wasn’t understanding was the application of another set of understandings Sekala and Nislala.  In the simplest sense this means that reality, is an interaction of the Seen and the Unseen. In time I came to accept this idea and have now completed my first book of short stories with this as the part of its title.

Yet in accepting this idea it gradually became plain that harmonious relations between humans and nature were often mediated through ceremonies, through the Unseen realm and that for many this represented sufficient regard for the environment.

This worked well enough in the pre-industrial world even though Bali was by no means sealed and impervious to outside influences. Fortunately, such external influences were for the most part environmentally non-disruptive, by comparison with the present.

Things changed in the 1970s with the growth is wide bodied jet travel and the dawn of the era of mass tourism.

In Bali before this era forces like Bhoma played their part within the unseen realm. As the child of Vishnu and Ibu Pertiwi, Bhoma is an entity whose place is intrinsically connected with the conjunction of earth and water. In terrestrial environments, earth, water, atmosphere and biosphere all meet. All four domains are present in a space where energy is exchanged and fundamental transformations in states of matter occur.

In pre-industrial Bali it was easy for humans, much of what they did was in harmony with nature, so natural processes remained intact and unimpeded. All remained in equilibrium and Bhoma was free to carry out his work skimming across the earth and transforming rubbish into the food of life.

So where are we now? Well Bhoma has indigestion, the heartburn of Tri Hita.

The Bali I encountered, when I first came here has gone. My greatest fear is that given the high demand elasticity of budget tourism in South East Asia, and the mounting numbers of tourists escaping the polluted cities of eastern China and headed for Bali, that they will settle for tarmac, concrete and plastic, a Bali of Benoa Bay canal estates, an artificial and unsustainable paradise.

The solution is in valued added tourism. I’ve always believed that cultural, environmental and educational tourism is something Balinese society can do well. Perhaps there is hope in the Bali Clean and Green Program. What it must deal with and how effective it can be, I hope we will confront, in discussion. If it isn’t effective the answer to the question is an absolute no.

I still want Bali to be the morning of the world, even if it’s moving into the siang, towards midday.

Read more of my work by either picking up a copy of Seen and Unseen: a century of stories from Asia and the Pacific from me at UWRF16 or from Toko Buku Ganesha in Ubud. It’s also available through Amazon and as an audio book through CD Baby. Visit my website for full details.

Seen and Unseen a century of stories from Asia and the Pacific is reviewed by Bill Dalton in Toko Buku on page 17  of the Bali Advertiser for October 26, 2016.

View a Pecha Kucha on my work here.

The audio book Seen and Unseen: a century of stories from Asia and the Pacific is now available from CD Baby. Compared with the print version there are two minor changes in the ordering of the stories, ‘Headland’ the last stories in the print version is at the end of the suite of stories that are set in Australia and ‘Baby Boomers and Japan’ precedes it.

Making the audio book

Recording this audio book has been an interesting journey. My first step was to acquire a suitable microphone. After experimenting with some cheap off the shelf versions, I realised that they were quite inadequate. After a little research I found the Yeti by Blue. This is an incredibly versatile microphone. I won’t say much about it here, but I’ve posted YouTube video below that demonstrates its versatility.

Garageband proved to be suitable software so I began. Not being a professional actor but at least knowing how to project my voice and read with both a consistent metre and expression, I embarked on the journey.

Ambient noise, bad voice days and the occasional rumble of thunder or jets passing over necessitated re-recording at times.  I also made an attempt to engineer changes in my voice to reflect different characters. I think for the most part I’ve been successful. In saying this I must added that I didn’t attempt accents beyond the most minimal variation.  My years living in Indonesia and the fact that I currently reside in Singapore did not embolden me to attempt Indonesian or Singapore English, for the most part.

Here is a sample of my work my work from An Unusual Kind of Thunder which is the first of two firsthand accounts of the Bali Bombings of October 2002. The other is In the Charnel House. Reading stories like these wirth their strong emotional content and explicit descriptions of the impact of terrorist bombing is an emotional experience.  Although I’m well beyond the raw Post Traumatic Stress of the first few years after this event, the reading brought back a lot of memories. In a practical sense, this meant I had to edit a lot, when the tears started flowing.  The result is a smooth coherent unfolding of two powerful stories.

My work’s significance.

In launching my book earlier this year Dr David Reeve had this to say of it:

This is partly creative fiction though it’s based on his own life and I think of it of keeping to a tradition of writing on Asia. I remember the excitement back in 1978 when Chris Koch published The Year of Living Dangerously then in 1980 Blanche D’Alpuget published Monkeys in the Dark, 1981 Turtle Beach. Robert Drew in 1981 published A Cry in the Jungle Bar. Those authors sat down not knowing that the others had an Asia theme and started just at a particular moment to write about Australians really enmeshing themselves in Asia.

When I look at the similarity of those four novels, in each of those,  Australians go forward full of high ideals and anticipation but in fact come home defeated, physically wounded or psychologically wounded or in the case of the hero of A Cry in the Jungle Bar actually dead. So I think this is a new and more mature and more realistic mood in Russell Darnley’s book. The Australian doesn’t go out with high hopes to Asia, gets defeated and returns partially destroyed, certainly damaged. In him it’s a much more complex engagement, it has of course it fears, it’s dangers, its sicknesses but it’s much more mature, I think, in its approach to the complexities of these enmeshments.

I’d like to think that I’ve added a more optimistic and resilient dimension to Australia’s attempts at engaging with our remarkable large and complex neighbour since 15 of my stories are set in Indonesia.  This is no simple task, as former Australian Foreign Minister Gareth Evans reminds us when he writes:

“No two neighbours anywhere in the world are as comprehensively unalike as Australia and Indonesia. We differ in language, culture, religion, history, ethnicity, population size, and in political, legal and social systems.”

Of course the book isn’t merely about Indonesia, Seen and Unseen: a century of stories from Asia and the Pacific is 29 stories inspired by one family’s experience spanning three generations the stories are cradled in reality and crafted with an eye for accuracy, but frailty of memory and the natural passing of people and the need to protect others has rendered some stories fictional, even when they’re not.

This work acknowledges that interactions with people from our and culture are generally tangible and familiar but beyond our immediate culture things change, now meaning and understanding must often be negotiated. Foucault’s ideas and the Balinese belief that the reality is interaction of Sikala the seen and Niskala, the unseen, influence this work.

What comprises the Unseen realm varies. What might be understood as micro ecology in one place has spiritual explanations elsewhere. In rational secular society magic is dismissed as mythology or superstition but in parts of Asia and in the Pacific what might be seen as myths and misconceptions can possess the power of reality.

ANMEF HO Rabaul, 1914

ANMEF HO Rabaul, 1914

This journey is a long and varied one. It begins in 1914 with Sid Thompson and D Company part of the Australian Naval and Military Expeditionary Force sent to capture New Guinea from Germany. Easily defeating the enemy unseen forces took enormous toll draining the strength of healthy young men and promoting a lifetime interest in Chinese medicine for Sid.

I’ve mentioned An Unusual Kind of Thunder and In the Charnel House but there are many more tales

Red Poppies and Janur chronicles Sid’s return to Australia, his family struggle through the Great Depression, and his response to the sacrifice of those who gave up their lives in the Great War. It Segues into Camphor, Silk and Ivory,


a story of seamen’s tales and a child’s embryonic awareness of the cultures beyond.

Made in Japan is a story of hostilities that run deep it’s an account off bitterness, even hatred through memories of wartime atrocities. It’s also a story of redemptive transformation that for many Australians began with the appearance of the striking Hiroshima panels that finally allowed a true measure of the atrocity of war to emerge.

Joss sticks

Joss sticks

Joss Sticks and Cracker Night and An Encounter with White Australia often unacknowledged Asian influences in Anglo Australia of the 1950’s at a time when clear visions of the Australian region and its many cultures were still shrouded in the vial of the anti-Asian White Australia Policy.

Surviving the Sixties is a personal account of a growing sense of region the desire to know the other rendered more difficult but racism the Vietnam War and the draft. It explores the discourse of a generation confronted by the shadow of the Cold War and its monochromatic world.


In Headland many years of travel in Asia permit a resolution of the negative energies that long enveloped me when I stood on Coogee’s northern headland. This is a story that could not have been written without a sense of the interplay of the seen and the Unseen.

First Landfall is about a journey to Singapore in 1972 and an abrupt awakening the realisation of being a ketchup Backpacker a blow to romantic idealism.  Following on the Sublime to the Horrific reveals a couple confronting a primal issue conception with complications as they travel through Singapore Malaysia and Thailand.

Bhoma carving from Puri Saren Agung, Ubud, Bali

Bhoma carving from Puri Saren Agung, Ubud, Bali

Beyond Bhomas’ Powers reveals an ancient spiritual tradition pointing to a harmonious balance with nature. In Balinese tradition Bhoma is an unseen power behind this balance transforming and recycling yet unable to deal with modern and pollution.

Balikpapan Looking Backwards and Forwards employs the metaphor of the Wayang Kulit, the shadow play, revealing the past and the present shaping out the future of Borneo and its once magnificent equatorial rain forests.

Dayak people already displaced by logging: Rukun Damai and Long Ubung

Dayak people already displaced by logging: Rukun Damai and Long Ubung

The River Guide ventures further into the heart of Borneo with Alex whose mind is a precise map of values and relativities, of seen and unseen flows and eddies. A journey of many hues it affords opportunities to view the history of the river and its people confronting influences from the Ming to the present.

Siberut and the Simple Life is a story of forest people yet to develop the habit of money. It is also a story of the warmth and humour but more importantly one of exploitation and the destructive forces transforming their environment


The Pig and the Cockfight is not exactly a comedy of manners but it could be, rather it’s a story of the process of understanding Balinese culture at greater and greater depth, the pitfalls the humour and the ultimate resolution.

Kampanye – The Campaign Procession sees two Australians caught up in a huge demonstration on the eve of Indonesia’s elections challenging the paranoia of official Australian travel warnings and revealing a society of youth optimism and generosity of spirit. Following on Pemilihan Umum – The General Election continues the theme as the Australians join Indonesian friends in this transition to democracy.

An Unusual Kind of Thunder and In the Charnel House deal directly and graphically with the Bali bombings of 2002. Any assessment of these stories is best left to the reader.

Beyond this suite of Indonesian stories there is a number of others that warrant special mention.

Singapore 43 Years On is about returning to Singapore a city transformed. This is a story of disorientation and a longing for the past being transformed into a contemporary appreciation of this remarkable on entrepot and its global connections.

Marina Bay, part of the Singapore Straits in 1972

Marina Bay, part of the Singapore Straits in 1972

Vietnam A War Revisited is a story of the anti-war movement and the draft told respectively from Hanoi. It is a story of unveiling, in a sense. Visiting Vietnam for the first time and grateful that I wasn’t part of that group of Australians sent there in the 1960s, and a chance meeting with another Australian in Hanoi, evokes a candid reflection on the War years.

About the Yeti by Blue

Travelling through East Kalimantan in 1987 the extent of forest clearance was immediately apparent. On the road from Balikpapan to Tenggarong most of the clear-felled areas I passed were tantamount to a tinderbox waiting for a firestorm.

Fire in logged areas was a regular occurrence in East Kalimantan and ten years after this visit, the inevitable happened. The El Nino of 1997-98 exacerbated yet another outbreak that went on to burn 25% of the province.

Air pollution over Southeast Asia in October 1997

Air pollution over Southeast Asia in October 1997

The El Nino of 2015-16

In June the Straits Times reported that peatland fires in Kalimantan and Sumatra that blanketed South-east Asia in thick haze last year released the greatest amount of climate-changing carbon since record blazes in 1997, producing emissions higher than in the whole of the European Union.

The Nature Climate Change 4 notes that El Niño events are a prominent feature of climate variability with global climatic impacts. The 1997/98 episode, often referred to as ‘the climate event of the twentieth century’1, 2, and the 1982/83 extreme El Niño3, featured a pronounced eastward extension of the west Pacific warm pool and development of atmospheric convection, and hence a huge rainfall increase, in the usually cold and dry equatorial eastern Pacific. Such a massive reorganization of atmospheric convection, which we define as an extreme El Niño, severely disrupted global weather patterns, affecting ecosystems4, 5, agriculture6, tropical cyclones, drought, bushfires, floods and other extreme weather events worldwide3, 7, 8, 9

Recent research on the 2015 fires reported in the Straits Times concluded that 884 million tonnes of carbon dioxide was emitted in the region last year, with 97 per cent originating from forest fires in Indonesia.

The results showed that regional carbon dioxide emissions from the fires were 11.3 million tonnes per day in September and October 2015, more than the 28-nation EU’s daily emissions of 8.9 million tonnes during the same period.

The researchers also said the emissions were worse than during the 1997 fires, considered the worst on record.

At that time, there was an even longer drought and widespread burning due to a stronger El Nino.

Research suggests 100,000 premature deaths

A palm oil concession in Indonesia's Riau Province

A palm oil concession in Indonesia’s Riau Province

Harvard and Columbia University researchers have used air pollution readings to calculate exposure to the toxic smoke haze that drifted across Indonesia, Singapore and Malaysia, last year. Their research suggests 100,000 premature deaths in Indonesia, Singapore and Malaysia, arising from this event.

The Sydney Morning Herald’s Indonesia correspondent Jewel Topsfield quotes the report from the Environmental Research Letters journal on September 19 as estimating “. . . that haze in 2015 resulted in 100,300 excess deaths across Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore,” says the report, which was published in. This was largely the result of exposure the dangerous particulate matter of 2.5 microns or smaller (PM2.5).  The report states:

A combination of El Niño and pIOD conditions in July–October 2015 led to dry conditions that exacerbated agricultural and land clearing fires in southern Sumatra and Kalimantan. The resulting dense haze persisted across much of Equatorial Asia for weeks, imposing adverse public health impacts on populations in Indonesia, Singapore, and Malaysia. Using the adjoint of the GEOS-Chem global chemistry model together with health response functions, we estimate ~60 μg m−3 of population-weighted smoke PM2.5 exposure and 100 300 premature deaths across Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore due to extreme haze in 2015. These values are more than double the 25 μg m−3 of smoke PM2.5 and 37 600 premature deaths that we estimate for a similar haze event in the region in 2006. The approximate doubling of regional smoke exposure in 2015 compared to 2006 is consistent with observations of haze from both OMI AI and MODIS AOD during the two events.

Conditions are becoming worse with the El Nino Southern Oscillation (ENSO) cycle and Indian Ocean Dipole (IOD) potentiating factors.



The report notes that, “Exposure to air pollution increases the risk of death from a number of ailments including stroke and respiratory illnesses,” one of the researchers from Harvard University, Dr Shannon Koplitz, told Fairfax Media.

Indonesians were the worst affected with an estimated 91,600 excess deaths.

Last year Indonesia’s National Disaster management Agency (BNPB) acknowledged the severity of the situation reporting that hat 43 million Indonesians were affected by the smog in Sumatra and Kalimantan alone with 503,874 reported Acute Respiratory Infections (ARI).


Based on a map appearing in Kompas, Tues 26 October, 2016

Topsfield reports Sutopo Purwo Nugroho from BNPB as claiming “There is nothing like that (91,000 premature deaths),”  and going on to say, “It is not true. The data is not valid. If there were high numbers of people dead we would have stated it in our almost daily forest fire press releases last year.”

It seems Sutopo Purwo Nugroho has misunderstood the data which pointed to premature deaths, rather than deaths in the present period.

Biggest Environmental Disaster of 21st Century

Topsfield  also quotes Erik Meijaard, an Indonesian-based honorary associate professor at the University of Queensland who says that “Indonesia’s fires are probably the biggest global environmental disaster of the 21st century”.

Meijaard wrote in The Jakarta Globe referencing the Mongabay Series: Indonesian Forests which noted that:

  • Greenhouse gas emissions from peat fires in Borneo and Sumatra are currently exceeding emissions from the entire U.S. economy, putting Indonesia on track to be one of the world’s largest carbon polluters this year.
  • According to the Global Fire Emissions Database (GFED) carbon emissions from Indonesia’s fires have just topped the CO2 equivalent of a billion tons.
  • The findings bring into sharp focus the importance of ending business-as-usual approaches to land management in Indonesia if the world hopes to curb greenhouse gas emissions.

While the health impacts are an obvious and continuing legacy of the rapacious forest burning there are other grave consequences.

Non-health consequence of forest clearing and burning

The impacts on endangered ecosystems and endangered animals, in particular, are well documented. Tragic as this is, particularly for animals such as the Sumatran Tiger and the Orang Utan, I’ve concentrated on less well known impacts. The WWF covers the issue of Palm Oil and Biodiversity Loss most thoroughly.

Subsidence of peatlands and their increasing vulnerability to sea level rise and flooding

Flooding in deltas and riparian lowlands is accelerated by the subsidence of peatlands.  Subsidence commonly occurs when channels are cut through peat lands as part of the clearing process. Peat dries out begins to release sequestered CO2 and shrinks. This is well documented in the Straits Times article which reminds us that unrestrained forest clearance to develop oil palm and pulpwood plantations leads to land subsidence.

The article observes that:

Millions of hectares of Indonesia’s former forest lands are slowly subsiding and could become flooded wastelands unable to grow food or timber-based products in one of the world’s most populous nations. Combined with rising sea levels, the scale of the problem becomes even more stark because much of the east coast of Sumatra is just a few metres above sea level.

It quotes Wetlands International which claims that between 70 per cent and 80 per cent of Sumatra’s peatlands have been drained, largely for agriculture.

Vast stretches of peatlands along Sumatra’s east coast that is mere metres about sea level. Mr Marcel Silvius of Wetlands International tells us:

These peatlands will become unproductive so that, over time, almost the entire east coast of Sumatra will consist of unproductive land that will become frequently flooded, adding that this means the livelihoods of the local communities will be jeopardised, and industrial plantations will not be possible any more.

Remediation is unlikely to be an option so the costs associated with this aspect of the palm oil industry are huge and inter-generational.

Siltation of drainage basins, mangroves and coastal waters

Clearing any land in humid environments increases run off and reduces the percolation of water into soils.  Run-off velocity in such situations also increases and without the protective forest layer erosion increases, top soil is lost and carried into water courses, streams and rivers. This in turn reduces the efficiency of channel flow, increasing flooding and also leading to increased siltation of estuaries and coastal waters.  Such siltation can disturb coastal mangroves and associated fish breeding areas.  River transport, coastal fishing and coastal navigation all suffer.

Muhammad Lukman, in research towards his PhD, has identified elevated levels of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons in riparian and coastal sediments.   He suggests that his findings could be evidence of the effects of widespread, long-term and intense agricultural burnings along with the many forest/peat swamp fires that have frequently occurred in the past 20 years or so.

Some estimates of cost can be made in terms of the costs of flood mitigation and control measures, losses arising from flooding of agricultural land and settled areas, and the immediate impacts on navigation and fishing

Forced closure of schools and educational institutions;

On 25 September, 2015, as haze hovered above AQI 300 in Singapore, schools and kindergartens were closed and protective N95 masks distributed. Levels of smoke haze pollution were far higher in Indonesia where schools had been closed in the previous month. In Malaysia the government announced that schools would be closed in areas with an AQI over 200. On Monday 5 October, 2015, Detik online reported that in Pekanbaru, capital of Riau Province in Sumatra, schools had been closed for more than a month owing to the smoke haze. Finally the Department of National Education Pekanbaru forced students to go to school despite the smoke haze.

Such a cyclical problem will cause significant disruption to educational services and the development of human resources, particularly in Indonesia.

Closure of airports and disruption of airline schedules.

During the burning season 2015 flights were frequently cancelled at Sultan Syarif Kasim II (SSK II) airport Pekanbaru, in Riau province with visibility down to between 300 to 600 metres in the area. Elsewhere Kuching International Airport (KIA) in Sarawak, Malaysia was closed on September 10 with visibility down to some 400 metres. In Indonesia, poor visibility due to smoke disrupted flight schedules at Pinang Kampai Airport, Riau. All of these events have direct measurable impacts.

Losses sustained by the tourism industry and other business sectors

Last year Reuters quoted Irvin Seah, DBS economist in Singapore, who said, In 1997, the level of pollution was not this severe, and noting that the tourism industry’s contribution to the economy was relatively smaller back then.

The Reuters report observes that Tourism makes up 6.4 percent of Malaysia’s economy and about 5 to 6 percent of Singapore’s and quotes an ANZ research report that says, in Singapore, Shopping, restaurants, bars and outdoor entertainment will all suffer during this hazy period.

Among the events disrupted or even cancelled due to the haze were the 2015 FINA Swimming World Cup in Singapore and the Kuala Lumpur Marathon in Malaysia.

While losses in tourism and ancillary sectors can be calculated there are increased costs to businesses across the board. Developing and implementing disaster relief plans for employees is one area that is immediately obvious, then there are the issues of work days lost owing to respiratory or cardio pulmonary illnesses, disruptions to supply chains and various other schedules of usual business activity. Finally there is the matter of impacts on ventilation and air conditioning filtration systems particularly in Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore.

Impact on global warming

This was also broached in the previous post Forest Burning and haze in Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore. The precise impact of any one burning event is difficult to judge, but the immense quantities of carbon stored in the peatlands of Indonesia is cause for concern. One estimate suggests that Indonesia’s 1997 fires released 810 to 2,670 million tonnes of carbon into the atmosphere, the equivalent of 13 to 40 per cent of the fossil fuels emitted worldwide that year.

In a report entitled ‘Indonesian haze: Why it’s everyone’s problem’ on 18 September, 2015, CNN observed that, it’s a persistent, annual problem that disrupts lives, costs the governments of Indonesia, Singapore and Malaysia billions of dollars, and leaves millions of people at risk of respiratory and other diseases. The land that burns is extremely carbon rich, raising Indonesia’s contribution to climate change.

The CNN report also reminds us that in 2014 Indonesia was ranked the world’s sixth worst emitter of green house gasses.

I wasn’t expecting things to deteriorate quite as quickly as they have today.



Just in case readers aren’t familiar with this Air Quality Index scale, readings are based on several factors but the figure 248 refers to parts per million of particles 2.5 microns in size.  These have a capacity to enter the lungs and remain deep inside.



So, where is all this smoke haze coming from today.

First, here is yesterdays wind map showing hotspots in the ASEAN region.  There are two in Sumatra.



Here is a map showing palm oil plantations and peat domes in Sumatra.

Oil palm map


Without doing a precise mapping exercise to match the active hotspots with peat domes, it’s still obvious that the most likely source of Singapore’s smoke haze pollution right now is a hot spot  west south west of Palembang.  At the time of writing Palembang is at AQI 54 but this is a PM 10 reading

Indonesia’s hot spots

The Straits Times recently carried this video from Reuters

Today the Straits Times carried this article.


This festival is held during the 7th lunar month. This year it begins on 3rd August with commemorative activities running until 31st August.

Commemorating the Dead

The Hungry Ghost Festival and the Ghost Month (鬼月) has uncertain origins. Similar commemorations are found throughout Asia from India  to Japan. The tradition apparently predates Buddhism and perhaps originates from Taoism.

According to one interpretation, the gates of hell are open on the first day of the seventh lunar month, and hungry ghosts are released to find food or to take revenge people who have behaved badly.

J Y See writes: Many of them have suffered in hell where they starved for months making it necessary to feed them with offerings to ward off any evil, hungry spirits.

Believers hold ceremonies and make offerings, chanting together to free and propitiate the ghosts.

Music accompanying the Taoist Ritual of chanting and making offerings to the ghosts

Offerings of beverages, cakes, flowers and fruit

Offerings for the ghosts including wine, cooked poultry and paper ‘money’.

Some Chinese believe the gates of heaven are also open during this month, and commemorate their heavenly ancestors at this time.  Ancestors are often provided with money and consumer goods in symbolic gesture of support


Burning paper ‘money’, possible symbolic share certificates, stocks and debentures.


‘Money’ offerings burned by the wayside with cakes fruit, votive candles and incense placed and left on the footpath.

Contemporary offerings that, fabricated from paper and cardboard, that might be used in the other realm.

Since the realm of ghosts and ancestor spirits is an intangible and non-material realm it is the essence of the offerings that must be conveyed.  Ultimately all paper offerings are burned.

All that remains after the paper offerings have been burned

The sense that ancestor spirits are present has some similarities with the Balinese time of Galungan when Balinese ancestor spirits visit their corporal families. This is a time of great conviviality as ancestor spirits are believed to journey back to the corporal world assisted by the construction of penyor, bridges between the unseen world of spirit and the tangible world.

Behaviours to be Avoided During the Hungry Ghost Festival

Since the angry spirits released from hell are about in numbers, there are certain behaviors or activities that must be avoided during the month, so as not to attract or anger them. Believers would attempt to avoid the following:

  • Strolling at night;
  • Swimming. It is said that drowned evil ghosts might try to drown people in order to find victims for them to rebirth;
  • Moving house, starting new businesses or marrying as the month is considered to be inauspicious;
  • Hanging clothes outside at night;
  • Picking up coins or money found on the street and if one does, never bring any home;
  • Stepping on or kicking the offerings by the roadside. If someone were to step on any offerings by accident, he or she should apologize aloud to ameliorate the situation;
  • Wearing red because ghosts are attracted to red;
  • Singing and whistling as these may attract ghosts;
  • Approaching walls as it is believed that ghosts like sticking to walls;
  • Celebrating birthdays at night;
  • Going out at 12 midnight as the ghost may approach you for food and other offerings for them;
  • Opening umbrellas in the house as this might attract spirits;
  • Taking selfies or videos as ghost might appear in them; and,
  • Sleeping facing the mirror or something reflective as this guides the ghosts.

Believers are also advised to be cautious when sitting in empty chairs.

Banquet seats erected and decorated for the hungry ghosts and/or ancestor spirits

Banquet seats erected and decorated for the hungry ghosts and/or ancestor spirits


For more detailed information and videos on the commemoration visit AsiaOne’s treatment of the event.

Christianity and Commemoration of the Dead

In Western Christianity All Souls’ Day commemorates those departed in faith, often with a focus on one’s relatives but also  faithful departed, in particular (but not exclusively) one’s relatives. In Western Christianity the commemoration is held on 2 November and is associated with All Saints Day on 1 November and its vigil Halloween.  In recent years Halloween has been transformed into a secular commercial event.

In the Eastern Church practices vary somewhat in the Greek Orthodox Church the practice is to make commemorations for the departed on the third, ninth, and fortieth days after their repose. Since not all Orthodox Christians might have been commemorated in this way four Saturdays are set aside for a general commemoration of souls. This year, 2016 these commemorations fell on 5, 12 and 19 March, as well as the day before Pentecost June 18.  All Saints day followed one week after Pentecost on June 26.

















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