Choking for Air

The timing couldn’t be worse. Just as El Niño was causing a nationwide drought - and raging fires on the islands of Borneo and Sumatra were creating an enormous cloud of smog known regionally as "the haze" - the collapse of the economy weakened the Indonesian government’s ability to do anything about the host of environmental problems plaguing the entire country. For Wijorno Kristiawan, however, disaster quickly turned into opportunity. Having lost his job at an electronics factory earlier that year, Wijorno was desperate for work of any kind, and the thick haze covering much of Southeast Asia provided just what Wijorno needed: a choking population in need of relief. Every morning before dawn, Wijorno and his cousin began to visit a wholesaler in the outskirts of Jambi, Sumatra to buy surgical masks. The mask hawkers would then roam the town’s intersections looking for motorists, cyclists, and pedestrians willing to pay 50 rupiah (less than 1 US cent) for a mask. For over a year between 1997 and 1998, business was good for Wijorno, and selling protective masks in the informal economy provided temporary relief to choking residents. With 13 of the world’s 15 most polluted cities, Asia’s problems were already severe when the financial crisis struck in mid-1997. By undercutting environmental budgets and conservation efforts, the crisis sapped the resolve of the Indonesian government to enforce environmental regulations and forced thousands of displaced farmers in Kalimantan province and eastern Sumatra to flee their homes. As usual though, few outside Southeast Asia took notice of the regional environmental crisis until a human tragedy caught the world’s headlines - in this case, when an Indonesian airplane lost visibility due to the haze, and crashed in north Sumatra killing all 234 people on board.

Wijorno feels somewhat ambivalent about profiting from a natural disaster, but in the absence of government social welfare programs, he claims to have no choice: "What am I supposed to do? Greedy companies and the corrupt government have made life miserable for us. People can’t breathe and it will only get worse." In many ways, Wijorno is right on both counts. Profit-hungry companies started over 80% of the fires as a cheap way to clear land for agricultural estates and timber plantations. Despite the social and environmental fall-out from the fires, the Indonesian government has no plans of putting an end to the problem. Rather, the government plans to expand the number of acres devoted to palm-oil plantations from 2.2 million hectares to a staggering 5.5 million hectares by 2005. Becoming the world’s largest producer of palm-oil and pulp and paper will certainly have serious environmental consequences for Indonesia. So, what does this all mean to Wijorno? "More masks, more business, more money!" he says half-jokingly. Although the fires had died down slightly by 1999, the lingering financial crisis and the expansion plans of the Indonesian government mean more opportunities for laid-off workers like Wijorno to cash in on a society choking for air.