PALANGKA RAYA: Around her, air pollution index (API) levels are at a staggering 2,600 API and a thick, yellowish haze her hometown a haunting, post-apocalyptic hue, yet college student Emmanuela Dewi Shinta is hopeful that things will get better.
"I’ll like to be optimistic about the next year, that there will be no haze,” the 23-year-old told Channel NewsAsia.
Emmanuela has been doing her bit to stem recurrence of the haze. She lobbies local politicians to take action on the yearly burning of peat land to make way for palm oil plantations and volunteers her time taking food to firefighters and villagers battling up to hundreds of hotspots around Central Kalimantan.
Emmanuela is one of the many people Channel NewsAsia's Get Real team spoke to at ground zero of the haze problem for the documentary Heart of the Haze. This year, Indonesians are experiencing one of its worst rash of forest and plantation fires since 1997. Indonesian President Joko Widodo has said up to 1.7 million hectares of land is burning.
NOWHERE TO HIDE FROM HAZE
Prior to the team's arrival in Palangka Raya on Sep 22, API levels were at 800. Anything above 350 according to Indonesia’s meteorological, climate and geophysics department is in the hazardous range. But API levels went off the charts the moment they landed and stayed that way for the next two weeks, at one point reaching 2,600.
Said producer Say Xiangyu, who filmed outdoors in such conditions for more than 12 hours daily for eight days, said: “The toxic haze affects you physically. The crew experienced breathing difficulties and felt dizzy on shoots. But it also gets to you mentally. You start feeling trapped, because there is nowhere to run from the haze. The haze is inside the mall, your hotel room and flights are grounded.”
"We're sick and tired of the #haze": Protester from NGO Justice Peace Integrity of Creation in Indonesia's #Palangkaraya, calls for more concrete action from the government to tackle the annual #IDHaze. #SGHaze #MYHaze http://bit.ly/1V7kGoM(Video: Kane Cunico)Posted by Channel NewsAsia Singapore on Tuesday, September 22, 2015
Ms Say said comfort levels aside, it was more important for the crew and her to tell the stories of those living so close to the danger zone.
“I was amazed by their spirit. They did not sit around and wait for the government to help them. Instead, they joined the fight and asked what they could do for the country. Even if it’s in small ways, like cooking lunch for volunteers.
“I remember a particularly poignant moment when I stood at the grave of a girl called Intan. Her parents told me that the haze killed her. That really hit home for me – that this haze is not just irritating, or toxic – it’s deadly. And I never want to take fresh air for granted.”
Children walk around without masks near the grand mosque in Palangka Raya in air pollution levels of 1,900 API. (Photo: Kane Cunico)
Filming alongside Ms Say was cameraman, Bjorn Vaughn, 34, a resident of Palangka Raya for almost six years. His wife and child have moved to Jakarta to escape the toxic pall.
“Half the time I wouldn’t even recognise where we were. I felt that the whole place had an alternate dimension and it was very eerie,” he said referring to the yellowish smoke that descended upon the city.
FULL EPISODE: HEART OF THE HAZE
Mr Vaughn said the crew was ultimately moved by the humanity that they uncovered throughout their journey. In particular, he was inspired by the many volunteer firefighters, some of them still in their teens. “I reflected on the many experiences that we had and the devastation we saw, and I would be very sad. I would think of that young firefighter in the news. That moved me to tears, that he’s fighting the fires because it was his spiritual calling,” said Mr Vaughn.
“People in Central Kalimantan, despite the circumstances, have amazing coping ability, and this incredible positivity.
“Their ability to be so loving, despite everything. It’s very hard to understand how people can stay so incredibly positive.”