Facing the fires: when they consume more than peat

We need to talk about the mental health impacts of Indonesia’s peatland fires.

Sebangau Forest in Indonesia was were I found exactly what I wanted to do, and it has also been a place of great personal growth over my years returning to it. I was only 19 years old when I first came to the research camp, and four years later would be the first time I would face the real fear of it burning down: for all it represents to me. Fieldwork is always challenging, but for me 2015 was tainted by several traumas, the last one being the disastrous fires that eventually forced me to leave Borneo. I could heal from the others, but that last one has been particularly tough to deal with.

The 2015 fires and haze disaster in Indonesia was described as the greatest environmental disaster of the 21st century. Toxic smoke covered Indonesia, Malaysia, Brunei, Singapore and even Thailand – you could see it from space. It potentially caused the premature deaths of over 100,000 people in the region. Sebangau Forest lost 10% of its forest cover.

Upon my return to the UK in 2015, while the fires were ongoing, I wrote the following in a blog post explaining some of what it’s like in the haze:

Living in the haze, you are aware that what you are breathing is harming you – you can see it and feel it. Your eyes are constantly irritated and even indoors you can see the thick smoke haze hanging in the air in an acrid cloud. I experienced breathlessness and chest pains even when I was just sitting down. But dust particles are not your only worry when living in haze: carbon monoxide levels have also been off the scale, with Jakarta Post reporting that in Palangkaraya “people were in grave danger of dying painful deaths from carbon monoxide (CO) poisoning”. The dangers are therefore invisible as well.

Living in the haze was what I imagine living in a post-apocalyptic world to be like; you just have to look at the photos if you think this is an exaggeration. Living in these conditions makes you inevitably suffer not only physically, but mentally as well. My colleagues and I have experienced prolonged and significant stress, fatigue, and desperation to leave, and I cannot begin to imagine the mental health impacts of people who face the haze every single year.

When I finally arrived back in the UK my relief was met with a guilt that I have never experienced before. I think of Palangkaraya, my friends, my research assistants and their children, and the fresh air here is a bitter comfort with the memory of what they are experiencing back in Indonesia. 

There was a time when the fires really knocked the hope out of me and I eventually sought the help of a therapist to help get through the worst of it. And while I have found ways to find hope in other aspects of my life and work, the return of the fires every year doesn’t make it any easier. I wonder how many others have struggled as well.

As researchers we need to talk about the psychological implications of watching places that we study and that we love, burn. Or melt, or bleach, or collapse.

There is a whole lot of privilege associated with my experiences of mental health, the peatland fires, and my ability to seek out professional help. Millions of people aren’t in the same position. I know that many Indonesians go along as normal during the fire season (this has in itself so many layers to it), but with increasing awareness of the health dangers of fires and haze, with increasing experiences of environmental degradation in addition to climate change, mental health will certainly become more of an issue.

I do not live in Indonesia anymore, and I certainly haven’t experienced the fires every single year of my life as so many have. The families living on peatlands across Indonesia and the firefighters that tirelessly fight them every year will be greatly suffering in more ways that one. We need to uplift those voices and start centring them in our discussions about the impacts of fires in Indonesia and beyond. This isn’t only about carbon dioxide emissions, forest loss, impacts on GDP and the economy. As Idrus, a CIMTROP patrol team member and firefighter described in a recent blog post and article his experience of the 2019 fires:

“The hot winds blow against my face and I’ve been breathing in toxic smoke for more than two months. I can feel the anger of many people in my village. I am angry; my family is suffering from the fires and smoke too… I am exhausted and haunted by this fire even in my dreams.” 

“I feel totally consumed by fire. I live, eat, sleep, dream fire.”

Idrus, Sebangau, Central Kalimantan 2019

While the literature on mental health linked with peatland fires and haze is pretty non-existent, there has been research conducted on fires and resulting mental health impacts in other countries:

  • Australia: Mental health impact of bushfires in an Australian community. Twelve months after the fires, 42% of the population exposed to wildfires were classified as potential psychiatric cases – more than double that seen in the non-exposed population.
  • California: A study of 357 patients who sought healthcare assistance (therefore not a random sample of exposed persons) after the 2003 Californian wildfires also gives a dramatic picture, with 33% showing symptoms of major depression and 24% showing symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Another study of 30 adults 6 weeks post exposure to wildfires showed increased levels of posttraumatic stress, depression, and anxiety symptoms.
  • Greece: A cross sectional case control study looked at those affected by the Greek wildfires of 2007. Increased symptoms of somatisation, depression, anxiety, hostility, and paranoia were found in those who were victims of the fire compared with controls.

As we collectively witness the increasing impacts of climate change on our communities across the world, this is going to get harder. Some people will be more heavily impacted than others. Some will have more access to help than others. Fighting those inequalities has to be a focus for us all.

When I look at my own research community, and the papers that describe and document the impacts of peatland fires, mental health has garnered little attention. But if we want to talk about resilient socio-ecological systems, if we want to talk about environmental justice and healthy communities, we need to talk about mental health.

And in the end, the only thing that helped me face the fires, was talking about it.

Published by Sara Thornton

🌳🐟 #interdisciplinary #conservation | fishing #livelihoods | tropical #peatlandsmatter | #fires | #outreach | activism Follow me on twitter: @Thornton_SA

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