By Athar Parvaiz
SINGAPORE, July 17 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Gauri Shukla, a 17-year-old high school student in Singapore, first witnessed a fire set to clear land for palm oil plantations while on a visit to Indonesia three years ago.
The visit came just a year after she'd choked on smoke that had drifted across the sea from similar fires in Indonesia, closing schools in Singapore and sending people to hospital.
"I first experienced haze in 2015 when our country was badly engulfed by it," she remembers. The smoke "was something so bad", with pollution indexes skyrocketing.
Then, "when I saw the burning of land in Indonesia, I started worrying about what it is going to do to us in future if it continued," she said.
So Shukla, who had already started writing a blog on haze threats, began a campaign at her school to cut out unsustainable palm oil - and more broadly to stop the burning of land for new palm oil plantations.
That has included running educational events in schools, discussing the issue on social media and creating an online petition against the use of palm oil produced on burned land.
"We can't sit idle and watch as spectators," Shukla told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in an interview in Singapore.
"It is necessary that we act, as all of us, as consumers, are responsible for haze," said the student at United World College of South East Asia, a Singapore international school.
Drifting haze from fires to prepare land for palm oil plantations, or paper and wood pulp plantations, is a regular and serious problem across many countries in Southeast Asia, particularly between July and November.
In a 2016 report, the World Bank said 2.6 million hectares of land in Indonesia was burned between June and October 2015, mainly on Indonesia's Sumatra and Borneo islands.
A Harvard University study the same year linked the haze to over 100,000 premature deaths in Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore during 2015, a year of particularly intense fire activity.
Because fires also release carbon stored in forests, in 2015, "Indonesia emitted more carbon than the entire European Union", noted a 2018 University of Sydney report.
A PALM OIL SOS
Shukla's organisation, Students of Singapore (SOS) Against Haze, since 2016 has worked within schools, and outside of them, to raise awareness about the risks of haze and put pressure on those who contribute to creating it.
Though Shukla counts Swedish teen climate striker Greta Thunberg as a "very inspirational" person, she said her group's approach is "definitely different".
"As protests are not very common in Singapore, we are using social media to campaign," she said.
The group, for instance, created an online petition - which drew more than, 8,000 signatures - asking manfacturers of Singapore's iconic curry puff snack to switch to using sustainable palm oil rather than oil linked to deforestation.
The students also have organised meat-free meal days at school, worked with non-profit groups to prepare guides to help businesses switch to more sustainable ingredients, and taught children how to be effective activists.
She said her group - aware that many jobs are linked to palm oil production - wasn't demanding manufacturers and consumers avoid palm oil, but was instead asking them to ensure the oil they buy is sustainable.
A solution to the haze and deforestation problem can be found only when "all of us work together", she said.
Shukla said she saw her organisation's grassroots efforts as a complement to those by groups such as Thunberg's school strikers, who are pushing for high-level policy changes.
"We are doing different things, but the overall aim is the same," she said.
(Reporting by Athar Parvaiz ; editing by Laurie Goering : (Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, climate change, resilience, women's rights, trafficking and property rights. Visit http://news.trust.org/climate)
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