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Smoke and Fire

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Smoke and Fire

Let's blame it on El Nino or the impending end of the millenium. But whichever it is, it's getting more and more difficult to count one's blessings especially when things seem to happen only for the sole purpose of testing our integrity and resilience.

As a nation Indonesia is generally a model of stoicism. It never makes a drama out of a crisis. On the contrary, it has a tendency to sweep things under the carpet, often much to the exasperation of others, which means things are never grave enough to merit drastic measures or even worth thinking about. Not until it hits one in the face.

Perhaps the key is to be more in tune with the things around us as opposed to simply conceding to the willful demands of our egos. This includes listening more to Mother Nature. Believe it or not the state of nature is often an accurate reflection of our own state of being. And at the moment, the state is very hot and volatile. Indeed El Nino and the continuing drought should really wake us up to the fact that we're in for a rough ride for a long time to come.

It is because of this that we should look at the forest fires and persistent smoky haze enveloping a major part of the country not just as practical problems with difficult solutions. Rather, the so-called natural disaster is the perfect allegory to the country's condition at the moment; that is to say, we are a nation trapped in a suffocating blanket of smog harboring a deadly and all consuming flames that would take a lot more than water to quell. An allegory that applies to all aspects of the nation's life, from the financial to the social and political. We have left the fire to smolder for too long without taking much notice, let alone do something to put it out. Hence we only have ourselves to blame when it finally overwhelms us and renders us paralyzed.

And paralyzed we are, in the real sense of the word. In major parts of Kalimantan and Sumatra travelers wait in vain for flights that never arrive or take off due to poor visibility, while important mail and packets fail to make it past the departure room. The prevailing smog is causing more than cancelled flights and undelivered goods however, as local residents suffer breathing problems and choke with pollution.

And yet forest fires are not a new phenomenon. Every year about 30 million cubic meters of forest are destroyed by fire causing losses amounting to 84 billion US dollars. Impatient big forestry companies had gotten away for far too long with practicing their slash and burn land-clearing technique with impunity. No real effort had been made to stop them. It is only when extreme drought strikes and trees become tinderbox dry resulting in flames that spread like wildfires and causing tangible smog in our neighbors' land, that something simply has to be done about it. By then it is too late to do much except apologize profusely.

This inability to anticipate or measure the level of seriousness of events until it is more or less too late, is unfortunately an ingrained characteristic of many in this country including those holding the reins of power. It is the same inability that fails to measure the pulse and gauge the mood temperature of its citizens, coming up with a wrong diagnosis and thus ending up with prescribing unsuitable cures.

For example, another smoldering fire, the metaphorical one that is, that has given rise to a bitter spate of rioting in Ujung Pandang recently, will no doubt be dismissed as an isolated incident caused by the ravings of a lunatic as opposed to the race riot that it was. Let's hope the fire would not have to turn into a conflagration with deadly smoke that asphyxiates us all before the authorities decide to root out its real cause.

And although it is heartening that something is being done to deal with the currency crisis and our current account deficit, again it is the case of drawing up a wrong diet for a patient already languishing at death's door. Would the patient have to gasp desperately for air before the doctor finally realizes that his charge is actually not suffering from wind but from some terminal disease?

It is to be hoped that the consequence of this blinding smoke is to open our eyes more in order to enable us to decipher the signals around us. It would be a pity if it makes us even more trapped in our own way of looking at things and by doing so continue to reject reality. Disasters are part of our lives, but far from regarding them with quiet stoicism we should deal with them with a sense of urgency that they merit. This is the only way for us to succeed in overcoming them. Like criticisms they are a reality that must be dealt with squarely in the face.

© Desi Anwar

 

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