Widespread burning of tropical peatlands across regions of Malaysia and Indonesia is now considered to be an annual event in equatorial Southeast Asia. The fires cause poor air quality (‘haze’) across the region, affecting the health of millions, and leading to transboundary disputes between places that burn and the places downwind that suffer the smoke plumes from the burning. We seek to investigate the emerging social construction of a new season in the region – the ‘haze season’.
Seasons are a social construct that enables societies to organise their livelihoods around the expectation of recurring phenomena. They are not defined ‘objectively’ by observed patterns of relevant variables (e.g. satellite fire detections or air quality indices), but are instead the product of deliberation and contestation of which phenomena to observe, and how to normalise such phenomena to reflect and serve matters of concern to particular societies.
The emergence of a new season may imply the normalisation of the phenomena, which may carry both positive and negative implications for progress towards adapting to and/or mitigating haze and the fires that drive the pollution crisis – a good example of a socio-environmental feedback. In this paper, we seek to answer three research questions:
- When is the ‘haze season’ (onset, duration)?
- How is ‘haze season’ portrayed in the media? and
- What role does the haze ‘seasonality’ play in shaping people’s behaviour towards haze? Does the new season play a role in normalisation (e.g. densensitisation), adaptation (e.g. wearing masks, indoor activities) and mitigation (e.g. fighting haze, activism) behaviours?
To answer these questions, we analysed news articles published in Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore through the Factiva database.
First, we identified the monthly distribution of newspaper articles mentioning ‘haze’ and ‘haze season’. Then, we identified keywords associated with ‘haze’ and ‘haze season’ by comparing the words found in the articles mentioning each concept with a corpus of words drawn from general usage in the year 2020. This is followed by a keyness analysis between two corpora of articles, namely articles that mention only ‘haze’ and articles that mention ‘haze season’. By doing so, we compare the differences between two distinct textual corpora in order to discover divergent themes. Finally, we used structural topic modelling (STM) to identify topic clusters.
We find a strong distinction between the themes of articles that are written about the ‘haze season’ and articles that simply refer to the haze problem alone. Articles that mention ‘haze’, but not ‘haze season’ focus on the root causes of the haze crisis – peatland fires in Indonesia, oil palm plantations, deforestation – as well as geopolitical cooperation to prevent fires (e.g. through ASEAN). Both our keyness and STM analysis revealed that the ‘haze season’ articles have strong association with the effects of the haze crisis, particularly during the haze season months – poor air quality, pollution standards, mask-wearing, air filtration – suggesting that seasonality plays a role in adaptation behaviour. Outside of the haze season months, articles mentioning the new season focus more on haze mitigation and associated political action.