One of the most severe fires in human history are burning right now in Indonesia, creating an environmental catastrophe in a region with precious biodiversity, and putting the health of tens of millions of people at risk. Tens of thousands of hectares of forest have been alight for more than two months as a result of slash-and-burn – the cheapest and quickest way to clear land for new plantations. This year a prolonged dry season and the impact of El Niño have made the situation far worse, with one estimate that daily emissions from the fires have surpassed the average daily emissions of the entire US economy.
“The earth in Indonesia is on fire. Companies destroying forests and draining peatland have made Indonesia’s landscape into a huge carbon bomb and the drought has given it a thousand fuses,” said Busat Maitar, Indonesian Forest Project Leader for Greenpeace Southeast Asia.
Peat and palm trees
More than 80% of the world’s tropical peatlands occur in Indonesia. This spongy, unstable, waterlogged, anaerobic beds of peat can be up to 20 meters deep. Peat has a high carbon content and can burn under low moisture conditions. Once ignited, it smoulders. These smouldering fires can burn undetected for very long periods of time an can creep through the underground layers, making its travels almost untraceable.
Indonesia is the largest producer of palm oil, producing more than 33.5 million tonnes, expecting to double production by the end of 2030. Most of these plantations can be found on Sumatra and Kalimantan; naturally wet and swampy. But as palm trees require dry land, palm-oil plantation owners drained the peat. This dry state is a tinder box for fires.
Fires (besides being prohibited under the Indonesian Law) are probably the worst way to clear forest. But they are the cheapest and quickest method. Besides that they serve another function – land grab. Pristine forests are difficult to convert into palm oil or pulp plantations. But recently burned forests? That’s another story. Everyone can do the math; dry peatland plus fire equals immense fires.
Dutch correspondent Michel Maas says: “Huge companies are behind the paper and palm oil plantations. They provide a lot of money, which also funds the police, local authorities as well as the ministry of Jakarta. So far, the companies can therefore continue undisturbed.”
Breathe at own risk
The fires have caused the air to turn a toxic sepia colour in the worst hit areas of Sumatra and Kalimantan, where levels of the Pollutant Standard Index (PSI) have pushed towards 2,000. Anything above 300 is considered hazardous.
The thickening smog in Sumatra and Kalimantan has started to claim lives. Ten people have died from haze-related illnesses and more than 500,000 cases of acute respiratory tract infections have been reported. The name of just some of the noxious components of the smoke are enough to show why: ozon, carbon monoxide, cyanide, ammonia and formaldehyde.
“If you’re here without a mask, you are breathing much of that smoke into your lungs, which is obviously, I would say, extremely hazardous for your health.” Says Martin Wooster, professor of Earth Observation Science at King’s College London and National Centre for Earth Observation (NCEO).
As well as the damage to the environment and the effects on people’s health, the fires also threatening rare wildlife such as the orangutans. Alarmingly, 258 fire “hotspots” have been detected inside the Sabangau Forest in Borneo which has the world’s largest population of nearly 7,000 wild orangutans. Elswhere, fires are raging in the Tanjung Pulting national park, home to 6,000 wild apes, the Katingan forest with 3,000 and the Mawas reserve where there are estimated 3,500.
The pollution will cost Indonesia billions and has led to demonstrations.
Fighting the fires
Indonesia’s president Joko Widodo has cut short his first United States trip to deal with the forest fire emergency in his home country. Widodo’s administration has deployed thousands of military personnel to fight the fires, including through the re-wetting of peatlands. The Indonesian military has gone as far as positioning ships off the coast of hard-hit areas in case evacuations of children and other vulnerable populations becomes necessary.
The country’s authorities have launched investigations against more than 200 companies. Three palm oil plantation companies have had their permits frozen and one forestry company has had its licence revoked.
The companies with suspended permits are PT Langgam Inti Hibrindo, PT Tempirai Palm Resources and PT Waringin Agro Jaya. The forestry was held by PT Hutani Sola Lestari.
Besides, Joko said no new permits would be given to plantation companies to develop peatland and that the government would work to restore and re-irrigate drained peatland areas that are often hit by fires.
Indonesia earlier this month asked several countries, including Singapore, Malaysia and Russia, for aid, equipment and personnel to help. The United States has said it would give Indonesia $2.75 million to combat haze issue, a sum criticized for being tiny relative to the problem.
Photo: © CIFOR – Child with a mask. Palangka Raya, Central Kalimantan.