The fires in Indonesia were one of the biggest environmental and climate stories of 2015. These fires have been variously described as a “crime against humanity,” and the “biggest environmental crime of the 21st century.” Despite their devastating global impact this perennial story receives little attention. In 2015 the fires were worse than ever. They started in July and continued to burn for many months throughout Indonesia with the highest concentrations in Borneo and western Sumatra.
Massive amounts of land are being lost to slash and burn agriculture every year in Indonesia. As reported by the Washington Post, a Climate Advisers analysis of data from WRI, the European Union and other sources, indicates that between 2004 and 2014 about 1 percent of Indonesia’s tree cover or 3.7 million acres, is removed every year.
Each year fires are set to clear peatlands so that they can be drained for palm oil (Indonesia is the world’s largest producer of palm oil) and other plantations. Drier than normal conditions last year caused the fires to spread rapidly. When they are burned the massive amounts of carbon and other pollutants are released into the atmosphere. In some of the worst hit areas the Pollutant Standard Index (PSI) came close to a reading of 2,000, which is almost seven times the level considered hazardous. The fires and resultant toxic fumes forced many provinces in Indonesia to declare states of emergency.
Indonesia is not the only country impacted by the fire induced haze, Malaysia and Singapore and even southern Thailand have also been engulfed by the acrid ochre colored smoke. It is estimated that smoke from such fires has caused a half million respiratory infections and killed more than 100,000 people in Southeast Asia. This is an ongoing catastrophe for local ecosystems including wildlife like orangutans, clouded leopards, sun bears, gibbons, the Sumatran rhinoceros and Sumatran tiger.
Here is a video that contains some images that help to visualize what the fires actually looked like.
Greenhouse Gas Emissions
One recent study estimated that from 2000 to 2010, the clearing of Indonesian forests for palm oil, timber and other purposes led to 8.59 gigatons of carbon dioxide equivalent emissions due to loss of trees and degradation of peatlands. At one point the fires were releasing carbon at a rate that surpassed the emissions of the entire US economy. In a three week time span the fires released more CO2 than the annual emissions of Germany and as of the end of October the cumulative total eclipsed the annual emissions of Japan. The peat fires alone have contributed more than 1.6 gigatons of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere making Indonesia one of the world’s largest contributors of GHGs. Carbon is not the only emission emanating from these fires there is also methane, carbon monoxide, ozone and exotic gases such as ammonium cyanide.
There are also catastrophic economic costs both globally and locally. It estimated that the fires of 2015 will cost the Indonesian economy billions of dollars. TDhe Indonesian government’s own estimate of the costs are as much as $47 billion or about 5 percent of Indonesia’s gross national product. This obliterates all of the countries economic growth for 2015. These figures do not include the losses to productivity.
While big agricultural business deserves much of the blame, it is also important to realize that the bulk of the those setting fires are poor small-scale farmers looking to expand their farmland, illegal operators and small legal operations. There are an estimated 4 million so called “smallholder farmers” in Indonesia.
President Joko Widodo’s promise to protect the peatlands in 2014 worked in a peat forest in Sumatra and in 2015 he called for a moratorium on licensing for peatland concessions. We have seen some arrests. However Indonesian police have arrested executives in connection with the fires including a senior executive from Bumi Mekar Hijau (BMH), and legal action has been taken against several companies including Tempirai Palm Resources, Waringin Agro Jaya, Langgam Inti Hibrindo, Hutani Sola Lestari. While hundreds of plantation and forestry companies were investigated for their role in the fires only a handful have come to justice thus far. The government’s efforts can only be described as contradictory. Many blame the rampant culture of corruption and political patronage in Indonesia.
To bring the practice of slash and burn agriculture to end, fires, especially on peat, must be banned. Currently an Indonesian ruling known as Law 32, allows communities to burn two hectares of land per family. We also need to see a major increase in firefighting resources. The digging of canals to drain peatlands must also end. Peat restoration including re-flooding and other water management measures. More sustainable employment opportunities must be also be made available. Perhaps most importantly those responsible for starting the fires must be brought to justice. We know who the perpetrators are and they must be prosecuted. Satellite images show where these fires burned (almost half were in plantation or logging concessions granted by the government). An up-to-date online, searchable land registry coupled with digital land mapping technologies would also help to identify culprits. The global community must be part of the solution. Leading the way Norway has already pledged $1 billion to help Indonesia address the problem of deforestation.
Call for Corporate Leadership
Greenpeace has called for palm oil and paper companies to join forces and enforce a total ban on forest clearance and peatland development in Indonesia. In September 2014, a number of major producers signed the Indonesian Palm Oil Pledge (IPOP) which commited the signatories to sustainable palm oil practices and zero-deforestation. The signatories to IPOP – Wilmar, Asian Agri, Cargill, GAR and Musim Mas– account for 80% of the palm oil industry in Indonesia. Firms, such as timber giant APP, have also signed zero-deforestation pledges in recent years. However others have been slower to react, this includes companies like Starbucks, PepsiCo, Kraft Heinz and Unilever. A boycott of those who fail to farm responsibly in Indonesia is another way to apply pressure. Some of the world’s most important consumer companies have pledged not to use palm oil associated with deforestation.
The Status Quo is not Working
In November illegally grown oil palm seedlings were already growing in some of Indonesia’s slash and burn lands including newly burned land just outside of the Nyaru Menteng orangutan sanctuary in Central Kalimantan.
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