Choking on smoke: The growing curse of Indonesia's wildfires

A war of words has erupted in Southeast Asia as rampaging fires and choking smoke plumes stoke regional tensions between Indonesia and its neighbors. 

Fires seem to increase each year in Indonesia

Fires seem to increase each year in Indonesia

Dense smoke from agricultural fires in Indonesia have forced flight cancellations and school closures across the region, as diplomatic tensions heat up.

Singapore has slammed "shocking" statements from Indonesian officials who made light of the crisis.  In return, Indonesia accused Singapore of being "childish".

Dramas over choking smoke have become an annual soap opera in Southeast Asia as Indonesia continues to raze its forests.

Singapore is now taking legal action against major corporations, including the massive pulp producer Asia Pulp & Paper, that are regarded as key drivers of forest and peatland loss in nearby Sumatra, Indonesia.

In response, Indonesian president Joko Widodo said the recurring fires and smoke were a long-term problem and would require time to be solved.

Fires are used as a quick and cheap way to clear forests and peatlands, with massive forest clearing underway on the islands of Sumatra and Borneo.  Native forests are being destroyed for oil palm and pulp plantations, and for slash-and-burn farming.

Since 1997, mega-fires have become a virtually annual event each dry season.  A strong El Niño drought this year -- called "Godzilla" by some -- is increasing rainfall deficits across Indonesia and elsewhere in the western Pacific region.

The fires and smoke are rapidly worsening.  In Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore, air quality has hit hazardous levels, tens of thousands have suffered respiratory illnesses, numerous flights have been cancelled, and schools have been closed.

Hard to breathe... smoke and smog in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

Hard to breathe... smoke and smog in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

Last week, Singapore's air pollution index hit hazardous levels, prompting officials to close all schools and distribute protective face masks.  Schools were also closed in the Malaysian capital of Kuala Lumpur.

Satellites detected more than 2,000 fire "hotspots" last week in Sumatra and Indonesian Borneo.

As fires increase, officials in neighboring countries are growing increasingly frustrated.  Singapore has arrested seven corporate officials and suspended the business licenses of four corporations that are headquartered there.

Although many fires are started by small-scale farmers, large corporations are also responsible for burning both directly and indirectly.  By building new roads and exploiting large areas of native forest, corporations open up many areas to new human pressures.

Indonesia could and should enforce a major fire ban, but it would require a concerted effort on the part of the Widodo government.  Widespread corruption in the region is hindering efforts to enforce existing restrictions on fires and forest clearance.

Until the raging fires and smoke are brought under control, expect more hot words from Indonesia's increasingly frustrated neighbors.

 

Will corporations save the Earth?

Guilty as charged.  That would be my plea if I were accused of "distrusting big corporations".  But in a provocative new essay, writer Alice Korngold argues that mega-corporations are the only thing that can save us.

Really, you can trust us...

Really, you can trust us...

It's a novel argument.  For as long as I can remember, the hand on the chainsaw and the driver of the roaring bulldozer has had a corporate face -- a face focused, above all, on maximizing profits.

Yet, Korngold asserts that multinational corporations have vast financial resources and a capacity to work internationally that governments just can't touch.  That's crucial, she argues, in an era in which many of our environmental and social crises are global in scope.

Clearly, a well-meaning corporation can have a big influence on its entire business sector.  For instance, we've seen a wave of forest-destroying firms declaring "no-deforestation" policies, following the pioneering declaration by the oil palm giant Golden Agri Resources. 

It's a herd-mentality thing, one surmises.  When everybody is suddenly turning green, who wants to be left behind?

Still, Korngold doesn't suggest all corporations are well-meaning or that they can save the planet on their own. 

The best outcomes arise, she argues, when mega-firms pair up with NGOs or nonprofits.  It's also important for corporations to embrace sustainability at the board level, engage with their stakeholders, and commit to accountability and transparency, she says.

I guess the take-home messages are two-fold.  First, we need to keep up the pressure on corporate bad guys -- so their reputations and market shares suffer, giving them a real incentive to improve their performance.

Second, we need to engage and work with enlightened firms, and those willing to turn over a new leaf.  Greenpeace's recent detente with Asia Pulp & Paper -- formerly the dark beast of the environment -- is one such example.

It's a brave new corporate world.  We hope. 

-Bill Laurance

 

Why are Indonesia's forests so imperiled?

No nation on Earth is losing forest faster than Indonesia--the magical land of over 13,000 islands.  But what is causing all that deforestation?

No. 1 forest killer--industrial pulpwood plantation (photo by William Laurance)

No. 1 forest killer--industrial pulpwood plantation (photo by William Laurance)

Sinan Abood, ALERT member Lian Pin Koh, and their colleagues assessed the specific drivers of forest loss in Indonesia, between 2000 and 2010.  The picture that emerged has some surprises.

For one thing, the biggest driver of forest loss wasn't oil palm, but rather industrial pulpwood plantations.  Mega-corporations such as Asia Pulp & Paper and APRIL have cleared vast expanses of rainforest and peat-swamp forest for such plantations, especially in Sumatra and Indonesian Borneo.

Second on the list was industrial logging.  This indicates that logged forests in Indonesia, which still harbor a great deal of biodiversity (see this blog), are intensely vulnerable to being cleared.

Oil palm, while still important, was actually number three on the list of industrial forest destroyers. 

Notably, the authors surmised that over half of all deforestation was caused by actors other than the big three above--including slash-and-burn farming, legal and illegal mining, and other causes.

The authors conclude that vast expanses of Indonesia's forest have been allocated to industrial concessions, especially logging concessions, where they are intensely vulnerable to being cleared.  Some of the greatest conservation opportunities in Asia revolve around finding ways to protect these imperiled industrial forests