The Indonesian Inferno: A Completely Preventable Crisis

Could things be any crazier in Indonesia?

Forests engulfed in flames

Forests engulfed in flames

Scientists have been warning for many months that the Asia-Pacific region will face 'Godzilla' this year -- a fire-breathing El Niño drought of frightening severity. 

Devastating air pollution from Indonesian forest and peatland fires -- especially in Sumatra, Borneo, and New Guinea -- have become a virtually annual event.  Add a major El Niño drought to the mix -- as is happening now -- and the situation is inevitably a lot worse.

Predictably, the burning season this year has turned into an international disaster.  Among the more notable calamities:

- Because of the dense, choking smoke, schools and airports across large expanses of Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore have had to be repeatedly closed; Micronesia and the Philippines are also suffering.

- Hospitals in burning centers In Indonesia have reported large spikes in the number of people in respiratory distress, with medical authorities warning people not to go outside.

Heavy human toll

Heavy human toll

- Singapore has launched legal actions and arrested high-ranking employees from several forest-destroying corporations that are headquartered there, leading to a major diplomatic spat with Indonesia.

- This year, carbon pollution from rampaging Indonesian peat fires alone have exceeded the carbon emissions produced by the entire United States economy.

- Politicians in Indonesian Borneo recently wore face masks to Parliament, to protest the rampant fires, and have threatened a class-action lawsuit against the Indonesian federal government.

- The respected Indonesian forest expert and ALERT member, Dr Erik Meijaard, has recently called the nation's fires the "biggest environmental crime of the twenty-first century".

Given such an environmental, social, and political crisis, the Indonesian government must be moving heaven and earth to fight the fires and set the nation on a better course, right?


Rather than implementing a large-scale fire ban this year, the Joko Widodo government has vacillated, saying the fires are a "not a problem you can solve quickly" with "no easy solutions", opting instead for localized actions and belated half-measures.

In addition, the Indonesian and Malaysian governments are currently established a new Council of Palm Oil Producer Countries.  High on the Council's agenda is dropping recent 'zero-deforestation' pledges made by a number of major forest-exploiting corporations, such as those that produce oil palm and wood pulp in Indonesia.  If successful, this will only worsen future fire crises.

Remarkably, Indonesia has a crucial tool available to it -- near-real-time data on fires and deforestation produced by Global Forest Watch.  With comparable data and the will to levy fines against those burning illegally, Brazil has been able to greatly reduce the number of illegal fires in the Brazilian Amazon.

A nation ablaze -- Indonesian fires shown by Global Forest Watch.

A nation ablaze -- Indonesian fires shown by Global Forest Watch.

No nation today is destroying forest faster than Indonesia.  The Indonesian government can come up with any number of excuses -- many fires are lit by smallholders, corruption is rampant, land tenure is often uncertain. 

The bottom line, however, is that the Indonesian government has both the capacity and the authority to declare and enforce large-scale fire bans.  Huge inroads could be made, especially in drought years.

What the government has been lacking, so far, is the political will to do so.

Football fields of deforestation: What does it mean?

In an effort to be more readily understood by the general public, scientists and journalists sometime resort to analogies.  A particularly common analogy, when discussing deforestation, is to say how many football fields of forest are being destroyed each minute (or hour). 

As discussed below, ALERT member Erik Meijaard has a problem with the football field analogy.  ALERT director Bill Laurance is notably guilty of this sin, but we're happy to let Erik air his concerns and then you can be the judge. 

A recent newspaper article stated that Indonesia lost 4.6 million hectares of forest between 2009 and 2013.  This was equated to an area of three football fields every minute.

I understand what journalists are trying to do with their frequent reference to football fields.  Presumably it makes that obscure, ivory-tower world of weird units like hectares and square kilometers easier to visualize by comparing it to something everyone is apparently familiar with: 22 football (soccer) players running up and down those revered green pitches.

But how helpful is this comparison, especially when it is so often inaccurate?

I searched the internet for football field–deforestation comparisons over the past few years and found that Indonesia is being deforested at a rate of:

- 300 football fields every hour

- 12 football fields every day (0.5 fields per hour)

- 10 football fields every minute (600 fields per hour)

- 6 football fields a minute (360 fields per hour)

- 7 American football fields every minute (315 fields per hour)

- 300 football fields of forest lost every hour to palm oil alone (300 fields per hour just because of oil palm)

Based on the above statements and the variation in the size of European and American football fields, deforestation rates in Indonesia vary from 0.2 hectares per hour at the lowest to 648 hectares per hour at the highest.

Or, in the more usual measurements, the rate ranges from 1752 hectares per year to 5.7 million hectares per year -- a 3,000-fold difference!

And at least one source ascribes most of that deforestation to oil palm.

The size of football pitches in the English Premier League already varies quite a bit, with the largest (Manchester City’s) being 16% larger than the smallest (West Ham). And American football fields are 25% smaller than their soccer cousins.

Humans took the wise decision to standardize their length and area measurements to get rid of the bewildering variety of Rijnland Inches, four-inch hands, and mornings (the amount of land tillable by one man behind an ox in the morning hours of a day).

Can we just stop dumbing down the public and provide people with proper scientific measurements and units?

Deforestation is a serious issue affecting everyone in this world.  Reducing clarity about its magnitude isn't helping matters.

Disaster ahead for Sumatra's forests?

Alarm bells are ringing in Indonesia. 

An in-depth article just published by ALERT member Erik Meijaard in the Jakarta Globe suggests that the Leuser Ecosystem in northern Sumatra — the last place on Earth where tigers, orangutans, elephants, and rhinos still coexist — could be greatly imperiled.

Trouble ahead for tigers

Trouble ahead for tigers

The problem is the highly controversial “spatial plan” passed by the Aceh Provincial Government. 

The plan completely omits the Leuser Ecosystem — and according to Meijaard that’s because the Aceh government plans to log, clear, mine, and essentially destroy much of the Leuser environment.

That would be a tragedy wrapped in a disaster.  The IUCN lists the Leuser Ecosystem — a region of 2.26 million hectares rich in rainforests and peat-swamp forests — as one of the “World’s Most Irreplaceable Places”.

Beyond its unparalleled importance for biodiversity, the Leuser Ecosystem also provides vital environmental services for the people of Aceh — such as reducing flooding and droughts, protecting soils, and providing clean water for people, agriculture, and fisheries. 

The forests also store large quantities of carbon essential for limiting global warming.

As Meijaard argues, the natural services provided by the Leuser forests truly are vital. 

For instance, floods in December 2006 affected over 700 villages in Aceh, destroyed over 4400 homes, and killed 47 people.  Damage from the floods was estimated to total US$210 million. 

Imagine the toll from such an event if the Leuser forests — which help to limit destructive flooding — had been largely destroyed.

Meijaard and many others — including 141 scientific, environmental, and social-rights organizations — are urging Indonesia’s federal government to strike down the Aceh government’s ill-advised spatial plan, as the plan can't proceed without federal approval. 

Let’s hope common sense prevails in Indonesia, before one of Earth’s most unique and important ecosystems is lost forever.

Does 'vampire' squirrel have world's fluffiest tail?

Just when you thought it was safe to go outside again, comes this news from the rainforests of Borneo: The legendary 'vampire' squirrel evidently has the biggest, fluffiest tail of any mammal in the world.

More tail than squirrel...

More tail than squirrel...

According to local folk tales, the animal -- which actually goes by the prosaic name of 'tufted ground squirrel' -- has a fondness for fresh blood.  The 35-centimeter-long squirrel will reputedly spring onto the back of a live deer in order to gash its neck and drink its blood.

While many biologists have doubts about the squirrel's blood-swilling habits, no one can doubt the spectacular dimensions of its tail.  According to a recent essay in Science, the squirrel has the biggest, fluffiest tail (relative to its body size) of any mammal species alive.

The tail doubles as an umbrella...

The tail doubles as an umbrella...

Rather charmingly, the dimensions of the squirrel's tail were worked out by a 15 year-old, Emily Mae Meijaard -- the daughter of the well known conservation scientist Erik Meijaard.

But sadly, the vampire squirrel's rainforest home is under siege.  Indonesia is now the world's fastest forest-destroying nation, and the rate of forest loss is evidently accelerating. 

Even worse, the squirrel is only known to live in undisturbed, old-growth rainforest -- which is rapidly vanishing in Borneo.

Perhaps the vampire squirrel needs to develop a taste for loggers and bulldozer drivers...

Why local people don't like deforestation

If you live someplace warm, deforestation may make you decidedly hot under the collar.

Yeah, but it's a dry heat...  (photo by William Laurance)

Yeah, but it's a dry heat...  (photo by William Laurance)

Compared to rainforests, deforested lands often suffer more flooding, soil erosion, and mosquitoes--which can carry deadly diseases like malaria.  Water quality also frequently declines.

But what do local residents dislike most about deforestation?  The fact that it gets hotter--a lot hotter.

According to a recent study in Climatic Change, for instance, oil palm plantations were on average 4.7 degrees Celsius (8.5 degrees F) hotter than nearby rainforests.  One would imagine that open croplands and cattle pastures are even worse.

In Borneo, Erik Meijaard and colleagues surveyed nearly 8000 local residents in 800 villages.  When asked how deforestation affected them, by far the most common response from the villagers was that it made their climate uncomfortably "hotter".

The hotter conditions reduced crop yields, increased mosquitoes and disease, and made people more tired, according to the villagers.  Overall, quality of life was perceived to diminish substantially.

These findings align well with an intriguing study by Paul West and colleagues, who found tropical rainforests and boreal forests both have a big influence on their local climates. 

Rainforests keep things cool both by preventing most sunlight from reaching the ground surface and by promoting evaporative cooling.

The bottom line: deforestation doesn't just harm biodiversity and native ecosystems.  It can make people very hot and bothered as well.