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?

Wrong. 

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.


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.

 

The new land-use tsunami imperiling the tropics

Oil palm, oil palm, oil palm.  For years we've heard that a tidal wave of oil palm expansion is one of the biggest and fastest-growing threats to the world's rainforests.

But there's a new peril in town: rubber.  And it's also spreading like a destructive tsunami.

Spreading like wildfire

Spreading like wildfire

Two recent papers -- by Eleanor Warren-Thomas and colleagues and by Antje Ahrends and colleagues -- have underscored just how desperate the situation is becoming, especially in Southeast Asia.

As a result of escalating demand for natural rubber, plantations are increasingly gobbling up large expanses of land in Southeast Asia and the Asian mainland, as well as tropical Africa and Latin America. 

For instance, vast expanses of native forests have been cleared for rubber plantations in southern China,  which sustains many of that nation's biologically richest ecosystems

The current global production of rubber  (from Warren-Thomas  et al.  2015)

The current global production of rubber (from Warren-Thomas et al. 2015)

Warren-Thomas et al. see a rapidly worsening situation.  To meet expected demand, they estimate that from 4.3 to 8.5 million hectares of new rubber plantations -- an area up to three times the size of Belgium -- will be needed by 2024, threatening in particular significant areas of Asian forest, including many protected areas.

Expect especially rapid increases in rubber plantations in Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, Thailand, Myanmar, Malaysia, and Indonesia, say the authors.

Ahrends and colleagues emphasize that rubber is now expanding into many areas that are ecologically marginal for rubber production.  In Southeast Asia, they estimate that 57% of the rubber plantations are currently vulnerable to droughts, erosion, frost, or wind damage.

Rubber is now spreading into marginal areas beset by high risks  (from Ahrends et al. 2015)

Rubber is now spreading into marginal areas beset by high risks (from Ahrends et al. 2015)

In 2013, for instance, typhoons in Vietnam alone destroyed over $US250 million in rubber plantations.  And future climate change could make conditions across Southeast Asia even worse for rubber, they contend.

The worst news of all is that native forests and other habitats are often being cleared for rubber production.  For example, say Ahrends et al., between 2005 and 2010, over 250,000 hectares of natural tree cover and 61,000 square kilometers of protected areas were converted to plantations in tropical and subtropical Asia.

This is scary news for the environment, for it suggests that a 'second tsunami' of forest-destroying plantations for rubber could soon follow just on the heels of the explosive expansion of oil palm.

 

Mysterious black leopards finally reveal their spots

Researchers have devised a clever technique to tell black leopards apart -- a trick that may end up saving their skins.  

Jet-black in color to the naked eye

Jet-black in color to the naked eye

The researchers have been studying leopards on the Malay Peninsula -- where almost all of the big cats are jet black. 

Elsewhere across its range in Africa and Asia, the leopard is pale colored with distinctive black spots.

Experts have no idea why the Malay leopards are black and, until recently, could not tell them apart, hindering research and conservation efforts.

But the researchers have now devised a simple method to solve the problem by manipulating the mechanism of automatic cameras.  Such cameras are increasingly being used to study animals in the wild.

“Most automatic cameras have an infrared flash, but it’s only activated at night”, said Gopalasamy Reuben Clements, an ALERT member and coauthor from James Cook University in Australia. 

“However, by blocking the camera’s light sensor, we can fool the camera into thinking it’s night even during the day, so it always flashes,” said Clements.

With the infrared flash firing, the seemingly black leopards suddenly showed complex patterns of spotting.  These spots could be used to distinguish different animals, and help estimate the population size of the species.

Automatic photos of black leopards without and with an infrared flash  (images (c) Rimba).

Automatic photos of black leopards without and with an infrared flash (images (c) Rimba).

The researchers tested this method in northeastern Peninsular Malaysia.  “We found we could accurately identify 94% of the animals,” said Clements.  “This will allow us to study and monitor this population over time, which is critical for its conservation.”

The researchers want to use their new method to study black leopards in other parts of Peninsular Malaysia -- where there is abundant prey but few leopards are seen. 

It’s thought widespread poaching is largely to blame. 

“Many dead leopards bearing injuries inflicted by wire snares have been discovered in Malaysia,” said ALERT director and coauthor Bill Laurance, also from James Cook University.

Laurance said that leopard skins and body parts are increasingly showing up in wildlife-trading markets in places such as on the Myanmar-China border.

At the same time, suitable leopard habitats are disappearing faster in Malaysia than perhaps anywhere else in the world, as forests are felled for timber and replaced with oil palm and rubber plantations.

“Understanding how leopards are faring in an increasingly human-dominated world is vital,” said Laurie Hedges from the University of Nottingham-Malaysia, who was lead author of the study, published in the Journal of Wildlife Management

“This new approach gives us a novel tool to help save this unique and endangered animal,” said Hedges.

Want clean water? Save your forests!

Cities can ensure they have a cheap and abundant supply of clean water by protecting and regenerating forests in their surrounding watersheds, according to a major analysis just undertaken in Malaysia.

Forests are a vital source of clean water -- and important for lots of other reasons too.

Forests are a vital source of clean water -- and important for lots of other reasons too.

Jeffrey Vincent from Duke University, USA and his colleagues have just published the largest cost-benefit analysis ever conducted in the tropics, and they find that pristine and even selectively logged forests are very cost-effective ways to produce clean, drinkable water. 

Vincent and colleagues ran their analyses under a wide range of scenarios.  They used as a baseline the costs of standard water-treatment plants, which are often required to make polluted water safe to drink.

The authors found that the relative advantages of forests depend on local circumstances, with the financial benefits being greater in some situations than others. 

Also, if one factors in profits that can be made by exploiting the forests -- such as by converting them to agriculture -- then the numbers could change. 

The problem, of course, is that waters that drain off of agricultural lands are often polluted by fertilizers, pesticides, and organic wastes, making expensive water-treatment necessary.

The authors argue that, beyond water purification, intact forests have many other financial and non-financial values. 

For instance, they store large stocks of carbon, and thereby reduce greenhouse gas emissions. 

They also can harbor enormous biodiversity while helping to attract substantial income from ecotourism.  Remarkably, it's currently estimated that protected areas across the world attract some 8 billion visits annually, underscoring their financial value for local communities.

Furthermore, via the process of evapotranspiration, forests emit enormous quantities of water vapor.  For example, one-third to one-half all the rainfall that falls on a tropical forest is quickly recycled back to the atmosphere, as water vapor.

This water vapor (plus natural organic aerosols emitted from forests) help to form clouds, which in turn reflect solar radiation back into outer space, thereby reducing global warming. 

Forests are natural cloud-makers.

Forests are natural cloud-makers.

Such clouds also help to produce life-giving rainfall during the dry season -- when forests are most drought-stressed and prone to fires.

Finally, forests are very good at reducing destructive floods.  They tend to act like giant biological sponges, trapping water and releasing it slowly, thereby reducing downstream flooding.  Especially in areas where forests are denuded, flooding can cause billions of dollars in damage and costs thousands of lives each year.

The conclusion: It's increasingly becoming apparent that it's smart to conserve pristine and selectively logged forests -- even when one uses just hard, cold economic logic. 

 

PNG Forestry: weak governance & corruption hurts local people and the environment

Andrew Lang is a farmer and forester, and Vice-President of the World Bioenergy Association.  He's had a great deal of experience in the Asia-Pacific region and weighs in here on his concerns about forest issues in Papua New Guinea:

Traditional landowners worried about PNG's future  (photo by William Laurance)

Traditional landowners worried about PNG's future (photo by William Laurance)

Around the world tropical forest are being cleared at an appalling rate.  In Papua New Guinea, sections of the 1996 Land Act facilitated much forest clearance (adding to the previously mostly illegal logging) supposedly to help customary landowners convert their forested land into agriculture, in partnership with investors.  But logging companies mainly from Malaysia and Australia saw it as a potential bonanza.

According to a 2012 Greenpeace report, between 2003 and 2011 over 5 million hectares of land, mainly along the Papuan coast and the islands of New Britain and New Ireland, was leased under Special Agricultural and Business Leases (SABLs).

This equates to over 11% of the country’s land area and over 16% of its accessible forests.  Exports of logs grew by 20% in 2011 alone, mostly from within these SABLs and mostly heading to China.  Up to 50% of the cleared land was to be planted to oil palm under the 55- and 99-year leases of the SABLs. 

Because of growing international concern over the improper processes in leasing of customary lands, the PNG government in early 2011 issued a moratorium on issuance of SABLs and ordered a Commission of Inquiry.  This Inquiry made recommendations but left existing SABLs in place.

The improper leasing of customary land -- referred to by many in PNG as 'land grabs' -- is still playing out.  One example is the 200,000 hectares of Musa Pongani land in eastern Papua.  This area was gazetted as Special Agriculture Land in 2010, so opening it to initiation of an SABL.

While the legal SABL process required full and informed consent by all customary landowners, this was not done in this area.  Two customary landowner-incorporated bodies and their Asian development partners are now wrangling for control of the title to the whole area in the courts. 

A third group called the Iris Cooperation has surveyed 100,000 hectares of land within the overall area and is reported to have mortgaged it on the Malaysian Stock Exchange for ~US$300 million.

The majority of the customary owners in PNG are illiterate or nearly so and have no understanding of the future impacts of an impending multimillion dollar 'development'.  Many can be pressured into signing papers in light of glib promises of good roads, education, health services, and cash in hand.  

In short, the prognosis for these lands and their customary owners is bleak.  The world needs to pay close attention to the dodgy dealings going on in PNG.

 

Roads to ruin: Southeast Asia's most environmentally destructive highways

Roads scare the bejeezus out of many scientists because they often open a Pandora's Box of environmental problems -- such as unleashing illegal deforestation, logging, hunting, mining, and land speculation. 

Far too many roads are forest killers...

Far too many roads are forest killers...

For that reason it's crucial not to put roads in the wrong places -- such as wilderness areas, places with vital environmental values, or locales with lots of endangered or endemic species.

ALERT member Gopalasamy Reuben Clements and colleagues (including ALERT director Bill Laurance) have just published a major analysis of the environmentally most damaging roads in Southeast Asia -- one of the most imperiled and biologically important areas of the planet

This analysis -- which you can download for free here -- identifies the worst roads in Southeast Asia, especially those likely to endanger native mammals and imperil surviving forests.

In total, 16 existing roads and another 8 planned roads were identified as serious 'nature killers'. 

These roads would imperil more than a fifth of all the endangered mammal species in the region, mainly by promoting forest destruction and illegal hunting and wildlife trade.  

A key element of the paper is 10 recommendations to limit road impacts in Southeast Asia.

Far too often, roads are the first step toward ecological Armageddon.  We all have to do more to educate the world about the crucial role that roads play in endangering nature. 

The paper led by Gopalasamy Reuben Clements is an important step in the right direction.