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.

 

In smoke-choked Asia, fires beget more fires

Southeast Asia is accustomed to intense smoke and haze from forest burning, but in June 2013 air pollution reached the highest level ever recorded -- hitting life-threatening levels in Singapore, for instance.  This alone was scary enough, but there is an even more frightening side to the story.

Scary new fire dynamic... (photo by William Laurance)

Unlike virtually all previous mega-fire events in the region, the June 2013 fires didn't occur during a drought.  That is unprecedented

Even in a year with normal rains, fires -- especially in central Sumatra, where forests are being devastated for oil palm, pulpwood plantations, and slash-and-burn farming -- raged out of control.

New research by David Gaveau and colleagues -- which you can download free here -- has uncovered an alarming explanation for this new fire dynamic. 

Previous degradation and burning of forests is making them hyper-vulnerable to new fires, even during relatively wet conditions.

Gaveau surveyed the aftermath of the Sumatra burning and found that much of it was caused by slash-and-burn farmers.  And most of the burned land was degraded forest or peat-swamp that had already been burned once before. 

The previous burning left behind dead and dying trees, stumps, and slash that became highly flammable with just a few days of dry weather -- unlike an intact rainforest, which only becomes flammable after a prolonged and intense drought.

Gaveau calls these degraded areas "forest cemeteries" -- places where damaged, regenerating forests become prone to a final, fiery death -- and spewing out massive quantities of greenhouse gases in the process.

Central Sumatra has become a poster-child for forest devastation, and now this new research shows that its damaged forests are far more prone to killer fires -- fires that can also have a lethal impact on human populations living in the region.

 

Fire alert: Could 2014 be 'the year from hell'?

When it comes to wildfires, 2014 might be a doozy.

Where there's smoke...  forest burning in Sumatra (photo by William Laurance)

Where there's smoke...  forest burning in Sumatra (photo by William Laurance)

ALERT member Tom Struhsaker has passed along a recent news report about the intense smoke now blanketing much of Southeast Asia, thanks in large part to rampant forest burning in Sumatra.  This is doubly frightening given that rainfall in Sumatra has been normal in recent months.

In Sumatra, over 50,000 people have had to be treated for respiratory distress.  And so far more than 200 Malaysian schools have had to be closed because of the acrid smoke.

But things could get a lot worse.  Climate scientists have been agog at recent temperature readings in the Pacific Ocean, which have been 6 degrees Celsius higher than normal

Such high temperatures are a harbinger of El Niño events--and such high readings suggest we might be heading for a mega-Niño.  

That's a big worry, because El Niños can cause major droughts and monsoon failure in the Asia-Pacific region, as well as parts of the Amazon. 

Climatologists say we could suffer a severe drought like that in 1997-98, when wildfires razed large expanses of Borneo and Sumatra and the Amazon.  

Forewarned is forearmed.  Governments in the Asia-Pacific region and Amazon need to be ready to impose and enforce burning bans across vulnerable areas. 

Without such bans, 2014 might be the year from hell--both for people and forests.

 

Is 'killer smog' returning to Southeast Asia?

The 'killer' smog that has often plagued Southeast Asia might be coming back. 

Another fire for oil palm...

Another fire for oil palm...

Fires are burning across central Sumatra, Indonesia, where thousands of people are in respiratory distress and a state of emergency has been declared

Around 1500 fires, mostly illegal, have been detected in Sumatra's Riau Province alone. 

The fires are attributable to an early dry season, rampant land-use change, and little government control over forest burning.

In past years, such fires have blanketed much of Malaysia and Singapore in a dense smog, creating a health hazard for millions of residents--many of whom don face-masks when venturing outside. 

The fires are being mostly blamed on forest clearing for oil palm plantations.  Indonesia is being faulted for failing to ratify an ASEAN agreement to monitor and combat forest fires and for not publicly releasing maps showing which companies own the lands being burned.