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.

 

Real hope for the world's rainforests

Although originally trained as an economist, Rhett Butler -- the entrepreneurial founder of the leading environmental website Mongabay.com -- has become one of the world's most respected thinkers about rainforest ecology and conservation.  And when someone of Rhett's caliber says there's real reason to be hopeful about the future, it's time to listen.

Warm and fuzzy news for rainforests

Warm and fuzzy news for rainforests

In a recent essay, Rhett argues that two developments are beginning to change the landscape for rainforest conservation.

The first is that deforestation is increasingly shifting from a poverty-driven phenomenon to one driven by profits, with forests being felled to produce timber and agricultural goods -- such as oil palm, soy, sugar, and beef -- destined for international and urban markets.

That means that consumers -- including you and me -- can increasingly have a voice.  We can vote with our wallets, electing to buy sustainably produced products and to avoid those that contribute to forest destruction.

This changing reality is starting have real effect.  In just the past year or two, many of the world's largest oil palm, wood-pulp, and food-producing corporations have announced no-deforestation commitments.  The jury is still out for many of these corporations, but the trend and reality is undeniable: It's not longer possible to wantonly destroy tropical forests with arrogance and impunity.

The other sea-change is the increasing use of satellite monitoring to track deforestation in real time.  This is a huge arrow in the quiver of conservationists, as much forest destruction and degradation is illegal -- occurring in the shadows of remote frontier regions.

In the vast Brazilian Amazon, for instance, the annual rate of deforestation has fallen by at least 75 percent, and many credit the nation's marriage of real-time satellite monitoring with geographic data on land titling and ownership as a crucial element.  This has allowed authorities to know where and when deforestation is occurring illegally, so they can crack down on offenders.

Such remote-sensing data are increasingly being used by organizations such as Global Forest Watch to monitor forest loss and degradation around the world.  In addition, cool new technologies such as drones, automatic cameras, DNA analysis, and smart-phones are giving conservationists a leg up in the battle to detect illegal activities.

Deforestation has remained stubbornly high in many tropical regions.  But, as Rhett Butler argues, thanks to mounting consumer pressures and remarkable new technologies, there is real reason for hope. 

It's not just big corporations that are killing Indonesia's forests

Corporations are easy targets as environmental bad-guys -- they're big, faceless, wealthy entities.  And in countries like Indonesia, many corporations -- including oil palm, wood pulp, timber, and mining companies -- have had bad environmental records.

But it's an oversimplification to blame the corporations for everything, as Indonesia-based conservation scientist Erik Meijaard argues in a recent editorial.

It's not just corporations that are killing forests  (photo by William Laurance)

It's not just corporations that are killing forests (photo by William Laurance)

Meijaard homes in on an uncomfortable truth: half or more of all forest destruction is evidently caused by smallholders -- farmers and locals who burn or log forests, often illegally.

In a recent email message, Meijaard adds that deforestation is also being driven by small- and medium-scale investors.  "These are not small, poor, disadvantaged farmers, but government and law enforcement officials, local legislature members, local business people."

One key problem is that the rule of law in Indonesia is so lax, and corruption so rampant.  Even those who get caught usually find it easy to bribe their way out of trouble.

Indonesia's newly elected president, Joko Widodo, was originally trained as a forester, and he is being urged to follow through on his campaign promises to "eradicate illegal logging, illegal fishing, and illegal mining" and "enforce environmental laws".

In politics, promises are cheap.  Action is what counts.  And despite plenty of talk and promises in the past, Indonesia now has the world's highest rate of forest loss.

A number of mega-corporations in Indonesia have recently pledged to halt their forest-destroying ways.  The jury is still out on these promises.

But it's going to take a broader effort -- to enforce the law and protect environments from all illegal exploiters, large and small -- to save Indonesia's vanishing forests.

 

Are global forest-destroyers turning over a new leaf?

Is the world shifting on its axis?  For those who follow the behavior of the biggest forest-destroying corporations, it might seem so.

Will forest-killing corporations give up their axes? (photo by Chi'en Lee)

Will forest-killing corporations give up their axes? (photo by Chi'en Lee)

In a piece just published in The Conversation, I highlight how four of the world's biggest oil palm and wood-pulp corporations seem to be changing their stripes--pledging to halt the clearing of native forests and vegetation. 

But is the story too good to be true?  Read all about it here.

-Bill Laurance